Digital cameras develop instant results

Well, "instant" might be pushing it for a few of the dozen digital cameras
the GCN Lab examined over a two-month period. Most of the seven point-and-shoot, three
semiprofessional and two professional cameras had a wide range of features, good image
quality and quick image access. But the snail-paced downloads of a few made us think
fondly of a one-hour photo shop.


Three cameras earned well-deserved Reviewer's Choice designations. For the professional
photographer, the Fujix DS-505A was a strong choice with its image quality and good
ergonomics. The Olympus D-600L had a nice range of features for semiprofessional users.
Eastman-Kodak's DC-210 led the way for the point-and-shoot crowd. (See product chart,
Page 32.)


"Megapixel," a watchword for the digital camera buyer, means a camera can
capture files with more than a million pixels. That sounds like a lot, but in reality, a
300-dot-per-inch printer will output only a 3- by 5-inch photo from a 1-megapixel file.


High image quality goes hand in hand with high pixel volume, and some of the 12 cameras
delivered both. Battery life was a universal concern, however.


We found rechargeable cells--especially lithium-ion--were the most desirable, lasting
far longer than other types. A camera that takes AA or AAA alkaline batteries might be
conveniently small, but you'll spend a fortune on new cells.


Also, any unit that stored images on nonremovable media proved less than appealing.
Only two of the dozen could capture images on their built-in flash memory. The Canon
PowerShot 600 and Epson PhotoPC 600 both offered a removable-media option.


External flash memory was the dominant medium, and it worked well. The other 10 cameras
all supported removable storage through a Type II or III PC Card reader, although
CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards required an adapter. CompactFlash is a smaller version
of a Type II PC Card.


SmartMedia--also known as the solid-state floppy disk card or SSFDC--is shaped like a
floppy disk but with half the area and about the thickness of a business card. Several
vendors soon will introduce a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk adapter for SmartMedia.


For the most part, adherence to the PC Card standard makes digital images accessible
without recourse to the cameras' software--just slide the PC Card or adapter into a reader
and drag and drop the photo files.


Software was a sore point among many of the dozen units, but all the cameras had a
limited image editor and thumbnail print viewer. Cameras with standalone applications as
well as TWAIN versions earned a nod for ease of use.


TWAIN, an acronym for toolkit without an interesting name, is the standard for
connecting devices such as cameras and scanners to certain software applications. For
cameras, that application most often is Adobe Photoshop. TWAIN plug-ins made exporting
images from cameras into Photoshop quick and painless.


The cameras themselves had varying levels of refinement, and all but one gave decent
photo quality. The Panasonic CoolShot KXL-601A reproduced images very poorly even in full
sunlight.


Professional cameras. For serious photographers, a camera is part of a system.
It must accept many lenses and accessories, and it must be comfortable to work with for
hours at a time. Durability and top-quality images, of course, are givens.


The GCN Lab examined two single-lens reflex cameras, each costing just less than
$10,000 and available to government buyers on Multiple-Award Schedule contracts. Both were
basically Nikon camera bodies that could take standard F-mount lenses.


Our nod went to the Fujix DS-505A. Its biggest advantage over the Kodak
DCS-420
was that with a given focal-length lens, the image field of view was roughly
equivalent to that of the same lens on a conventional 35-millimeter camera.


The Kodak, in contrast, gave only about half the field of view, represented by a black
rectangle within the viewing area of the through-the-lens eyepiece. That made framing the
picture more difficult.


More important, the Kodak required lenses with half the photographer's desired focal
length. For the equivalent of an ordinary 28-mm wide-angle lens, you'd need a 12-mm or
14-mm optic. A rectilinear 12-mm lens costs an order of magnitude more than a 28-mm lens.


To get a regular 50-mm field of view, you must have an 18-mm lens, which is more
expensive and slower than most 50-mm lenses. So the vast array of lenses available for
these cameras' mounts won't be usable as intended.


Ergonomically, the Kodak felt like a conventional 35-mm camera with a large,
bottom-mounted motor drive. The Fujix had a hybrid shape, like a cubical Hasselblad
updated with a handgrip built-in on the side.


At about five pounds each, both cameras were extremely heavy. The Fujix weighed almost
a pound more than the Kodak. But the Fujix's shape made it easier to cradle securely in
both hands. Its square bottom made a more stable tripod platform.


Also, the raised eyepiece of the Fujix mashed the photographer's nose less than the
Kodak eyepiece.


Photographers with small hands will have an easier time tripping the Fujix shutter. One
tester's hands can easily stretch to play a clean 10th interval on a piano but he had
trouble keeping a forefinger on the Kodak shutter button and a thumb in the rear groove.


Thanks to their Nikkor optics, both cameras were about equal in viewing brightness and
ease of manual focus. Old-timers still don't fully trust autofocus mechanisms to put the
plane of focus exactly where it's wanted, although autofocus has improved tremendously
since the early 1980s.


Pulling images out of the Kodak's 170M Type III PC Card hard drive was hard work. To
get a full image, we had to get it with a TWAIN plug-in. Retrieving images from the Fujix
Type II flash memory card was a simple drag-and-drop operation.


We wondered why these high-end cameras lacked the LCD screen found on almost all the
point-and-shoot models. An informal survey of professional photographers indicated they
agreed with us that an LCD panel would assist in quickly judging a shot.


The 4-year-old Kodak DCS-420 is Kodak's current model; the Fujix DS-505A is not yet a
year old. We hope future versions will have an LCD panel for keep-or-delete decisions that
would save precious media space.


Semiprofessional cameras. Only the Olympus D-600L among the three
semiprofessional cameras had a through-the-lens viewfinder. That was one of the many
reasons the Olympus became our Reviewer's Choice in this category.


Small size, good 3X zoom, dextrous grip, fine image quality, 1.3 megapixels and a
1.8-inch LCD panel made this $1,299 camera more appealing than its costlier counterparts.
It had a brief battery life from four nicad AA rechargeable batteries, though.


One hour-long photo session required a change to fresh cells.


The Sony DKC-ID1's lithium-ion cells lasted much longer, and we were impressed
by its 12X zoom. In fact, we found this digital camera more like a camcorder because its
viewfinder was the small LCD panel.


Where the Sony stumbled was in pixel volume--less than half a megapixel--and in
somewhat confusing controls. We had to keep the manual close by to figure out how to
perform the simplest functions. Moreover, images could not be deleted from the TWAIN
module but only from the camera itself.


The Fujix DS-300, like its big brother, lacked any LCD panel at all. We would
have preferred more control over digital functions. This was a good camera, but without a
through-the-lens optical viewfinder and LCD panel, we took some photos without realizing
the lens cap was on. It's a stupid mistake, but some help from the camera would have been
a smart addition.


Point-and-shoot cameras. The Canon PowerShot 600 let us down with its
bulky size, no LCD panel and internal flash memory rather than removable media for primary
storage.


Moreover, we could not successfully launch its 32-bit TWAIN drivers. The Canon was the
only camera with a convenient but bulky cradle base for attaching to the PC.


The Epson PhotoPC 600 represented a nice step forward for Epson, which has made
two previous digital cameras. We were glad to see the imaging improved over that of the
PhotoPC 500 [GCN, April 28, 1997, Page 34].


We hope Epson will shun internal storage in the PhotoPC 700, converting to CompactFlash
cards instead. As with all cameras that use AA cells, the PhotoPC's battery life remains
an issue.


The Fuji DX-9 was a preproduction unit with half the instructions in English and
half in Japanese. We had some trouble figuring it all out, but we were impressed by the
LCD panel preview, which updated as smoothly as if this were a video camera.


We hope pixel volume gets a little larger in the production unit, set for release later
this year.


We loved the Kodak DC-210 despite a couple of minor issues. First, the optical
viewfinder was positioned off to the right of the lens, so the framed image was not
accurate.


Again, the AA batteries drained way too fast, although the DC-210 was more efficient
than its predecessor, the DC-120 [GCN , Sept. 1, 1997, Page 42].


We relished the LCD display and the easy-to-use commands, executable via buttons. The
software was easy for beginners, and infrared connectivity was a bonus.


The Minolta Dimage V lacked an optical viewfinder and took a little getting used
to, but we liked it.


The optics swiveled independent of the camera, so you could even take self-portraits.
Or you could detach the optics and, using a provided cable, aim anywhere up to 39 inches
away from the camera.


After one or two photos, however, the batteries drained so much the unit usually shut
off. After a minute or so, the Minolta would start working again, but AA cells really are
inadequate.


Dimage may be an unfortunate moniker, too; more than one observer pronounced it
"damage."


The Olympus D-320L came in a very close second to the Kodak in this category.
Lack of a zoom feature held it back. We wished the standalone software were a little
easier to use and would stop warning us our serial port was too slow.


We did like the sliding cover that turned the Olympus on and off while protecting the
lens. One terrific innovation: It could fire off nine shots at half-second intervals to
produce a single photo with nine panels.


The Panasonic CoolShot KXL-601A's fixed-focus lens unfortunately never seemed to
capture anything in focus. Indoor shots were very dark without a flash. We did like its
compact size, especially with the LCD panel detached.


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