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Picture Looks Brighter for $200 Digital Cameras

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Spending $200 for a digital camera used to buy you a toy, or to put it more generously, a novelty.

For that price, you did get the convenience and cool aspects of digital photography--the ability to view a picture and download it to a computer to send in an e-mail--all without visiting a photo processing store.

Picture quality at that price, however, was not exactly something Richard Avedon would admire. Cameras generally turned out images rated at 1 megapixel or less.

That sounds like a lot, but a 1-megapixel picture--meaning the image consists of a million color dots--lacks depth and becomes a bit fuzzy and washed-out-looking when blown up to anything much more than wallet size.

Also, cameras at that price came equipped with undistinguished lenses that had difficulty capturing moving objects, such as people acting naturally.

But that was then. Three big names in digital imaging--Fuji, Hewlett-Packard and Kodak--now have 2-megapixel cameras on the market that sell for about $200 or less.

That's still not professional level, and most film cameras at the $200 level can turn out images of superior technical quality when compared with their digital cousins.

At 2 megapixels, however, the images are certainly respectable. In a picture I took at a local dog park, even the whiskers on an adorable mutt, who stood still as long as I held a treat in my hand, are distinct and sharp. The colors are vibrant and you can easily see the anticipation in his eyes, even on a print made on a home inkjet printer.

Furthermore, these lightweight point-and-shoot digital cameras are fun.

They each have auto focus, automatic built-in flash, macro mode for close-up work and a viewing screen that allows you to frame a shot before clicking the shutter. (When bright or low-light conditions make using the screen difficult, a built-in optical viewfinder can be used.)

After taking a shot, you can review it on the screen and decide whether it's worth saving.

Each of these cameras come with software and cables to transfer pictures to a computer via a Universal Serial Bus port (almost all home computers of fairly recent vintage have USB ports).

Once in the computer, pictures can be edited, printed, e-mailed or posted on Web pages.

So much for the good news. The lenses on these $200 digitals are still not very flexible. Pictures taken at fairly close range look best--the only zoom capability is digital and of limited use. Worst of all, the subjects have to be almost entirely still for the pictures to be sharp.

And because there is a delay between engaging the shutter and capturing the image, a moving object can be well out of the frame by the time the picture is taken.

When the cameras are set for optimal quality, some can hold only seven pictures with their standard memory.

And the cameras are battery hogs, especially when downloading--you will want to buy the optional AC adapters available for two of the three cameras tested.

But even with these drawbacks--the most serious of which is the difficulty in capturing a decent picture of moving subjects--$200 can now buy a lot of digital camera.

And the progress that has been made bodes well for the future.

Kodak DX3500

Of the three cameras tested, this one was the winner based on image quality, versatility and out-of-the-box ease of use. To turn on the camera, you simply flip a lever on the lens: One click for regular photography and two for close-ups (9 to 12 inches away from the subject).

The first time you fire up the camera, the screen will take you through a sequence to set the date and time (you can choose to have your pictures time/date stamped).

You also can decide in which resolution you want to shoot: The "good" setting produces half-megapixel images and "best" produces 2.2-megapixel images.

On the "good" setting, the camera's internal memory can hold about 50 pictures; on "best" it can hold about 12.

Use of an optional 16 megabyte CompactFlash memory card raises the total capacity to 150 and 36, respectively.

The only quibble with the image-quality choices is that it would be nice to have an in-between selection.

It's easy to tell what quality mode you are in--one star appears on the viewing screen for "good" and two stars for "best." Other indicators on the screen tell you how many pictures you have left and battery status.

A nice feature of the DX3500 is that you can lock a picture in the memory to prevent its accidental erasure (a particularly handy feature when you are just getting used to the camera and likely--if you are like me--to erase an image you meant to keep).

The software is easy to install on both the Windows and Macintosh operating systems and downloading is accomplished by plugging in the cable and making a few mouse clicks.

Kodak sells an optional docking system that is supposed to make the transfer easier, but it doesn't seem necessary even for a klutz like me.

Unfortunately, the DX3500 does not have an AC adapter, although the optional dock doubles as a battery recharger.

Fuji FinePix A201

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