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Cheap Enough for a Toy, Sharp Enough for a Serious Image


Digital cameras are getting so good, so fast that it is almost not worth buying one. Every six months or so, some camera company comes out with a new generation of cheaper, sharper camera, which usually blows the previous generation out of the water.

Nowhere is this more true than in the under-$150 category, which barely existed a year ago. Back then, there were cameras such as the Nick Click or the Barbie Photo Designer, but they were really just children's toys. Even the best of the bunch, the JamCam 2.0, turned out only passable snapshots.

What a difference a few months can make.

I/O Magic, an Irvine maker of computer peripherals, recently introduced a $150 digital camera, the MagicImage 500, that is the first one that can proclaim it is not a toy.

It is the first digital camera under $150 to offer near megapixel resolution--a three-fold increase in detail and sharpness over the JamCam 2.0.

Each dot in an image is called a pixel, a picture element. The more pixels, the sharper the image.

Professional digital cameras, which cost up to $1,000, have resolutions of over 3 million pixels (or 3 megapixels), resulting in crystal-sharp photos.

The MagicImage 500, which has a maximum resolution of about 0.8 megapixels, isn't in that league, but it can turn out images that are more than adequate for posting on a Web page or sending to friends via e-mail.

The camera also has a load of features usually only found on much more expensive cameras, including flash, removable memory and close-up capabilities.

It takes very good pictures for such an inexpensive camera and it is easy to use and set up.

The camera is aimed at the beginning digital photographer--people who just want to experiment a bit with this new medium or need a low-cost way to get digital images for Web pages. It also is a great camera for children to learn about photography because it only takes a few minutes to download a batch of photos and display them on a computer screen.

The MagicImage 500 is missing some of bells and whistles found on more expensive cameras, such as a built-in LCD preview screen, a required feature on most digital cameras today.

Its images are not as sharp as the more expensive megapixel cameras and its flash doesn't seem to work very well for me indoors or close-up.

But considering that most 1-megapixel cameras usually cost $300 and up, the shortcomings of the MagicImage 500 are not that bad.

The camera is about the size of a small stack of 3.5-inch floppy disks. Although it is convenient to carry around, its square shape seems a bit awkward. I guarantee that you will take at least a few shots of your finger covering the lens before you figure out how best to hold it.

The camera comes with its own photo editing software and a standard SmartMedia memory card that can hold up to 4 megabytes of images--about 35 high-resolution shots or 45 lower resolution shots.

You can buy extra cards at most computer stores, or expand the memory by buying higher capacity memory cards--up to 32 megabytes, which cost about $50.

The camera has two modes: high resolution at 1,280 by 960 pixels (this is achieved with some software manipulation of the image) and low resolution at 1,024 by 768 pixels.

After years of fooling around with digital cameras, I was surprised that images this good could come out of a $150 camera.

The pictures are still a bit soft, but they are light years beyond the typical 640 by 480 pixel resolution that was the best in the under-$150 category.

The camera even has a tripod screw mount on the bottom--a nice touch for a camera that is cheap enough to be sold as a kid's toy.

As you would expect, there are many shortcomings in a camera this inexpensive. If I were writing about the Barbie cam, I wouldn't even bother mentioning some of the problems.

But the MagicImage inhabits an interesting niche--it is cheap enough to be a toy, but also good enough to be taken seriously.

The result is an occasional feeling of frustration that it can't do some things very well. Then I have to remind myself of its price. It may still seem high, but in this early stage of digital cameras, the price is actually about rock bottom.

The biggest problem with the camera is that it can't handle a very broad range of shooting conditions.

It has a hard time with scenes that are too bright or too dark. While good point-and-shoot cameras can easily handle these variances in lighting conditions, the MagicImage 500 can't. I seem to have had my best luck either shooting outside at dusk or indoors with good florescent lighting.

Its focal range also is very restricted--the minimum is four feet. You can switch to the macro setting for close-ups, but you can't shoot any farther away than eight inches. That restriction makes the camera a tough choice for people who want to use it for photos to accompany EBay auction items.

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