banner Fidelity
March 19, 1996


New Digital Camera Demonstrates
Strengths and Weaknesses of a Genre

What is so strange as a digital bargain? The Epson PhotoPC is being trumpeted as a price breakthrough, the first color digital camera widely available for around $500. Just like its more expensive competitors, the PhotoPC offers all the photographic features you would expect from a $15 throwaway camera, with perhaps a tenth of the picture quality.

But speed, not quality, is the point of the digital camera. Digital photography is like Polaroid photography with a Xerox copier and fax machine attached. You need never again endure the grueling journey to the one-hour photofinisher who always seems to need half an hour more when you arrive to pick up your prints.

Moments after you snap the shutter, you can transmit your photos of earthquake damage to your insurance agent, incorporate your friends' leering mugs into your home page for all the world to laugh at or use retouching software and your ink-jet printer to print hundreds of copies of a faked picture proving you are a personal friend of Oprah.

Aside from its built-in flash and self-timer, the PhotoPC is photographically not much fancier than George Eastman's Brownie box camera, right down to its fixed-focus nonzoom lens. The camera will accept close-up lenses, but the viewfinder cannot accommodate for them. And the Brownie would work better for shots in quick succession. Once you shoot a picture with the PhotoPC, you must wait for about eight seconds while it processes and compresses the image.

The camera's standard one megabyte of flash memory holds 16 shots with millions of colors at 640 by 480 pixels or 32 at 320 by 240. Optional two- and four-megabyte memory modules, at about $150 and $250, allow up to 64 more shots at the higher resolution or 128 at the lower. But although flash memory is nonvolatile and retains information without power, the camera will not let you remove memory modules and replace them later to retrieve the pictures in them.

When a standard camera is out of film, you put in a new roll. When a digital camera is full, things are not so simple. A button on the PhotoPC lets you erase the most recent shots, but when the camera is full of pictures you want, you must connect it to a computer's serial port and send the photos through a cable to its hard drive.

The PhotoPC's Easy Photo software is almost as good as its name. With Windows 95, it installed quickly and found the camera at the COM2 port without help. Its only mistake was in setting the transmission speed to a glacial 9,600 bits per second, rather than the 57,600 it is capable of.

To save time, the software first downloads thumbnail views of the pictures in the camera. Once you choose which images to save, the software does the rest; at the highest speed, each full picture takes less than 10 seconds to travel down the wire. Clicking a button on the screen clears the camera's memory.

While connected, the camera becomes the computer's slave. Only from the computer can you set the camera's internal clock and the amount of time it will wait before shutting itself off to conserve its four AA batteries. The software can even display a little window on the screen to serve as a viewfinder, with a picture change every three seconds. While the camera is connected, its batteries drain quickly; if you plan to use the computer as a viewfinder regularly, you will probably want the camera's optional AC adapter, even at the price of about $80.

The Windows software (the camera does not yet work with Macintoshes) makes it easy to perform simple operations on your pictures. You can rotate, crop or resize them, change their brightness, contrast and color rendition, save the results and copy them into other Windows programs.

Programs that embrace the OLE 2.0 standard let you simply drag the photo from Easy Photo into a document and perform further edits right there. As often happens with OLE, odd things may occur, and very, very slowly.

The PhotoPC stores photos in the compressed JPEG format that has become something of a lingua franca on the World Wide Web, which may make it a handy tool for Web page designers. At snapshot sizes and smaller, the camera's pictures can look decent on screen. But fine detail and sharpness are almost always lacking, enlargement makes things worse, and images on paper do not begin to match traditional photographs. This is hardly surprising since professional digital cameras cost more than $10,000 and just begin to approach the quality of film.

Conventional cameras offer far better lenses that can zoom and focus sharply even on tiny objects. The photo shop may mislay your negative, but once you have it in your hands, you have a sharp image on a physical object rather than a fuzzy one susceptible to obliteration by a single keystroke. And you can still digitize and manipulate a standard photograph. Versatile flatbed color scanners can be had for less than $500, decent sheet-fed models for even less, and many services will scan photos onto floppy disks and CD-ROM's for you.

If you do a lot of mundane photography destined to appear on screens or in newsletters where time is of the essence and quality is not, a digital camera like the PhotoCD might well come in handy. But like all things digital, cameras are likely to get cheaper and better, with useful new features.

For example, Casio's QV-10 models are currently more expensive and offer lower-quality images, but they do let you preview your photos on a built-in color LCD display, delete them randomly and even display them on a standard TV set, where their failings may be less obvious. Still, the laboratory probably has not discarded your last FunSaver.

PERSONAL COMPUTING is published weekly, on Tuesdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

Related Sites
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this columns. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.

  • Epson's PhotoPC page, a marketing presentation by Epson, offers useful specs and other information about the camera.
  • The Casio QV-10, a catalog page from the AVW Group, offers specs, a photograph of the camera and other information that can help in product comparisons.
  • The Kodak DC50 Zoom Camera, a marketing presentation by Kodak, offers useful specs and other information about its DC50 digital camera.

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