Design: The techie way to take a pic

Snap away to your heart's content and never buy a film again; oh the joy of going digital.

AS A recent arrival to the iMac age, I am wedded to the idea of digital technology being easy to use, straight out of the box.

These days we're all conversant with taking snaps on anything from throwaway cameras to state-of-the-art SLRs. But how easy is it to pick up a digital camera and take decent pictures? If you're able to play computer games or visit the Internet, then you really shouldn't have that much of a problem, and the idea of creating (possibly also manipulating) and then printing your own pictures without having to ferry the film to a photo shop to be processed is attractive. And there is a huge choice out there, ranging from entry-level pounds 100 cameras to advanced pieces of equipment costing more than pounds 5,000.

The cameras we have reviewed cost between pounds 350 and pounds 650. The price pretty much determines the quality of the final picture. Where they quote resolution, the higher the numbers (eg 1280x1024), the sharper your enlargements.

All the cameras give you choices about taking pictures at various quality settings, and this controls the number of images you can store; fewer at high quality, more at basic quality. Storage is on a memory card, which may be between two and eight megabytes. But the beauty is that you have an instant display from the screen on the camera's back; if you don't like what you've taken you can dump it. On all these cameras - except the Kodak - the bonus of the screen is the ability to view a live image and to compose without looking through the viewfinder.

The cameras come with a variety of extras: manuals, cables to connect to the television and computer and CD-roms with useful software.

I liked the fact that the Fuji MX-700 put all the software on one CD- rom instead of two or more, like the others. Nikon made life simple by providing a single sheet of paper with all the camera's functions explained and put the boring stuff on to a CD-rom for reference when necessary.

There's one other aspect of buying a new toy: style. Here the Fuji MX- 700 wins hands down. It is small and perfectly formed to go in a pocket and comes with funky controls and displays. I wasn't so keen on the looks of the Nikon Coolpix 900, but its swivel lens is a brilliant concept, allowing you to shoot over people's heads in a crowd and see what you're taking on an LCD screen.

The Olympus Camedia C840L is a neat little camera, and I liked the sliding cover, which protects the lens when not in use. The Kodak DC210 plus is hardly a design icon, but the controls are clear and simple to use.

The Camedia's controls are not intuitive and the symbols by each button are rather obscure. The Fuji makes setting up before taking a picture great fun with electronic bleeps and flashing lights, but it offers too many options. Also, like the Camedia, the MX700 has a digital zoom, which is not really a zoom at all. You either get wide-angle or telephoto; nothing in between.

Both the Coolpix 900 and the DC210 plus have optical zooms, giving many more framing options. The Coolpix, although not a thing of beauty, handles easily and gives superb results.

The writer is a practising advertising photographer

Kodak DC210 plus (cpounds 380)

Pro: easy to use, optical zoom Con: no live screen image

Olympus Camedia C840L (pounds 425) Pro: good lens, clear monitor, sliding lens cover

Con: controls difficult to master

Fuji MX-700 (cpounds 450)

Pro: pocket size, style object

Con: digital, not optical zoom

Nikon Coolpix 900 (cpounds 620)

Pro: excellent image quality

Con: strange looks

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