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★★★★★

“A neat satin-finished metal case makes this look more...”

Written on: 19/07/2001 by Chris Green. (1 review written)

Good Points
Neat design. Picture quality excellent whilst STILL able to take 245 pics! Ease of use - just like a compact 35mm

Bad Points
Shortish battery life between charges. Digital zoom only degrades the image quality. No sound on movies.

General Comments
A neat satin-finished metal case makes this look more like a quality 35mm compact than something electronic. If it wasn't for the LCD monitor screen on the rear, you'd never know the difference.



Top definition = 3.34 mega-pixels, but this can be stepped down to give more picture taking capacity at the expense of ultimate quality.



Storage capacity = 245 shots even at top quality thanks to an IBM Microdrive with 340mb (!) of memory capacity. This is a tiny hard drive, which fits into the same slot as a Compact Flash II module. Changing to the lowest quality "ups" this to around 1000!



The lens is a non-zoom affair, with a focal length equivalent to about 40 mm of a "normal" 35 mm camera. This is mildly wide-angle, useful for general landscapes etc. There is a digital zoom facility but more of this later.



It can also shoot AVI-file movies, but I shan't be bothering other than to check that it works - there is no microphone so welcome back the era of Buster Keaton.



Its exposure modes extend from Fully Programmed (Point and Shoot) through to Aperture-Priority and Full Manual. There are also Night and Landscape modes, which will be no stranger to users of most compact cameras, although I doubt if anyone bothers with them often.


The main switch is a simple affair, it's either off, recording or playing back, and, like the man who couldn't pronounce "F's" or "TH's", you can't say fairer than that!
The rear-facing LCD screen doubles as a Settings menu and as an alternative viewfinder, during record (and playback). To navigate the menu, there is a four-direction thumb-wheel and a select button.



NIFTY FEATURES


Although you are stuck with a "TV shaped" 4:3 picture, which feels a bit "port-hole-like" once you've got used to an APS camera's 16:9 negative, there is a panorama "stitch" facility, which can be used up to 9 times in one session. The edge of the last picture is shown in the LCD screen, to enable the next one to be lined up properly. Of course, creating a seamless panorama is done by you after the event, with your PC's graphics software. You can shoot in colour, B+W and even sepia! I'd advise sticking to colour - you could always change this after the event, but you can't regain what you never saw in colour in the first place.



You can "bracket" shots like you can in 35mm. This means taking 3 shots instead of one, with a higher and lower exposure setting either side of what the camera regards as being the correct setting. Of course, you gobble up your disc capacity, but hey, what the hell, it's all deletable, after you've decided which shots to keep.



Although there doesn't seem to be any mention of it in the instruction manual, you can take uncompressed TIFF shots instead of the more normal JPEG type. Perusal of various web-sites will tell you how to do this. Unfortunately, the pictures seem to be filed in a different directory on the Microdrive, and as they can't be reviewed on the LCD screen, there'll be no peeking until returning to base. If you really must, you can switch to TIFF by holding down the SET button whilst pressing the self-timer. This reduces capacity to a "mere" 57 shots, but this is still plenty for most days out.



The TV output is compatible with PAL and NTSC, so you can bore the world rigid as you go! There is slide show facility, which makes complete sense of the output to TV, although "portrait" format shots come out sideways!



The lens retracts and disappears, "a la IXUS", when you turn it off.



Anyone who has "a bit of trouble" with their horizons will be pleased to know that you can superimpose a grid on the LCD screen to help with composition - it doesn't show on the end result, by the way!
The camera has a USB and serial port, allowing it to appear as an extra drive on your PC, perfect for transferring directly to c:/drive or to a CD-RW writer. Anyone familiar with Windows Explorer will find transferring files a doddle. Alternatively, some USB-port Compact Flash readers will also take the IBM Microdrive, but I'm not sure that I'd want to be unplugging and plugging it back in too often - it all depends on how tough those crucial electrical contacts prove to be.



I haven't felt the need to use the supplied graphics software, as I am quite happy with Paint Shop Pro.



Batteries can be left in the camera, whilst multi-voltage charger is plugged in - essential when downloading to PC. The USB link isn't detected if you run it on batteries.



IFFY FEATURES



Being motor-driven (unlike Compact Flash Modules which are all electronic), the IBM Microdrive gets through the Lithium Ion battery somewhat quicker than I'd hoped, and I may well end up getting as large a Compact Flash II module as I can afford for long periods away from the mains. I see that 276 mb ones are available, which is within shouting distance of the Microdrive's 340 mb anyway. (Having said that, 1 gb Microdrives are now available!).



The IBM Microdrive is a tad (physically)smaller than its Compact Flash II counterpart, and as a result, recesses deeper into the connecting slot. This is not in itself a problem, but after working the ejection mechanism, you still need a good set of fingernails to get the drive out completely.



Now then, that digital zoom....personally, I don't think it's worth a lot. All it does is move into the middle of the selected frame blowing it up, pixels and all, therefore the coarseness of the picture increases.



Now, I don't know about you, but I can do this with Paint Shop Pro when I get home. I understand why they've done, i.e. to keep the camera dimensions down, but I still won't be using it. I know I could have bought the QV-3000 which has a genuine 3x optical zoom, but, a) it's larger and b), it has the cosmetic appeal of a bucket of frogs.



There is no pre-lighting arrangement for the flash, with the result that the auto-focus can sometimes be fooled in dark surroundings (parties/clubs etc).



I'm just guessing at the moment, but I don't think the Microdrive will prove as robust as the "solid-state" Compact Flash cards, so you probably need to treat your camera as gently as you would a laptop.



BUT WHAT OF THE RESULTS, LAD?



Outdoor results are excellent, as you would expect with a 3.34 maximum quality (yes I know it's been surpassed already, but you have to jump sometime).



My 1440 dpi Epson does them real justice on glossy A4 paper. All I need now is a new mortgage to buy the paper and the inks! Good job I'm not buying film too!



Colours seem as true as you'll get.



I've now run a "soak-test" to fill the drive, taking pictures of any old rubbish, but the results do at least seem to be good pictures of rubbish, so it's use on holiday looks certain! In reality, it looks as if I could afford to step the definition quality back one notch since there is little difference at A4 size, and this is as big as my printer goes.





VERDICT



Will I be junking in my celluloid cameras? - NO, if the truth be known, I quite like that certain "frisson" of excitement you get when you eagerly unwrap your latest package of photos from Boots or wherever.



Will I be taking a greater proportion of my photos digitally? - YES, with an impending 5-week holiday, it makes economic sense. I may still take my IXUS A.P.S. camera for panoramas though...



www.internetcamerasdirect.co.uk currently sell this for £598 + £20 for an extra year's guarantee, worth it, if my doubts over the Microdrive are founded.



They also give you a £15 credit to a photo printing and filing service on the web - all you do is upload your best shots, select a print size, and they do the rest using the best printers and materials. (I also got a free Hama pocket tripod, very useful).