Picture this: Better, cheaper digital cameras
- By Dan Carney
- May 16, 1999
Following the example of most high-technology products, digital cameras have been getting steadily less expensive and better with each passing year. But the trend accelerated last year, according to International Data Corp. senior analyst Ron Glaz.
"Last year was probably the fastest year the digital camera has evolved in terms of resolution," he said. One-megapixel cameras, once the distant goal in digital photography, have moved into the mainstream as prices have dropped. One camera reviewed here, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s PhotoSmart C30, provides megapixel resolution for less than $400.
Already, traditional camera companies such as Eastman Kodak Co., computer companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Epson America Inc., and consumer electronics companies such as Sony Electronics Inc. have all entered the digital camera market. "Everybody who knows how to put [printed circuit] boards in small enclosures is in there," Glaz said.
Now, evaporating profit margins in the scanner market are driving Taiwanese scanner companies into the digital camera market. Their entry into the scanner market collapsed prices for flatbed scanners, and the same could happen to digital cameras. Another result of the competition will be the development of many variations of digital camera features and designs, Glaz said.
Before that happens, we thought we'd take a look at four current popular digital cameras.
All but the Sony provide megapixel resolution. Sony has just introduced a megapixel version of the tested camera, but it wasn't available in time for this review.
One shortcoming that was common to all the cameras tested - which could be addressed by increased competition - is their sluggishness. All are slow to autofocus, so shooting moving objects can be difficult. Simply pointing and shooting, without first locking the autofocus onto the target, causes delays that ruin the shot.
Once released, the shutters on these cameras are slow, even in bright sunlight, so moving objects will be blurred, while a traditional film camera would capture a sharp image. These shortcomings hardly disqualify digital cameras from consideration, but they do pose challenges to be considered.
Epson's PhotoPC 750Z
The Epson PhotoPC 750Z camera packs a surprising array of high-end features into a compact point-and-shoot camera. Though the 750Z looks like a low-performance, low-cost, entry-level digital camera, it is high-end in features and price, retailing at $699.
The 750Z is a true 1.25 megapixel (1,280-by-960-pixel resolution) camera. It can interpolate raw images to deliver 1,600-by-1,200-pixel files before compression into JPEG format. The camera has 4M of RAM built in and includes an 8M CompactFlash card. Resolution is user-selectable and determines how many pictures the camera will store with this memory. Our tests showed that the camera could store 17 maximum-resolution shots (1,280-by-960 pixels with low compression), 35 medium-resolution shots (1,280-by-960 pixels with moderate compression) and 119 low-resolution shots (640-by-480 pixels). Epson's documentation indicates that the camera can hold more pictures.
Learning to use the camera is easy, and operation is fairly obvious with the clearly labeled buttons. The 2-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) works well indoors and out, thanks to a switch that lets users select either internal backlighting for indoor use or a "skylight" that utilizes available light for outdoor use.
The 3x optical zoom is controlled by a lever that is easily reached with the right thumb while shooting. The additional 2x digital zoom (for 6x total) cannot be controlled on the fly while shooting; instead, it must be selected from the setup menu. All of the functions governed by the menus are easy to configure.
One of those functions is a "slide show" feature that automatically scrolls through the photos that the camera contains. This is especially useful when connecting the camera to a TV using its video-out port and connector cable.
When shooting, users can look through a viewfinder, which saves power, or they can use the display screen. When the shutter button is pressed, the camera suffers a delay while it finds its range and focuses, unless the button is held halfway down first and then squeezed the rest of the way to take the picture.
Users have two methods of moving pictures from the camera to the PC. They can use a cable that plugs into the PC's serial port, or they can remove the CompactFlash memory card, insert it into a PC Card adapter (available free for registering as a buyer) and then insert that into the computer's available PC Card slot.
Epson includes a CD-ROM containing the company's own Photo!2 software for retrieving photos from the camera. The CD-ROM also contains Image Expert 2.0 from Sierra Imaging Inc. Image Expert can retrieve photos, and it provides a wide array of editing tools to modify and perfect pictures. The software installs easily, is simple to use and includes features that allow users to create and store photo albums. A "quick-fix" tool allows the software to make decisions about image corrections and to make changes automatically. Both Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh and Microsoft Corp. Windows versions are included on the CD-ROM. The camera also can print directly to certain Epson printers.
The 750Z is powered by four standard AA-size batteries, and this arrangement provides several benefits. If a user needs to replace the batteries, new ones are as close as the nearest convenience store. Epson provides rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries with the camera, as well as a charger for them, but the company also pre-installs in the camera a set of conventional AAs so that customers can use the camera immediately. Battery life proved to be very good.
Epson's battery charger is worth mentioning because its design is more compact than those of the other cameras tested. The prongs that plug into the outlet fold back into the charger, so nothing protrudes from the case when traveling. The company provides a carrying pouch that holds the camera and the charger.
Epson's documentation is very good, but the need for it is minimal because the camera is very easy to use. Pictures taken with the 750Z all look good, especially after touch-ups by the quick-fix feature.
REPORT CARD--------------------Epson PhotoPC 750ZEpson America Inc.800-GO-EPSONwww.epson.com
Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $699. (Price as of April 27.)
Remarks: The PhotoPC 750Z is an excellent, feature-laden camera in a deceptively compact package. It has great picture quality and a very good LCD.
Final Score: Very Good
HP'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. Federal agencies can buy two C30s for the price of one typical megapixel camera.
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 1,152-by-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 functions available to users depend on whether the lens cover is open or closed. 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 recently doubled the capacity of the included CompactFlash memory card to 8M, so the camera now holds 80 "Basic" quality photos, 40 "Fine" quality photos and 17 "Super-Fine" pictures. We didn't scientifically measure battery life, but the included Panasonic alkaline AA batteries didn't have an impressive life span. However, users can invest in rechargeable batteries and a charger and use standard batteries as backups.
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. Neither requires rebooting of the machine. 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.
HP provides good user guides for the camera and for the PhotoSmart software. The Microsoft documentation is online. Both applications perform most of the same tasks, although the Microsoft program has more options for modifying pictures. Both programs have cartoonish, audio-effect-laden interfaces (Picture It! sounds like an old martial arts film, with whooshing sounds at every movement) that seem designed to appeal to the home consumer more than the federal government agency.
REPORT CARD--------------------Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart C30Hewlett-Packard Co.(650) 857-1501www.hp.com
Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $399. (Price as of April 19.)
Remarks: The PhotoSmart C30 delivers real megapixel quality in an affordable camera that lacks many features found in more expensive models.
Final Score: Good
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 $999 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 (16M), 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 synchronization plug, enabling photographers to use a better flash than the built-in unit.
The camera's buttons are clearly labeled, and their uses are obvious. Navigating through Kodak's menus is easy, and the four-way pointing button has arrows printed on it.
But Kodak clearly views the DC265's 2-inch LCD as a secondary device rather than the primary means of aiming the camera. The camera has a viewfinder, so using the LCD to take pictures isn't mandatory. But Kodak has made it harder to use than necessary. 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. The 3x optical zoom is augmented by a 2x digital zoom, for 6x maximum magnification. Resolution is user-
selectable, depending on the need for quality vs. available storage space. The available settings are standard (768-by-512 pixels), medium (1,152-by-768 pixels) and high (1,536-by-1,024 pixels). 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 Inc.'s 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.
Once installation and setup chores are out of the way, the camera and software cooperate well, and the USB connection loads pictures into the PC much faster than the serial connection used by other cameras.
Kodak provides excellent documentation for its camera, with a good user's guide, a guide for the Picture Easy software and a quick-start guide for getting started after opening the box. The PhotoDeluxe documentation is included on the CD-ROM.
REPORT CARD--------------------Kodak DC265 ZoomEastman Kodak Co.(800) 508-1531www.kodak.com
Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $999. (Price as of April 19.)
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.
Final Score: Good
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 1.44M floppy disk would store only 11 pictures shot at the maximum 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution with minimum compression for better image quality. It can hold 37 640-by-480-pixel images with maximum compression for small file size.
The nice thing about the floppy disk is that even if it only holds a limited number of pictures, another "roll of film" - in the form of another blank floppy disk - costs almost nothing and fits conveniently in a shirt pocket.
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 1,024-by-768 pixels to 1.3 megapixel 1,280-by-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.
It is obvious that Sony tapped its experience in consumer electronics when designing the very user-friendly Mavica. The camera is easy to use, with obvious controls for each function. The power switch is a slide switch on the back instead of a button on top that could be confused with the shutter release.
Controls for the mode (still photos, video and playback), flash and LCD lighting are clearly marked and easy to use. Sony's only stumble is a four-way button for navigating configuration menus. Anyone familiar with PC pointing devices will have no problem using the navigation button, but for some reason Sony failed to clearly label the button.
The Mavica's big 2.5-inch active-matrix LCD is the best of the cameras tested. It refreshes faster than the others, so the motion of objects displayed on it is smooth. Others are distinctly jerky in comparison because the LCDs don't refresh quickly enough. This has no impact on photo quality, but it does make the camera easier to use.
The LCD also has a convenient switch that turns off the backlight to save power when working outside, where the "skylight" on top of the camera lets in natural light. This keeps the image visible even in bright sunlight.
The Mavica uses a specialized lithium battery, and Sony provides a charger for it. But the charger is heavy and uses a cord to plug into the wall, so the package is bulky. Fortunately, the camera has good battery life, so users may not always need to bring the charger with them.
Surprisingly, Sony's documentation is the skimpiest and least comprehensive of the cameras tested. The pocket-size black-and-white booklet covers most of the major topics of interest about the camera. But documentation for the included PhotoSuite SE software, from MGI Software Corp., is a tiny, multilingual sheet outlining installation. PhotoSuite SE runs on Macintosh OS and Windows, is easy to use and has online documentation. But it is very home-oriented, so it lacks some of the powerful tools found in other programs, and it contains features to create postcards and other features better suited for home use.
REPORT CARD--------------------Sony Digital Mavica MVC-FD81Sony Electronics Inc.(800) 222-7669www.sony.com
Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $799. (Price as of April 19.)
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.
Final Score: Good
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. But static shots documenting objects and places - a common use of digital cameras by federal agencies - are unaffected by this problem.
The Epson provides excellent photo quality in a compact, easy-to-use package. The HP beats everyone on price while providing 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.
The challenge for federal buyers is to weigh their needs against these factors and choose the right camera for the task and budget available.
-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.