TRIED & TESTED; SMALL-SCREEN STARS

Electronic holiday snaps on your home computer. Sounds like science- fiction? Our panel exposes the latest in digital camera technology

ACCORDING to the electronics industry, 1998's must-have accessory for the PC owner is the digital camera. These filmless cameras store images electronically until you input them to your PC. Once there, you can manipulate them, e-mail them to your friends and even rearrange or combine them before printing them out. The digital-camera market is in turmoil with prices tumbling and constant improvements in quality. So is it worth getting one yet? And if so, which one?

THE PANEL

Trying out the six cameras were Brian Hiller, a website designer; portrait photographer Wendy Bull; self-confessed computer virgin Ian Berry and his eight-year-old son Euan; Jim Wallace, an occasional snapshooter; and myself, Technical Editor of Amateur Photographer magazine.

THE TEST

We took a range of cameras from the most basic "image-capture devices", the digital equivalent to the point and shoot camera, through to the fully fledged cameras which use magnetic recording rather than film. The price of a camera most often relates to the resolution (that is, the number of pixels the camera breaks an image down into), as well as the provision of a colour monitor on the back of the camera. This monitor allows you to see the image you've taken instantly so that if it's not right, you can simply record over it with another picture. In judging, we looked at ease of shooting, picture quality, ease of transfer of images to the computer and ancillary features such as battery life, clarity and quality of colour monitor and memory capacity.

*PRAKTICA PD-100

pounds 299

This is the simplest of the cameras on test and it was with this camera that Ian Berry initially felt happiest. Wendy Bull was less enthusiastic: "The image quality is terrible, you can't change any facet of its operation. Nul points." Euan Berry liked "the way you see the images as you take them, and you can even print them out on a computer afterwards." Brian Hiller felt the resolution (320x240 pixels) of each image was "only just acceptable for use on-screen, but you couldn't really print from this." I thought it more or less typical of the first generation of simple, cheap and ultimately very, very limited digital cameras. Jim Wallace thought it looked and behaved pretty much like his pounds 20 point and shoot (35mm film) camera, and added: "but even I could tell the results aren't as good."

****AGFA EPHOTO1280

pounds 765

"This was very nearly my clear favourite," said Wendy Bull, "but why does it have to have a two-second advert for Agfa whenever you turn the thing on?" Brian Hiller agreed and also bemoaned the camera's slowness: "It takes great pictures, but I could probably paint them quicker." Euan was impressed by the 270-degree rotating lens and flash housing which let him "take pictures above my head and still see what's happening." I thought the excellent resolution and the flexible exposure system almost made up for the camera's sloth, and Ian Berry liked the menu navigation system making it "easy even for a plankhead like me to use." Jim Wallace was a bit concerned about "the battery mountain you need to have to use the Agfa".

*****SONY MAVICA MVC-FD5

pounds 450

This digital camera, our overall winner, is unique among the six on trial as images are recorded on to standard floppy disks. It therefore has to have a floppy-disk drive built in, so it is also one of the largest. Euan had problems with the size but found it had "the best screen. There's no flickering like some of the others." Brian Hiller thought it "perfect for where you only need screen-level resolution pictures" but not for printing them out. Wendy Bull was "grateful for the floppy-disk format. So much less tedious than playing about with wires to get images on to the computer." Ian Berry was impressed by "the sheer simplicity of the system. And it lasts a reasonable time before the battery needs recharging." The excellent menu system and joystick control was also very impressive. Jim Wallace called it "the complete digital camera, easy to use at every stage of the process."

**FUJI DX-5

pounds 249

The Fuji camera was the smallest and lightest of our selection, mainly as it does not have a built-in screen. "This is a camera I could get on with," said Brian Hiller, "it's so small you can take it anywhere, and has removable memory cards so you can take as many pictures as you like." Wendy Bull was a little nonplussed: "It's just a compact camera, taking not quite compact quality pictures." Euan Berry bemoaned the absence of a colour monitor, but liked "the way it says `hi' when you turn it on and `bye' when you turn it off". Jim Wallace thought it was easy to use and gave pretty good pictures. My own view was that if you didn't need a viewing screen, this camera would suffice for screen-based work.

***PENTAX EIC-90

pounds 599

For those who aren't sure if they want to have a viewing screen or not, the Pentax EIC-90 allows you to remove it, leaving a very pocketable camera. Wendy Bull thought it an "elegant solution to the seemingly insatiable appetite for batteries that digital cameras have." I was impressed with the amount of memory-storage capacity the removable memory cards give you. While Brian Hiller said that, as a laptop owner, "this would probably be the fastest solution for transferring images". Euan Berry "liked the flip-up screen and the way you can take it off." Jim Wallace lacked "any opinion at all on this one. It's neither good nor bad."

***OLYMPUS CAMEDIA C-1400L

pounds 1,295

This camera has great resolution, but battery consumption turned out to be a huge issue. "It took me one set of batteries for each memory card I filled," complained Ian Berry. "Why does it keep switching off?" plaintively asked son, Euan. "I expected to like this camera the most," said Wendy Bull, "but I'd have a couple of question marks over the focusing system." Brian Hiller said it was "very nearly perfect ... as long as you get a rechargeable battery set free with the camera." (You do.) While Jim Wallace was impressed with the results: "I must say I couldn't actually tell the print-outs from a real photograph. But it should be good considering it costs about 30 times more than I'm likely to spend on any camera."

STOCKISTS

Branches nationwide of PC World, Dixons, Jessop and Tecno for most models featured. Praktica 0181 953 1688; Olympus 0171 253 0513; Agfa 0181 560 2131; Sony (available from Sony stores nationwide); Pentax 01753 792792; Fuji 0171 586 5900.

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