Competition in the digital- camera market is heating to a boil. While companies such as Kodak, Nikon, and Olympus focus on quality and innovation, others are more interested in simply meeting a demand. This may explain why Toshiba, Ricoh, and Casio?hardly big names in camera circles?are the first to offer megapixel devices for less than $500.
But for $499, you shouldn’t expect impeccable image quality. Of the three, the Toshiba PDR-M1 fares best. Like Fuji’s $799 MX-700?which relies on the same CCD, lens, and internal hardware?the PDR-M1 captures fine details that hold up well to Adobe Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask. The downside is that the colors often appear faded, with a yellow cast. The softer images from Ricoh’s RDC-4200 tend to drift toward blue, with exaggerated contrast between light and dark. The Ricoh camera also has problems with blown highlights, so that sunny skies almost always turn white. The worst photos come from the Casio QV-5000SX. The blurry focus, gummy edges, and severe purple cast of its images challenge the skills of even the most accomplished imaging technicians.
One step up from the PDR-M1 is Agfa’s ePhoto 1680. Although the company states that the camera has resolutions of up to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels?nearly 2 million in all?this is a function of software interpolation. The 1680’s CCD is actually the same size as those in the Casio and Ricoh models, and it likewise captures 1,280 by 960 pixels. Fortunately, the detail is just as crisp as with the Toshiba and Fuji models. The colors tend to be a bit understated, but without the yellow cast. The bad news is the $899 asking price, nearly twice that of the Toshiba PDR-M1.
Kodak’s $999 DC260, even in diffused or overcast lighting, delivers vivid, accurate colors with rich sculptural details. And unlike the Agfa, it earns its higher price by supplying more pixels than any other camera in the roundup.
Storage and Connectivity
Most of these cameras store images on wafer-thin SmartMedia cards. The Fuji and Toshiba models are the most flexible, accepting 3.3V and older 5V cards; the Agfa and Ricoh accept the 3.3V variety only. But whereas the Agfa, Ricoh, and Toshiba models ship with 4MB cards, the Fuji includes only a skimpy 2MB card.
Kodak’s DC260 uses a removable 8MB CompactFlash card, thicker than the SmartMedia but more resilient as well. The Casio QV-5000SX features 8MB of hardwired memory.
These days, removable storage also translates to faster downloading. If your computer includes a PC Card reader?as most PowerBooks do?you can purchase a SmartMedia or CompactFlash adapter for about $100. You remove the card from the camera, stick it in the adapter, and slide the adapter into the computer’s PC Card slot. Copying 8MB of images takes about 10 seconds; erase the card and you’re ready for more. By contrast, your only option with the Casio is to connect it to your Mac’s sluggish serial port and wait about 20 minutes to copy 8MB of images?and that’s when the gods are smiling. More often, Casio’s transfer utility has problems finding the camera?this happened every time we tried to download images.
In an about-face, the DC260 is the only camera we’ve used that cannot shuttle images directly to the Mac, by serial cable or otherwise. Kodak forces you to use a PC Card adapter, which you must purchase separately. If you don’t have one, your only option is to cable the DC260 to a PC. Kodak is currently beta-testing software that permits iMac owners to download images via a USB cable.
Batteries, Zoom, and Other Finery
The Agfa, Kodak, and Ricoh models provide continuous 3 x optical zooms so you can close in on your subject. (The others offer fake “digital” zooms, which merely enlarge pixels.) The Kodak DC260 lets you preview the zoom via either an optical or an LCD viewfinder; the ePhoto 1680 and RDC-4200 lack optical viewfinders and force you to use the power-hungry LCD. Thankfully, Agfa bundles rechargeable batteries to feed the LCD and provides an enhanced night view for shooting in low light; Ricoh does neither.
If bells and whistles appeal to you, the DC260 is too sexy for its lens cap. It’s the only under-$1,000 model we’ve seen that permits timed exposures (up to 4 seconds), time-lapse photography, and user-defined scripts.
If we had to recommend just one under-$1,000 camera, it would continue to be the Olympus D-600L, which has a unique SLR viewfinder and first-rate image quality, even if it does capture fewer pixels than the DC260. But for those whose main concern is image quality?and who have a PowerBook and a PC Card reader?the DC260 is a serious contender, clearly one of the very best.