Digital Cameras Come Of Age

They're as easy to use as the old point-and-shoot models, and the display is almost irresistible

Propelled by plummeting prices, digital cameras exploded onto the consumer market this year. It's not hard to see why. The newest models are as easy to use as conventional point-and-shoot cameras and have an additional, almost irresistible lure: instant gratification. Virtually all of the new cameras come with a built-in liquid-crystal display that lets you immediately see what you've just shot. And unlike film cameras, if you don't like the results, you can delete them. Most of the cameras have a video-out port, so you can show your snapshots on your TV or record them on your VCR. And with a little extra work, you can load them into your personal computer, print them out, post them on a Web page, or E-mail them to the grandparents.

So these digitals give you an immediate kick--and other cool features. The picture-editing software that comes with all of these cameras lets you easily correct for such shutterbug problems as red-eye or underexposure, or color defects caused by fluorescent lights. But once you get the hang of the software, you can also insert new people or backgrounds into photos and add special effects such as halos.

A FEW FLAWS. I spent a couple of weeks playing with a dozen digital cameras, ranging in price from Hewlett-Packard Co.'s $299 PhotoSmart to Eastman Kodak Co.'s $839 DC210 Zoom camera. I used each to shoot the same subject, a blooming plumeria on my patio, and printed out the results on two new photo-quality printers, Canon Inc.'s BJC-4304 and HP's DeskJet 722C. I also took the cameras to a birthday party to find out how they handled low-light conditions and whether other people would find the controls easy to master.

What I discovered was how far digital cameras have come in just a few years. I now have a handful of favorites (table). Most of them have some shortcomings, so here are a few tips on buying your first digital camera.

First, if you're planning to replace your point-and-shoot film camera, forget it. Sub-$1,000 digital cameras can't come close to matching the resolution of silver-halide film for prints. Don't even consider a camera with a resolution of less than 640x480 pixels. That's the minimum acceptable for viewing snapshots on a TV or computer display. If you want prints for Christmas cards or a newsletter, expect to spend more than $700 for a camera that can capture at least 1,024x768 pixels. That's good enough for snapshot-size prints, but you probably won't be happy with 8x10 enlargements. And as good as today's color inkjet printers are, the prints they produce will fade faster than photos. And they're vulnerable to spills and greasy fingerprints.

Battery life is a big deal, too. So when pricing these cameras, add in the cost of a set of rechargeable batteries, a charger, and an AC adapter. They are included for Sony Corp. and Canon Inc. cameras. The Epson America Inc. PhotoPC 600 also comes with batteries and a recharger. But most of the other cameras include just a set of conventional alkaline batteries that will allow only a couple of hours of use. As much as I liked the Minolta Dimge V camera, with a detachable lens that lets you shoot over crowds or around corners like a periscope, I only got seven pictures before the batteries gave out. Tip: Some cameras have an optical viewfinder, in addition to the LCD display. That helps conserve battery life and makes it easier to handle close-up focusing, a problem with the Canon PowerShot 350.

ENDLESS SCANS. Getting pictures into the computer is a bit of a hassle. In most cases, you have to run a serial cable from the camera to your PC. Sony's Digital Mavica cameras avoid that by building a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive into the camera. While it makes the Mavica a bit bulky, it means that you can transfer pictures by popping out the disk and putting it in the computer. It's great for parties and weddings, as well as for real estate agents, sales reps, and landscapers. You take the pictures and leave the disk with your hosts or clients. The other cameras store pictures internally, or on a variety of miniature memory cards, some of which come with a PCMCIA adapter that fits many laptop computers. But these removable storage cards generally cost $40 and up for two megabytes, while extra floppies are cheap and readily available.

As digital-camera technology matures, these cameras are adding all the features that you expect from film cameras--and more. Sony's MVC-FD7, for example, has a 10x optical-zoom lens and special settings for soft-focus portraits and sepia photos. And a new camera from Casio, the QV700, can take continuous pictures--one each second--when the shutter button is held down. It also will capture snapshots a second and a half before you press the button, as well as a half-second later. How? Whenever the camera is on, its photo sensor, or CCD, constantly scans and displays images on the LCD screen. All Casio had to do was build in a buffer memory, which stores the previous two pictures when you push the shutter button. You decide which is best, and then erase the rest.

The digital camera isn't the only way to get pictures into your PC. There are scanners for those snapshots that you now store in shoeboxes, and most photofinishers will give you a copy of the roll scanned onto floppy disks for about $4. But if you're looking for instant gratification--today's version of the old Polaroid Land Camera--go digital.

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