- Review Date: 08/18/11
- Bottom line:
The Kodak EasyShare Max Z990 offers plenty of goodies including a long 30x zoom lens, manual controls, an electronic viewfinder, and 1080p video capture. But sluggish operation and poor low-light performance make this huge compact camera a tough sell.
Sharp images in good light. Huge, 30x zoom lens. Electronic viewfinder. Manual controls. Lots of art filters and sharing options. Shoots 1080p video.
Poor low-light performance. Very large for a compact camera. Slows down under heavy use. Autofocus was slow and unreliable in tests. Flimsy-feeling build.
If you want to get as close as possible to the action with your digital camera, the 12-megapixel Kodak EasyShare Max Z990 ($329.95 direct) fills the bill. With its huge 30x zoom lens, you'll be able to capture plenty of close-ups—and the Z990 shoots good images and videos, as long as you have ideal lighting conditions. It takes a big camera to house such a big lens, so the Z990 looks a little like a D-SLR, but despite its girth, you don't get the big sensor or speed that comes with similarly sized SLR or interchangeable lens cameras. If you can sacrifice some of the zoom, our Editors' Choice, the 18x Nikon Coolpix S9100 ($329.95, 4 stars) is much more compact and delivers better performance for the same price.
Design and Features
Measuring 3.4 by 4.9 by 3.7 inches (HWD) and weighing 1.3 pounds, the Z990 is light for its size but very heavy for a point-and-shoot camera. Like I said before, it looks more like a D-SLR than a pocket camera: There's a large grip on the right side, and the camera is so big that you hold it like an SLR with one hand on the grip and the other underneath the lens. There's no chance of stuffing the Z990 in your pocket. The camera really just doesn't feel well-built: From its use of 4 standard AA batteries (four rechargeable batteries and a charger are included), to the complete lack of texture on the camera, to the flimsy-feeling buttons that are the same as those on the $80 Kodak EasyShare Sport (3 stars), the Max just feels cheap.
As far as zoom and angles go, this lens is just about everything you could want. It starts at 28mm, which is common for a compact camera, and zooms all the way in to an insanely close 840mm (30x optical zoom). The Max's closest competitor, the 36x Nikon Coolpix P500 ($399.95, 4 stars), does go a little wider, to 22.5mm. The lens on the Z990 is also relatively bright, with an aperture range of f/2.8-5.6. You'll have to work pretty hard to find a shot this camera can't handle, though if you plan to take full advantage of the 30x zoom, you'll want a monopod or tripod handy—once you zoom more than halfway, the camera shakes easily. Occasionally, in my tests, the camera threw me an error message saying it couldn't capture the image because there was too much movement.
The reason I keep calling the Max a "compact camera" isn't because of its size or its lens, but because of its image sensor. The Max uses a 1/2.33-inch sensor, which is the same size as most pocket-size point-and-shoot cameras on the market. It's not much of an oversimplification to say larger sensors mean better photos, and that means that no matter what bells and whistles you get with this camera, you're not going to get photos of the same quality you'd get from a camera with a larger sensor, like the similarly sized Sony Alpha NEX-C3 ($649.99, 4.5 stars) or even the much-smaller Canon Powershot S95 ($399.99, 4 stars).
Much like the Nikon P500, the Max packs some D-SLR-like features to help upgrade the shooting experience. There's an electronic viewfinder, which is essentially just a second LCD made to look like a viewfinder, and isn't much different than using the large LCD on the back of the camera to frame your shots. There's also a built-in pop-up flash, and a mode dial and scroll wheel for controlling shutter speed and aperture, along with one-touch buttons for accessing most of the camera's common features, like Macro mode, and flash and shooting mode toggles.
The main LCD is a 3-inch display, filled with 460,000 dots, which is twice as sharp as most compact cameras. In a $300-plus camera, I'd expect no less, and the same-price Nikon S9100 and the P500 both include 921K-dot screens, which are unbelievably sharp.
You get plenty of in-camera art filters, which let you add neat effects to your photos right on the camera's display. There are also plenty of useful shooting modes, like Panorama, or HDR, which takes three shots at different exposure levels and then merges them into one better-exposed photo. Kodak's dedicated Share button is on board, so you can earmark photos or videos to be shared on various social networks automatically when the camera is connected to a computer.
Quantifying the speed of the EasyShare Max is more difficult than with most cameras we've tested, because its problem is its inconsistency. For instance, the first two or three times I tested the camera's boot and shoot speed (the time it takes to turn the camera on and capture a photo), it registered at about 2.5 seconds, a good score. Then it started to slow down, to the point where it would take 5 seconds or more to boot and shoot after being cycled five times or so. Same goes for recycle time (the time between consecutive shots): It was 2.0 seconds the first ten shots, then slowed to a crawl, taking nearly 7 seconds between shots. Shutter lag was average, but at least consistent, at 0.5 second. Essentially, if you're going to use the Max casually for a few photos at a time, it's actually pretty fast, but power users won't appreciate the slowdowns that come with continuous use.
Image quality is a mixed bag as well. In the PCMag Labs, we use the Imatest suite to objectively measure image quality, both in terms of image sharpness and low-light performance. Image sharpness is measured in lines per picture height, and the Kodak EasyShare Max scored well, with a center-weighted average of 1,946 lines per picture height. Any score over 1,800 is considered sharp, and the Z990 bests the Nikon P500's 1,894, but lags behind the 2,195 lines the 14x Canon PowerShot SX230 HS ($349.99, 4 stars) achieved.
Image noise is another story. Shooting in low light without a flash requires dialing up ISO sensitivities, which makes the camera's sensor more sensitive to light, but that also introduces noise into an image. If Imatest measures more than 1.5 percent noise in an image, that means the image will be visibly grainy and possibly unusable. At ISO 800, the Kodak EasyShare Max was already above the 1.5 percent noise level, which means you'll likely need to use the flash in low-light settings to get decent images. The Nikon P500 was able to go up to ISO 3200 before hitting that level, and the Canon SX230 HS was able to handle ISO 800 without problems.
Video recording with the Z990 is much like its still image shooting: Good results in ideal conditions, but not so much in low light. The camera captures 1080p or 720p HD video, at 30 frames per second. Footage is saved as .MP4 files, which can be uploaded straight to Facebook or YouTube. The camera can autofocus during video recording, but it didn't always kick in when it should have, and frequently made the focus even worse. You can make use of the zoom lens while recording video, but it makes a very loud noise as it moves, drowning out recorded audio. And you can't add an accessory mic to improve audio capture.
There's a micro-USB port for connecting the camera to your computer, and a micro-HDMI port for connecting it to your HDTV. The Z990 writes photos and video to SDHC and SD cards, and there's 128MB of internal memory, which is enough for about 10 photos.
If huge zoom is what you want, the Kodak EasyShare Max Z990 delivers. Overall, though, there are better-performing, faster, superzoom cameras. For even more zoom, try the Nikon Coolpix P500 and its 36x zoom on for size, but you'll pay about $80 more. For the best pocket-size superzoom camera, you can't beat the $330 Nikon Coolpix S9100, which pairs 18x zoom with a big feature set and excellent image quality. For extra features like GPS, the Canon SX230 HS is the way to go, though at 14x, you're getting less than half the zoom factor of the Z990.