Apple brushes up on electronic images: Digital cameras are starting to fall in price but further improvement is still needed. Stephen Pritchard reports

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The latest gadget to be launched by Apple is not a computer at all, but an electronic camera designed for desktop publishing and multimedia. Quicktake 100 expected to appeal especially to specialist markets, including education and graphics. This makes sense because, although Quicktake at an expected street price of about pounds 630 (including VAT) is not expensive as these things go - its nearest rival, Canon's Ion R260, costs about pounds 850 - the price is probably too high for it to succeed simply as a consumer product.

As a computer accessory, Quicktake works rather well. On the Macintosh, it is a case of plugging in the cable, installing the software according to on-screen instructions and copying pictures to the host computer's hard disk. Then the photographs can be viewed or transferred to standard graphics or desktop publishing packages for reproduction. The camera can also be controlled from the computer.

As a camera, it is weaker. The Quicktake is designed as a point-and-shoot 'compact' camera: the photographer views the subject through a separate viewfinder rather than through the main lens, as on a professional single-lens reflex camera. It is about the size and weight of a Filofax and sits neatly in the hand. The layout is simple: just one button on the top that fires the shutter and four small ones surrounding a rear display controlling the flash, resolution, self-timer and erase button. Focusing and exposure are both automatic and the Quicktake is quiet, with none of the mechanical clunking of a conventional 35mm camera.

The internal memory can hold 32 'standard' resolution pictures (320 x 240 pixels) or eight at high resolution (640 x 480 pixels). Once the memory is full, the pictures must be copied to a computer and the camera erased to make room for more. Image quality is fair, at least on screen, but the resolution and colour balance are probably not good enough for printing, without further manipulation in Photoshop or a similar program to clean up and enhance electronic images.

My test pictures of Durham cathedral showed that while the camera coped well enough with the sky and foreground trees, it found the subtle shades of the stone of the cathedral harder going.

The camera was tested on a Mac with 16-bit video processing capability - making available 32,000 colours. This is less than the optimum 16.7 million colours available via more powerful add-on video cards, but more than the standard 256 colours on most Macs or PC-compatibles. In general with more colours available, the more realistic the image will look, because more subtle gradations can be represented. With the monitor switched to 256 colours, the colours in the images became quite unrealistic, looking rather like the work of an impressionist painter.

The need for an add-on video card and the amount of memory required to work with colour files is a hidden cost of digital imaging that applies to all systems, not just the Quicktake. It is hard to see the Quicktake making much of an impression on professional photography. Its resolution and the low number of high-quality images it can store will prove a barrier, as will the fixed lens and the lack of user controls over exposure. The small size and light weight of the camera is not that useful if it has to be backed up to a portable computer in the field, although this would not be a problem in the studio.

Where photographs are intended for on-screen display the Quicktake is a better option. Illustrated databases or product catalogues, personnel files, even estate agents' sales materials could benefit from the ease with which the Quicktake allows pictures to be transferred to the computer.

Its price may make it viable for use in schools or colleges as a shared resource, especially as it has no running costs once it has been bought, unlike a conventional camera. For the computer owner with a 35mm camera who wants to experiment with on-screen imaging, a Photo-CD compatible CD-rom player costing about pounds 200 offers better resolution at the cost of using an outside lab. Alternatively, a flat bed scanner costing under pounds 1,000 will give surprisingly good results with standard colour prints and excellent ones from a professionally printed enlargement.

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