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-- by Cheryl Dominianni
It's time to start thinking about going digital with your photo habit. You might not have a digital camera yet, but with price tags as low as $500 to $600 these sharpshooters are moving toward the mainstream. You can even accessorize these entry-level models with wide-angle and telephoto lenses.
I looked at three newcomers in this price range-the Agfa ePhoto 307, the Epson PhotoPC 500 and the Olympus D-200L. One thing to keep in mind is that these economy-minded units use a single charge-coupled device (a photosensitive chip that acts like film by turning images into pixels), while professional units use three of higher quality. It's a fast means to get photos into your PC, but image quality won't win over true shutterbugs.
Digital cameras have been a long time coming onto the corporate scene, and in some circles are still regarded as something of a novelty. But they're not simply another expensive toy for those who have it all, or a convenient-if low-resolution-way for the latest baby pictures to land on the family holiday cards. Digital images are far easier (and less expensive) to control and archive, and require far less in the way of consumables than conventional photography. Increasingly, businesses are finding the digital camera to be a convenient, cost-effective way to move images where they're needed as quickly as possible.
The real estate, legal and insurance industries saw the potential of low-end digital cameras early on-these devices are already in widespread use to capture images for sales advertisements and process legal insurance claims, areas where a few days' delay can spell disaster. Transmitting a product image in response to a customer query, which formerly was limited to stock shots orlengthy photo sessions, becomes a matter of point-shoot-and-e-mail with a digital camera.
Digital images also facilitate Internet commerce by making it possible to quickly post new product images on a Web site. Human resources departments can use the digital camera for fast turnaround of employee ID cards.
Though relatively inexpensive, the three cameras I tested still offer 24-bit color and two resolution choices-either 320x240 (standard) or 640x480 (high) pixels. Standard resolution is acceptable for on-screen applications, but high resolution is needed for hard-copy images. For overall quality, I found that the Olympus provided images with sharper, more accurate colors and captured small details with greater clarity. The quality of the Epson and Agfa images was similar, but Agfa had the edge for detail and color accuracy.
Each device has different storage capacities: The Olympus captures 80 images at standard resolution and 20 at high resolution. The Agfa holds 72 and 36, while the Epson provides 60 and 30. Epson offers two optional PhotoSpan memory modules-2MB for $149 and 4MB for $249-for a maximum of 100 high- and 200 standard-resolution images. Neither the Agfa nor the Olympus has expandable memory options. However, the Olympus' built-in LCD panel allows you to view the photos taken, which effectively boosts memory because you don't waste storage space with unwanted images. The Epson has an optional LCD panel for $199. Agfa has no plans to offer an LCD panel or expandable storage at this time.
The Agfa and the Epson units are similar-they're both box-shaped with nearly identical control panels on top. The Agfa measures 3.2 by 5.5 by 1.9 inches and weighs 9.9 ounces, while the Epson measures 5.5 by 3.2 by 2.1 inches and weighs 10.6 ounces. With its curved shape, the 10.4-ounce Olympus measures 5.7 by 2.8 by 1.8 inches and sports the look and feel of a conventional camera. All three cameras use four alkaline AA batteries. I had better results using lithium AAs in the Olympus because of the LCD panel's power demands. AC adapters are optional.
These cameras are virtually point and shoot; the only setting you can change is the resolution. Shutter speeds and focus are set automatically. All three cameras include self-timers and built-in flashes with red-eye reduction. Because autofocus begins at 2 feet, the cameras are not suited for close-up photography, though the Olympus employs a close-up macro for shots under 2 feet. The relatively low resolutions also mean that you won't be able to effectively enlarge images-they become distorted.
All three cameras use a serial port cable to transfer images to your PC. Once the pictures are there, the bundled software and documentation become important. The hands-down winner for best documentation is the Epson, with a thorough, easy-to-understand manual that includes an index. It explains camera operation in detail and gives complete instructions for enhancing your images. The less-detailed Agfa manual provides the basic information and a foldout camera illustration for reference. Both Agfa and Epson make it simple to download images from the cameras in JPG format, save them in albums and rename the images. Agfa provides QuickLink, an easy way to drag and drop images into OLE-compliant applications like Microsoft Word. (A word of caution: If you plan to manipulate and edit images, you'll probably need 16MB of RAM on your PC.)
The Olympus software and documentation were poor. The manual thoroughly describes the camera but doesn't deal with the images. Olympus relies on the provided Adobe PhotoDeluxe software to download images, and only one photo at a time can be downloaded as a result. In addition, you must export files to save them to a JPG format, otherwise they're saved with a proprietary PhotoDeluxe extension. Olympus acknowledged the problem and provided me with a temporary fix (also supplied to customers) that downloads images directly to disk in JPG format and offers a thumbnail view. By the time you read this, improved software should be included.
Both the Epson and the Agfa models produce acceptable images, and their software and documentation make them good choices for getting photos into your PC. The Olympus offers the best image quality and an LCD panel, but its software and documentation are not yet up to par. When they are, the Olympus D-200L will be a candidate for our Recommended List.
Epson PhotoPC 500
Platforms: 3x, 95, NT
Pros: JPEG support; ease of use; documentation; optional memory suitable for high-volume use
Cons: LCD panel optional
Platforms: 3x, 95
Pros: Sharp images; built-in LCD panel good for presentations
Cons: Proprietary formats; documentation