Epson adds snappy features

Epson's digital cameras have traditionally provided excellent value, with

good picture quality and resolution for a reasonable price. Epson's PhotoPC

850Z builds on the legacy of the company's 750Z by adding the kinds of features

that photographers expect in a camera while preserving the high image quality

and ease of use that attracted customers to the older model.

With the 850Z, Epson pioneers a new middle ground between high- and

low-end digital cameras. The Epson won't convert any pros from Nikon Inc.'s

D1 digital camera, but it does provide a new level of flexibility and control

in digital photography for shutterbugs on a budget.

The most obvious thing about the 850Z is that it looks a lot like a

traditional SLR, with a thick grab-handle containing the battery pack on

the right side of the camera body. The lens protrudes from the front of

the camera, but it is not interchangeable. Instead, it is protected under

a fixed enclosure that is sealed off at the front by an automatic lens cap,

shielding the moveable zoom lens from damage.

The lens enclosure does have a threaded opening that accepts an included

adapter, enabling users to attach conventional 49 mm filters and other accessories,

such as doublers for increasing the telephoto power of the built-in lens.

The built-in 3x optical zoom lens has an optical range equivalent to a 35-105

mm lens on a 35 mm camera.

Another nice bit of flexibility Epson included in the 850Z is a "hot

shoe," or metal plate for attaching an external flash to the top of the

camera. This offers users a chance to attach a higher-quality flash than

the built-in device or connect to a remote flash unit.

Adding these details to an already good camera really makes the 850Z

an extremely strong candidate for use on the job by federal agency employees,

rather than just by vacationing technophiles.

One difficulty using digital cameras outdoors is that bright sunlight

washes out the display, making it hard to use. You can shoot pictures by

looking through the viewfinder instead of the watching the display, but

you need the display to review shots already taken. The solution is the

Solar Assist feature, which lets ambient light behind the display to provide

backlighting equal to the ambient light.

Unfortunately, Epson's execution of this feature leaves a little to

be desired. Epson apparently intended to let users view the display without

taxing the battery by running the electric backlight. This is a worthy goal,

but the light-gathering power of Epson's Solar Assist is insufficient to

overcome bright sunlight, so the screen is invisible on sunny days. Sony

Electronics Inc. uses a similar device on its cameras that works better

in bright light.

Another shortcoming is the user interface. An array buttons around the

display lets users navigate through menus, but I found these eight buttons

more challenging to use than the miniature pointing devices used on some

other cameras. It isn't a big issue and likely would matter even less as

the user becomes more familiar with the operation of the buttons. Nevertheless,

it isn't quite as simple to use as it could be.

The lengthy and comprehensive user's guide is entirely in English and

provides clear instructions on how to use every feature of the camera. It

is head and shoulders above the hastily prepared, quadra-lingual pamphlets

that pass for owner's manuals for some cameras.

Epson wisely chose to use the Universal Serial Bus interface for the

850Z, so connecting to a Microsoft Corp. Windows PC or Apple Computer Inc.

Macintosh is simple. The USB connection is faster than a serial connection,

and it doesn't use any additional hardware interrupts on a Windows machine.

Epson included a serial cable for those customers who have old machines

without USB ports.

Like most digital cameras, the Epson is a sluggish device, slow to zoom

in and out, and slow to lock on to a target. This camera is better at shooting

still objects or slow-moving ones than it is at capturing action. The fast

400-speed ISO equivalent means that the camera can shoot moving objects

without blurring them too badly, but the delayed action of the shutter can

make it difficult to get the intended shot.

The quality of the 1600 pixel-by-1200 pixel, 2.11 megapixel images is

impressive and should be suitable for all but the most discriminating professional

photographers who are accustomed to working with low-speed slide film. However,

the automatic white balance of the 850Z was visibly skewed toward the blue

end of the spectrum, so users may have to learn the intricacies of setting

the white balance manually.

The included software for the 850Z breaks photo management into separate

tasks. One program (Epson Photo!3) imports images from the camera and saves

them to the disk, while another (Sierra Imaging Image Expert 1.8.3) lets

users edit those pictures. This is good for people who already use Adobe

Systems Inc. Photoshop or some other photo editor because it lets them import

the pictures with a small Epson utility without having to use a different

editing program. For those casual users who don't already own Photoshop,

having two programs to handle pictures may seem like a nuisance.

The 850Z runs on four standard AA batteries, so the solution to dead

batteries is as close as the nearest quick-mart. But Epson includes a set

of nickel metal hydride rechargeable cells and a charger with the camera,

so users shouldn't need to resort to fighting with the kids over GameBoy

batteries if they keep the original batteries charged.

Some nice features that make the 850Z good for conducting slide shows

are a video output that connects to a television, a utility for loading

photos back into the camera from a PC and an optional AC adapter that can

power the camera through the longest presentation.

The standard 8M memory card holds 120 standard VGA resolution images

and holds 12 high-resolution 1600 pixel-by-1200 pixel pictures. The 850Z

also has a built-in microphone that lets users record an audio message as

long as 10 seconds to accompany pictures and an audio output cable for connecting

to a television for presentations.

The Epson 850Z, in short, represents a new standard in an under-$700

camera.

Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.

REPORT CARD

Epson PhotoPC 850Z

Score: A-

Epson America Inc.

(800) 617-4686

www.epson.com

Pricing and availability: Street price is $649.

Remarks: The PhotoPC 850Z is a big step up from Epson's 750Z. It lets usersattach external lenses, filters and flash and permits manual control ofvirtually every aspect of digital photography. Only a weak Solar Assistfeature and confusing menus detract from this excellent camera. Image qualityis fantastic, although it is slightly blue-tinted when automatic white balanceis used.

BY Dan Carney
November 01, 2000

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