Review: RCA's second-gen Small Wonder camcorder might be too simple

There's a hell of a lot to be said for ease of use. The iPod, e-mail, and Facebook all owe a good chunk of their immense popularity to simple and intuitive interfaces. But Albert Einstein himself imposed a limit on how easy things should get: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." RCA's recently upgraded Small Wonder camcorder (model EZ201), which promises features so simple your grandma could use it, crosses that line. How far over does it go? And is the simplicity worth the tradeoff? Find our after the jump.

Not Exactly Rocket Science
We saw the original Small Wonder last year, and the new one follows faithfully in its footsteps: Everything about the camera screams simplicity. Resembling a digital camera turned on its side, the Small Wonder is as light as a cell phone and will fit almost as easily in a pocket. At 1.5 inches, the LCD screen is a bit small, but it can swing out on a hinge in case you want to play both cameraman and star.

Emphasizing that this is the "camcorder for dummies" are the extremely spare controls. A mere five buttons grace the backside of the Small Wonder — eight if you count to arrow paddle as four — while a switch on the side controls video quality. Most welcome is the extending USB jack, which lets you plug the cam right into your PC, so you won't find yourself tearing through your desk drawers for a cable when it's time to upload.

Small, Yes. Wondrous… uh…
So RCA scores a mark of E-Z in the convenience department, definitely. I took the cam to Brooklyn's Prospect Park to put it through the motions and soon discovered how easy it is to record footage. I mean, it's hard to miss that big red button in the middle. The screen doesn't do that well in bright sunlight, though, and its small size makes you want to use the minimal (2X) zoom a lot.

Once I got home to offload the video, I realized that was a mistake. Since the zoom is digital and not optical, all it does is add more graininess to your footage, and it's already got plenty of that, thank you very much (and yes, I was using HQ mode). Viewing the clips I recorded at the Prospect Park Zoo, I was dismayed — a closeup on a bullfrog made him almost indiscernible from the surrounding grass while my shots of sea lions doing flips looked highly pixelized.

Footage in Mouth
At $129 list, no one was expecting the Small Wonder to perform miracles, and its many convenient features — like having all the software onboard (instead of on a CD-ROM) — should serve as examples to RCA's competitors. But by serving up footage that's only incrementally better than your cell phone's, it'll only make you long for something better.