FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - Yes, you can go ahead and buy one if you want to.
That's my answer to one of the questions I'm asked most frequently as a reviewer: Is it time to buy a digital camera? The next question, of course, is, Which one? There's a magical and seemingly universal appeal to digital photography that other types of peripherals and digital gear just don't seem to have.
Today's best nonprofessional digital cameras are better than ever, with enhanced resolution, more flexible storage, in-camera image editing and file management and - as always - falling prices. In fact, digital photography seems to be obeying its own version of Moore's Law, with a correlation over time between an increase in quality and complexity and a decrease in price.
Two years ago, state-of-the-art digital cameras cost about $1,000 and had a 1-megapixel capability. That meant photos could be made up of more than 1,000,000 pixels, often expressed as a resolution of 1,200 by 900 or so. A year later, the top-end machines were still available for $1,000 but had a 2-megapixel capability, and the previous year's top-end machines had been reduced in price by about 35 percent.
Now we see top-end cameras with resolutions of 3.3 megapixels. Their price tags are around $1,000. Last year's best are selling for $600, while the 1-megapixel machines from two years ago are in the $300 range.
I recently took a look at several digital cameras and found many that I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Perhaps the sleeper of the bunch, with the least-interesting appearance, is the user-friendly RDC-5300 from Ricoh Co. in West Caldwell, New Jersey. It's a great value, priced at $650 or less. In terms of specifications, it doesn't read much different from the 2-megapixel C2000 from Melville, New York-based Olympus Image Systems Inc., which I recommended last year. However, it's easier to use, it's smaller and it has one feature I really like: a sliding cover for the LCD display on the back. When you're not using it, the LCD is out of the way and protected, and you know it's turned off. It's a small touch, but a really worthwhile one that I wish other manufacturers would copy.
Another camera I like a lot is the MDR-5 from Toshiba America Inc. in New York.
The MDR-5 is similarly priced and has similar specifications and features. It has a shape reminiscent of a compact single-lens reflex camera that makes it especially easy to handle.
Finally, the top-of-the-line DC290 from Rochester, New York-based Eastman Kodak Co. is a camera whose basic 1,792- by 1,200-pixel resolution can be interpolated up to 3 megapixels to 2,240 by 1,500. This level of detail really compares well with that of any film camera, at least with prints up to 8 by 10 inches. Introduced last fall at $999, the price has recently been shaved by $100.
However, the biggest technology story lies in the camera's software. The DC290 is among the first crop of cameras to make full use of Digita, a brand-independent operating environment from San Jose-based Flashpoint Technologies Inc. that was specifically designed for digital cameras and other imaging devices such as scanners and printers.
An Operating System for Imaging
You may wonder what an operating system for imaging is. I did, the first time I encountered the idea. With a well-defined operating system base, it's possible to create programs that will extend the features and functionality of these cameras.
Using the Digita Script programming language, you can create scripts on a PC that can then be downloaded to the camera's compact flash-memory card. These programs can be used to do several things, such as build Web pages and image databases and create fliers and other types of documents directly in the camera; guide the user to take certain types of images; reset camera default settings; automate the placement of logos, time and date stamps, and watermarks; and much more. You can upload images to the camera or a compact flash card, which will enable you to use the camera as a self-contained presentation device that uses its own tiny LCD screen or hooks up to a television.
As with any operating system, there's a developer community, a software developer's kit for creating applications and several Web sites from which you can purchase or download scripts for your Digita-enabled camera. The best starting point I found is www.flashpoint.com.
Add-on packages such as Digita FX allow you to perform image editing, color correction and other modification operations right in the camera. Of course, the typically tiny 2-in. LCD screen is a limitation, but most cameras have a built-in digital zoom that lets you magnify a section of a photo to see it better.
So far, the following cameras are Digita-enabled: Kodak's DC220, 260, 265 and 290; Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Photo-Smart C500; and Japan-based Minolta Co.'s Dimage EX 1500. In addition, Torrance, California-based Epson America Inc.'s PrintOn PT100 photo printer uses Digita, which enables it to template, filter, resize or reformat photographs before printing, without connecting to a PC.
All in all, now is a good time to think about getting started in digital photography.