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PDAs Are Focusing on Digital Photography

July 26, 2001|MARK A. KELLNER |

The joining of a PDA with a digital camera is one of those magical, odd combinations, like chocolate and oranges.

Why should a personal digital assistant have photo capabilities? Why not have add-ons such as PDA-controlled can openers or expansion card tear-gas guns?

As it turns out, PDAs and digital cameras were made to be merged. Together, they make a wonderfully convenient package that opens a whole new world of functionality for hand-held computers.

There are lots of trade-offs in going with a PDA camera versus buying a dedicated digital camera--the chief ones being a relatively low-image resolution of 640 by 480 pixels or less, the smaller number of photos that can be stored on a PDA and the lack of a built-in flash.

However, despite these shortcomings, there is an alchemy to this merger that really makes sense. One nice benefit is that while on the road, you have one fewer item to carry.

The popularity of digital photography is growing. A Boston-based market research firm, InfoTrends Research Group Inc., estimates that sales of digital cameras will reach 9.4 million units in 2001, a 55% increase over 2000.

Three cameras are leading the pack for PDA users: Hewlett-Packard's Pocket Camera for its Jornada hand-held, Kodak's PalmPix for Palm devices and Blocks Products' eyemodule2 for Handspring Visors.

Hewlett-Packard Jornada Pocket Camera

HP's Pocket Camera, with a street price of $145, is perhaps the most versatile camera of its kind. It has several image capture modes (auto, slow, action, night and manual), and it can take photos in color, black and white, sepia and 'cool' digital modes, the latter offering a blue hue to pictures.

The device has a lens that rotates 180 degrees for greater convenience and a built-in shutter button and viewfinder. It also has on-screen displays that offer both a larger viewfinder image and on-screen shutter button.

Another nice feature allows you to add a short voice memo to a photo, which can be e-mailed along with the picture to others.

The Pocket Camera is my current favorite because of its elegance (a nice metallic look poking out from the top of a Jornada's compact flash slot) and versatility (the rotating lens).

The Pocket Camera comes with software that allows users to view and manipulate their images on a desktop PC. The software has its limits, but it is easy to use--something novice users will appreciate.

One problem is that HP's Jornada PDA, like all devices using Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, synchronizes only with Windows-based computers.

But the price is not bad (comparable to other PDA cameras) and the benefits are certainly worth it.

Blocks Products eyemodule2

The eyemodule2 snaps onto the top of a Handspring Visor and takes images in color and black and white. It also can take short--and I do mean short--video clips.

The device is a vast improvement over the original eyemodule, delivering pictures with a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. The video is OK but nowhere near good enough to replace a real video camera.

As with the HP device, the eyemodule2 turns a Handspring's display screen into a viewfinder, while the shutter is controlled from the camera itself. Exposure controls are somewhat limited with just "normal," "brighten" and "darken." Text notes for a picture can be entered using the Graffiti handwriting system common to all Palm devices. The notes and pictures can sync up to desktop PCs and Macintoshes using software supplied by Blocks Products.

With a street price of $200, it is the most expensive of the cameras tested. But for Handspring users, the eyemodule2's simplicity and consistent quality make it a pleasure to use.

Kodak PalmPix

The $99 PalmPix has a nice price, but it is my least favorite of the three models tested. The device fits on the Palm III, Palm V, Palm Vx and Palm III-compatibles such as the HandEra.

The PalmPix takes 640-by-480-pixel images, stores them on a Palm and then has software to upload the snaps to a PC or Macintosh. Unlike the other cameras, there's no shutter button built into the camera clip-on; the PalmPix relies on one of the Palm's function buttons instead.

This shutter business fed my disappointment with the PalmPix. Of all people, Kodak should know that users almost instinctively look for a shutter button on the camera. Also, the PalmPix was the only PDA camera tested that required the addition of two AAA batteries, as opposed to drawing power from the PDA. Though this helps conserve the PDA's power, it really just makes users worry about two more batteries that need to be replaced.

Images taken with the camera show up very nicely on a PC screen. Kodak also has PalmPix software that will work on a Macintosh, another plus.

But I wonder if there isn't someone else out there who can develop an add-on camera for Palm devices that avoids some of Kodak's surprising rough edges.

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