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Smile! Digital Cameras Are Getting Better, Easier to Use

May 31, 1999|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

In the past I've expressed some reservations about digital cameras, but while the prices are still steep enough to scare away many buyers, the quality and ease of use are finally making them suitable for most consumers.

Although there are some caveats, there are several things I prefer about digital compared with film. For one thing, you save the cost of film and processing. Another is that digital is instantaneous. On Mother's Day, I used a digital camera to take a photo of my wife, her sister and her mother, and a few minutes later I presented the three moms with 8-by-10 prints of their group portrait.

Still another advantage is the ability to quickly edit a digital photo. You can frame, or crop, the photo, change colors and touch it up if you find something that isn't quite right.

Finally, digital cameras are great if you want photos for a Web site or want to e-mail photos to friends and family. I take a digital camera along on family vacations and sometimes post pictures on a private area of my Web site from my hotel. We then e-mail the link to friends and family so that they can vicariously enjoy our travels while we're still on the road. Admittedly, this is a bit geeky, but once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy to do and lots of fun.

The downside is that digital cameras are more expensive than film cameras and, even though you don't buy film, you can spend as much as $1 a sheet for high-quality glossy paper for your printer.

If you're looking for the utmost quality, stick with film. Even a $1,000 digital camera has far less resolution than film. But I'm not sure it matters for most pictures. I can tell the difference between a print from a film camera and a glossy print from a digital camera, but I have to work at it.

As when buying any high-tech equipment, you will be confronted with all sorts of specifications for digital cameras. While "specs" can be important, it's important to keep in mind that they don't tell the whole story. How a camera feels in your hand, how it looks and, most of all, how the pictures look can mean as much or more than the specifications.

The first spec you'll come across is resolution, measured in pixels, which indicates how much actual information the camera captures. Entry-level cameras are typically rated at 640 by 480, which means that they capture 640 pixels horizontally by 480 vertically for a total of 307,200 pixels per image. That's a lot less resolution than the more expensive cameras, but it's enough if you plan to view the images just on a PC screen or produce small (less than 4-by-5-inch) prints.

If you want larger prints or higher-resolution images, then you're better off spending a bit more money for a high-resolution camera. The next level up usually operates at about 1,024 by 768 (just under 800,000 pixels), followed by so-called mega-pixel cameras that capture more than a million pixels.

In addition to resolution, another important spec is the amount of memory the camera comes with. Some digital cameras have only built-in memory, which means all images must be stored in the camera. The better ones accept memory cards that come in various capacities, including 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and even 80 megabytes.

There are two types of memory cards, CompactFlash and SmartMedia. Both are quite compact, and in both cases you can purchase multiple cards so you always have extra "film" on hand. SmartMedia cards are thinner, but CompactFlash cards, which are more popular, come in larger capacities. One advantage of SmartMedia, however, is that you can buy a floppy disk adapter that lets you transfer files between the memory card and your personal computer.

The way you transfer files between a camera and a PC can be one of the most important features of the device. With any camera that has a SmartMedia or CompactFlash, you can buy a carrier that lets you use a PC card slot to transfer files from the card to the PC. This works out great if you have a laptop because they typically have one or more PC Card slots. But if you have a desktop PC, you'll need to purchase an optional PC card reader or a device that reads CompactFlash cards directly, such as the ImageMate from SanDisk that plugs into a PC's or iMac's universal serial bus, or USB, port.

Speaking of floppy disks, Sony makes a line of cameras called Mavika that have a built-in floppy disk drive so you can easily transfer files via floppy from the camera to the PC. It's convenient, but you're limited to files that are no more than 1.4 megabytes.

Another way to transfer files between a camera and a PC is via cable. Older cameras use either a parallel or serial cable, but some of the newer ones have a USB cable that is much faster. If you have a PC with a USB port, it makes a lot of sense to get a USB camera because it's not only faster but also more convenient.

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