In an ideal world, a wireless digital camera would be as connected as a cell phone. It would let you beam pictures to your computer or online photo account whenever or from wherever you take them.
The two Wi-Fi cameras I've been trying out for the past few weeks are convenient, but they don't offer that universal connection yet. Instead, they must be in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot for you to shoot and ship. The big difference between the two: The $600, four-megapixel Kodak (EK ) EasyShare One can connect to the Internet and works from any hotspot, whether it's a Starbucks (SBUX ), the airport, or your home. The $550 eight-megapixel Nikon Coolpix P1 and its five-megapixel sibling, the $400 P2, can't transmit to the Web and are mostly limited to the Wi-Fi network in your home. Even so, they're real cameras, with multiple picture modes and zoom lenses, that take photos far superior to the washed-out dreck most camera phones produce.
Not surprisingly, the Kodak wins out for its versatility, despite its lower resolution and higher price. With this camera, you can't e-mail your photos directly to people, but at least it lets you connect over the Internet to Kodak's EasyShare Gallery, formerly called Ofoto. You can upload your shots and, from there, still using the camera, e-mail links to them to friends. Recipients have to join the site to see them.
Once you install a Wi-Fi card (Kodak was going to sell it as a $100 option but now it comes in the box), the camera searches for hotspots and lets you pick one. I connected easily over my home network as well as at T-Mobile hotspots at a Starbucks in Hollywood and at the Burbank airport. T-Mobile charges just $4.99 a month for wireless access to your photos through its hotspots, a terrific deal.
Here's another feature I liked: With its huge three-inch screen and 256 megabytes of internal memory, you can use the camera as a digital photo album. Even without a memory card, it will hold about 150 pictures. Once you upload them to your computer, it will retain up to 1,500 low-resolution copies. If the pictures you want to show off aren't on the camera, you can wirelessly download them from your online albums. One downside: The battery will give out after about an hour of wireless activity.
The Nikon is more of a one-trick pony. Its Wi-Fi connection is really just a cable replacement, a way to upload your pictures to your computer or printer (with Nikon's $50 Wi-Fi printer adapter) when you get home. But while you're within the 300-foot-or-so radius of your hotspot, as you snap off shots, they move automatically to your computer or printer.
For the wireless connection to work, you've got to load the Nikon software on every computer you want to use it with. The process also involves hooking up the computer to the camera by cable once so it can store a profile of the connection. For each one, I had to type in the network ID number and pass code, details that can be difficult to find even on your own computer. The camera will store the connections for up to nine computers, but good luck getting your friends to let you profile their computers and networks.
I set up my laptop to run a slide show on Nikon's PictureProject software and, as I clicked away, the new shots joined the show in progress. Hook up your laptop to your big-screen TV and you've got a great party trick, as well as prints to give away.
The temptation is to think of these -- especially the Nikon -- as novelty cameras. I think they're the first step toward a camera that connects anytime, anywhere. Just wait till next year.
By Larry Armstrong