RCA Small Wonder Traveler EZ210 Camcorder Review
There\'s no shortage of cheap, ultra-compact, straight-to-YouTube camcorders. Pure Digital is making waves with its Flip Mino (now customizable). Earlier this fall, we put the Creative Vado and the Kodak Zi6 through their paces. The tide continues with our review of the RCA EZ210 (MSRP $149.99), the first of RCA\'s Small Wonder lineup to come through our labs. The results were disappointing, at best. The video performance is plagued by compression and exposure problems. Although RCA has dubbed the EZ210 the \"Traveler,\" it can\'t handle sunny outdoor conditions very well. It\'s also larger than most of the competition, and it isn\'t water-resistant (despite the vaguely submergeable look of the thing). Wherefore Traveler? Considering that the rugged exterior is this camcorder\'s best asset, it\'s no small wonder that the Flip Mino is winning the competition.
Video Performance* (1.0)*
The video performance of ultra-compact YouTube camcorders is never anything to write home about. These manufacturers are trying to sell their products with portability and ease of use—not the quality of their video. But we think that video quality is important, even if you're uploading to YouTube. And while we don't expect the RCA EZ210 to compete with traditional camcorders, we do look for it to be comparable to other ultra-compacts, like the Flip Mino and Creative Vado. Unfortunately, the Small Wonder Traveler couldn't keep up with its rivals—both inside and outside of the lab.
Before we look at the testing, let's look at the Traveler on paper. It uses a 1/4-inch CMOS sensor that likely has about the same pixel count as the competition. This is paltry compared to most camcorders, but it's the same kind of sensor you'll find on the competition—both the Flip Mino and the Creative Vado. Generally, packing more pixels into your sensor will increase resolution. That's the strategy employed by most manufacturers for traditional camcorders, but it's not the strategy here. A single, large sensor with fewer pixels is a recipe for low resolution. The one beneficial side effect? Since each pixel on the sensor is larger, sensitivity increases, which can mean improved low light performance. This might have worked on the Traveler, but good low light performance can't mask the overall deficiencies. (See Low Light Performance.)
With similar sensors and similar lenses, these ultra-compact camcorders rely heavily on internal processing to set them apart from the competition. To see how the RCA EZ210 held up, we tested video performance by shooting our DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chart at an even 3000 lux. We viewed this 'bright light' footage on a full-size monitor and compared it to results from similar camcorders.
|Overexposure and compression of the RCA EZ210 at 3000 lux.|
The most obvious (and concerning) flaw with the EZ210 was its tendency to completely overexpose the brightest areas of the image. The very light grays on our chart were recorded as bright white. We found overexposure to be a problem with many budget camcorders, but never to the extent we see on the Traveler. Every other camcorder we have tested handles these areas better.
|Flip Mino at 3000 lux||Creative Vado at 3000 lux|
The other significant deficiency we discovered is with compression artifacting. On recorded footage of the DSC chart, this appears as chunky blocks of discoloration that break up an otherwise smooth field of color. You can see it below in the resolution trumpets, the upper-left corners of the orange, and around the text. Compression artifacting is certainly present in the Vado and the Mino, but to a lesser extent.
|*The RCA EZ210 at 3000 lux *|
|*The Creative Vado at 3000 lux *|
|The Flip Mino at 3000 lux|
Aside from these major discrepancies, we found that the Traveler was similar in performance to its rivals. The level of fine detail was not quite as good, but the color balance was admirable—better than the Creative Vado. There was certainly some noise that went beyond the large blocks of compression artifacting, but no more so than with the Mino or the Vado.
To confirm what we saw in our labs and to see how the camcorder handled motion, we brought the Traveler outside to record some footage side by side with the Flip Mino. Here's what we found:
|The RCA EZ210 travels outside...||...with the Flip Mino at its side.|
Our trip to Davis Square confirmed what we saw in the labs: the RCA Traveler has a very narrow dynamic range, resulting in less detail in bright and dark areas. When compared to the Flip Mino, there is more overexposure in the sunny spots and it's hard to make out as much information in the shade. In fact, the Mino has more detail throughout—look at the details in the concrete and bricks, individual leaves on the trees, and writing on the passing van. The only advantage offered by the Traveler is its tendency to boost warmth and saturation. This doesn't make for accurate footage, but some comsumers find the mid-tones on the EZ210 to be more aesthetically pleasing than the more muted results from the Flip Mino. The Traveler might make a dreary London day look a little more vivid, but don't expect decent footage of a sunny Parthenon or the Catacombs of Moscow.
Unfortunately, oversaturation and color balance are the least of the Traveler's worries when handling motion. When we recorded a car passing by, the image was extremely distorted by compression and trailing. Compared to the smooth footage of the Flip Mino, it wasn't even a contest to determine which one was better. The captures below don't even demonstrate that the video recorded by the EZ210 also displayed a considerable amount of stuttering—more so than the Flip Mino. Even though both the Traveler and the Mino record at 30 frames per second, it was the Traveler that looked more like an old silent film.
|*Motion on the RCA EZ210 looks stuttery and is marred by compression. *|
|*Motion on the Flip Mino has some of the same problems, but looks smoother and cleaner in comparison.*|
In summary, we were unimpressed by the video performance on the RCA Small Wonder Traveler. While we don't expect it to rival full-featured consumer camcorders, we do expect it to keep up with the competition. And even even if your final destination is YouTube, you are much better off with the superior video performance of the Flip Mino or nearly any of the other competitors. The Traveler might have some vivid mid-tones, but you'll lose tons of detail in highlights, shadows, moving objects, and virtually everything you record.
And just a warning: we discovered that even if you can fit more than an hour onto your 2GB SD card, the Traveler stops recording after exactly 60 minutes. So, even if you're leaving your camcorder running in the woods to catch foggy footage of Bigfoot, the Traveler isn't ideal.
Video Resolution*** (4.5)*
To test video resolution on the RCA EZ210, we recorded a DSC Labs resolution chart at an even, bright light, then played the footage back on a full-screen monitor. We found that the Traveler produces an approximate horizontal resolution of 300 line widths per picture height (lw/ph). The vertical resolution was also approximately 300 lw/ph. This is a poor score for camcorders in general, but these are the same numbers we found with the Flip Mino and not quite as good as the resolution produced by the Creative Vado.
We can't say the results surprised us. On all of our lab charts, the Traveler's resolution seems about as good as the Flip and a little worse than the Vado. However, the numbers are slightly misleading, since any benefit you might gain from good resolution is easily lost when your fine details are overexposed or marred by compression artifacting.
The low light performance of the RCA EZ210 was tested in three stages. First, we shot the DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at an even 60 lux and 15 lux. We then compared the footage to the results from similar camcorders, including the Creative Vado and Pure Digital's Flip Mino:
|The RCA EZ210 at 60 lux|
We weren't surprised by the Traveler's overexposure of the whites and rampant compression artifacting; we saw plenty of that during our bright light testing. There was also a lot of noise, especially in the darker areas—a feature we're accustomed to seeing at 60 lux. What did surprise us, however, is the overall brightness of the footage, especially compared to the Mino and the Vado:
|Flip Mino at 60 lux||Creative Vado at 60 lux|
The image is about as bright as the one produced by the Flip Mino, but with a much bolder saturation of color. The Creative Vado, on the other hand, has neither the brightness nor the saturation we see on the RCA Traveler. We also noticed that the Traveler's white balance at 60 lux was better than it was at 3000 lux—suggesting that the camcorder has some trouble adjusting to bright tungsten lighting. This impressive brightness at 60 lux is a nice benefit, but not without its cost: the Traveler is still pitifully overexposing the light grays and is riddled with compression artifacting (the chunky blocks of discoloration are particularly evident in the purples and blues). While recording motion, you'll also notice considerable noise and motion trailing—more than was present with the Flip Mino.
At 15 lux, the results were quite different:
|The RCA EZ210 at 15 lux|
The footage is, again, brighter than the competition, but noisier. We also see the other end of the Traveler's dynamic range being tested: now the blacks and dark grays are beginning to blend together. This is, however, the only footage produced by the Traveler where we could actually distinguish those lighter grays from the white.
The second stage of low light testing measures sensitivity. We shoot the same DSC Labs color chart, but connect the camcorder to a waveform monitor to measure exposure. We slowly and steadily lower the light until the camcorder is outputting a peak of 50 IRE. The RCA EZ210 was able to produce 50 IRE at 8 lux. This about the same result as the Flip Mino and much better than the Creative Vado.
For the third stage of low light testing, we shoot an X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux, then export frame grabs to Imatest imaging software. This software allows us to determine color accuracy, noise, and saturation. The test results confirmed what we saw in the footage shot both inside and outside of the lab.
The Traveler performed quite well in color error and saturation. The saturation was an impressive 92.04 and the color error just 8.31. This is not quite as good as the upper-tier camcorders from Canon and Samsung, but for this class of ultra-compact camcorders, that is a good color error, indeed. (Compare to the Mino's color error of 12.3 or the Vado's color error of 24.4.) As was to be expected, the noise score of 0.5425% was better than the Vado, but worse than the Mino.
So, while the overall video performance on the Traveler was quite poor, the camcorder produced some surprisingly good video in low light conditions. The image is very bright and the colors quite vivid. Unfortunately, there's a lot of noise snapping, crackling, and popping in the darker areas and all the problems we saw in bright light are still troubling in low light: the poor dynamic range that washes out detail in the brightest and darkest areas, and compression artifacting as bad as any we've seen in a camcorder. While the Traveler may edge out the Creative Vado in low light performance, it can't quite contend with the Flip.
As is the case with all of RCA's competitors, the Small Wonder Traveler is not equipped with any kind of image stabilization system. There are other budget camcorders that are YouTube friendly, but they are usually of the more traditional, horizontal body design—like the JVC GZ-MS100 and the Samsung SC-MX20. So... with any of these ultra-compacts, you better have steady hands.
Wide Angle* (10.2)*
We tested the wide angle of the EZ210 by placing the camcorder on a tripod and measuring the left and right angle degrees using a vertical laser. Viewing the footage on an external monitor to attain a true reading, we determined the Traveler's wide angle measurement to be 51 degrees. This is an excellent result—above average for any kind of consumer camcorder and especially better than the Flip Mino's abysmal 38-degree wide angle. We suppose this would come in handy if you're recording wide vistas.
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