Epson adds snappy features
- By Dan Carney
- Oct 31, 2000
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
Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.