Product Review: Picture this: better, cheaper digital cameras

Following the example of most high-technology products, digital cameras have been getting steadily less expensive and better with each passing year. We thought we'd take a look at three current popular digital camerasHP's PhotoSmart C30 The claim to fame of Hewlett-Packard's PhotoSmart C30 digital camera is that it offers true megapixel resolution for the rock-bottom price of $399.

But in life you don't get something for nothing, and it is obvious where HP saved money on the C30. There is no optical zoom, the LCD is small and dim, and rechargeable batteries are not included. However, the 1152 x 872-pixel resolution produces excellent images. Like the other cameras, the C30 offers different levels of photo quality, but all photographs are the same megapixel resolution. HP varies file size and image quality through differing levels of compression.

The operation of the C30 is not as intuitive as the other cameras tested because it has few buttons -- a design that HP may have chosen to keep the camera's costs low or to keep its operation simple for users. The camera switches to image-viewing mode when the lens cover is closed and to picture-taking mode when the cover is open. But this isn't immediately obvious to new users, and the menu system, once in use, isn't as easy to use as the others.

HP did wisely put the power button on the back of the camera instead of on top so that the button is not mistaken for the shutter release.

The C30 connects to the PC using a serial cable, and transferring pictures is very slow. The camera also has a video-out port for displaying images on a TV.

HP provides its own PhotoSmart Photo Finishing Software with the camera, as well as Microsoft's Picture It! 99 Version 3.0. Both programs install quickly and easily. This camera has a faster installation and setup than most of the others tested. But the serial cable connection will cost more time in the long run because of its slow speed in moving data from the camera.

REPORT CARD

Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart C30

Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $1999.

Remarks: The PhotoSmart C30 delivers real megapixel quality in an affordable camera that lacks many features found in more expensive models.

Kodak's DC265 Zoom

Kodak's brand-new entry in the high end of the megapixel camera segment delivers the goods that are expected from a $1999 (inc tax) model, but at the same time Kodak skimps on some of the details.

The DC265 improves on its predecessor, the DC260, with a faster start-up time, more standard storage capacity (16MB), longer battery life and an optional lower compression ratio for better image quality. It offers more output options than any other camera tested, with a port compatible with cables that connect to serial or Universal Serial Bus ports on PCs and Macintoshes. It features an infrared port for moving pictures to PCs and printers without any cable connections and a video-out port that lets the camera display its images on a TV. A bonus port is an external flash synchronisation plug, enabling photographers to use a better flash than the built-in unit.

When switched on, the camera doesn't turn on the LCD automatically; the user must press the display button to switch it on.

Once the LCD is switched on, users are likely to be disappointed. The sluggish display refreshes slowly, so it is difficult to pan or track moving objects. Worse, there is no "skylight" feature to use ambient light to brighten the picture when shooting outdoors, so in bright light the picture can be invisible.

The Kodak is powered by four AA-size rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries. But the charger is big and bulky, and the prongs to plug it in are fixed, begging for them to be bent or to puncture anything packed with the charger.

But the purpose of a camera is to capture high-quality images, and at this the DC265 excels. A "super" setting uses the high resolution but compresses the image less for an even better picture. The camera will hold 106 standard-resolution shots, 69 medium-resolution shots and 51 high-resolution shots. Reducing compression on high resolution for super quality limits the camera to 21 pictures.

Installing Kodak's software and connecting the camera the first time can be time-consuming and tedious because the user must reboot the machine three times -- after installing Kodak's Picture Easy 1.3 software, after installing Adobe Systems' PhotoDeluxe 1.0 Business Edition and after connecting the camera through the USB port the first time. Kodak also bundles Adobe PageMill 3.0 image management software. Macintosh users receive PhotoDeluxe 2.0 and PageMill for the Macintosh on a separate CD.

REPORT CARD

Kodak DC265 Zoom

Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $1999.

Remarks: The DC265 Zoom scores with its many useful features and flexibility for professional-grade use, but it misses with an inferior LCD and a high price.

Sony's Digital Mavica MVC-FD81

Sony's digital cameras have been best sellers for one basic reason: the floppy disk. While other camera-makers offer an array of alternatives for storing pictures and moving them to users' PCs, Sony has settled on the method that users like the best -- transferring pictures from a floppy disk -- despite the technical compromises of this approach. In this battle of technology vs. popularity, Sony obviously plans not to stick with a technically superior, but less popular, technology, as it did with Beta video cassette recorders. The suggested retail price for this camera is $799.

The floppy disk medium presents some limitations compared with the Flash RAM storage devices, but its flexibility is apparently more important to customers. We found that a single 1.44MB floppy disk would store only 11 pictures shot at the maximum 1024 x 768-pixel resolution with minimum compression for better image quality.

One problem with using disk-based storage, however, is that the camera needs a few seconds to store each picture, so taking rapid-fire shots with the Sony is out of the question. The tested Mavica MVC-FD81 has a 2x speed floppy drive, so it is twice as fast as a typical drive, but the company recently announced a replacement model, the FD88, that has a 4x speed floppy drive.

The newer model's other change is an increase in image resolution, from 1024 x 768 pixels to 1.3 megapixel 1280 x 960 pixel resolution. This should address the concern we had with image quality. Even at the highest-quality setting, pictures taken indoors with the flash showed some blotching in solid colors. Outdoor shots did not suffer the problem as much. The increased resolution of the new camera may help that problem. Another change is an increase in optical zoom power from 3x to 8x, which should make a difference in the camera's usefulness for shooting outdoor and distant objects.

REPORT CARD

Sony Digital Mavica MVC-FD81

Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $1999 (ex. tax).

Remarks: The Digital Mavica MVC-FD81 is an easy and convenient camera to use, with the best LCD tested, but it falls short on picture quality. A megapixel replacement model, the MVC-FD88, will address the quality issue but will cost as much as Kodak's DC265 Zoom.

NB: The MVC-FD81 is under limited production and will be replaced by the MVC-FD83 model (to be priced at $1899 ex. tax)Conclusion Each of the cameras has strengths and weaknesses, but all of them show that digital photography is a viable option, even for jobs that require high-quality images. The frustration of sluggish autofocus action and long exposures makes taking action shots difficult.

The HP provides very good images. The Kodak turns out great images and has plenty of high-level features in a camera with an inferior LCD. The Sony offers unparalleled convenience with its floppy disk storage system, and the newly announced replacement model should improve picture quality.

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