RCA Small Wonder EZ205

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Until the recent arrival of Creative’s Vado, the biggest competitor for Pure Digital’s Flip Video products in the mini camcorder, straight-to-Web video arena has been RCA’s Small Wonder. While the video quality of the Small Wonder hasn’t quite measured up to the Flip Video models, it does bring some features to the table that the Flips are missing–namely, a flip-out LCD and an expansion slot for additional memory.

That same theme carries over to the third-generation Small Wonder Pocket EZ205 and its virtually identical twin, the MyLife EZ200 (also called the Small Wonder MyLife), both of which carry the RCA brand but are manufactured by Audiovox. The $10 price difference between the two is reflected by the amount of footage you can capture in the Web Quality mode. The EZ205 can record two times the amount of video as compared with the EZ200. For example, on the included 1GB microSD card, the EZ205 captures up to 2 hours of video and the EZ200 captures up to an hour in Web Quality mode. If you use an optional 8GB microSD card, the EZ205 can record up to 16 hours, and the EZ200 will record up to 8 hours.

Because it uses two standard AA batteries instead of a slim lithium ion rechargeable, the EZ205 isn’t as compact as the Vado or Mino. But the 5.2-ounce EZ205 is still lightweight and small enough to fit in a pocket. The Small Wonder’s trademark is its 1.5-inch LCD screen that flips completely out, making it easy to watch while you record yourself. The flip-out LCD is also good for shooting little kids because it allows them to watch themselves in the LCD while you shoot–which they seem to like to do.

As part of this year’s redesign, the integrated USB dongle for connecting the camcorder to your computer is now cleverly hidden underneath the LCD and is accessible only when you flip open the LCD. The operational buttons have also been tweaked for the better and a button for snapping low-resolution still images (think: cameraphone quality) has been added to the mix.

The camcorder ships with a 1GB microSD card that slips into a slot in the battery compartment; you remove the camcorder’s front cover to get to both the batteries and memory card. What’s nice is that you can buy an additional memory card to have on hand in case you fill up the camera with video on a longer vacation, or you can simply buy a much higher-capacity card (up to 8GB) to store several hours of video. As it stands, the 1GB card gives you about 30 minutes of video at the highest quality HQ setting. You also have the option of recording at the lower-quality Web Sharing setting, but we recommend sticking with the best.

Aesthetically, the Small Wonder isn’t a bad-looking mini camcorder, but the designers could have done a better job making it appear a bit more refined. As it stands, you take one glance at the EZ205 and it screams budget. Yes, the EZ205 is relatively inexpensive, but so is the more elegant Vado. The idea when you design budget products is to make them look more expensive than they really are. That’s not the case here.

Apart from the design changes, still-image capture button, and improved low-light performance, there isn’t much else that’s new. As with previous models, you can delete undesirable clips immediately, and the EZ205 provides a video output and cable, so you can view clips on any TV with a composite-video input. As noted, the unit is powered by two AA batteries (included) and comes with an inexpensive neoprene protective carrying case, as well as a USB extender cable.

The camera’s internal software, RCA Memory Manager, is only compatible with PC Windows 2000/XP or later-based computers. Sorry, Mac users. Flip out the USB connector, plug it into the USB port, and a viewer automatically pops up. The interface may not be superslick, but it is fairly straightforward and most users will have no problem figuring it out without opening a manual. You can choose to view your videos, edit, or share them. As for editing, you can do basic edits to your clips, setting start and end points, and string several clips together to make a “movie,” which you can then share or store on your computer. Clips or movies saved to your computer can also be burned to DVD via your PC.

Clicking on the Share tab gives the choice of uploading your video to YouTube or Box.net (another online video- and photo-sharing service), or e-mailing it to someone. If you decide to e-mail a clip, the program automatically compresses the video to reduce the file size. Recipients simply click on the attachment and play it back using Windows Media Player. It’s worth noting that previously, it could take a minute or more to compress even a short 30-second clip. But the process is much quicker now.

In order to upload your videos to YouTube or Box.net, you have to first sign up for a free account with a username and password. As part of the upload process, your video file is compressed even more than the file created for an e-mail attachment, so the quality isn’t quite as good. However, viewing a streamed file online in a viewing box is arguably more convenient than opening a large e-mail attachment.

The marketing materials for the EZ205 note that the company has improved the low-light performance of the camcorder, and that appears to be the case. In fact, we thought the camera did its best work indoors, with subjects in close range. For low-resolution (640×480) video, the image appeared fairly sharp. But the camcorder does have quite a bit of trouble adjusting exposure in bright daylight, both in high-contrast areas of sunlight and shadow, as well as overall bright scenes, frequently blowing out completely on whites to the point where the video was unusable. In short, overall the image quality was OK, but we felt that the Creative Vado was better in this department. The more expensive Flip Video Ultra and Mino also offered better image quality, with the Mino leading the pack among current mini camcorders.

So, there you have it. We aren’t in love with the Small Wonder Pocket EZ205’s aesthetics and can’t rave about its image quality, but the flip-out LCD and removable/expandable memory are in its favor. While it’s hard to expect everything in a sub-$100 mini camcorder, RCA borders on being really frustrating. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a good or bad thing.

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