For many mobile workers they are becoming as ubiquitous as the sketch pads of old. Available in prices from well under $300 to several times $3,000, they can be as simple and basic as a throwaway cardboard one-shot camera bought from a beachside vending machine or as sophisticated and complex as a special-purpose recorder for medical imaging.
For general-purpose field work, however, major considerations are usually price, size, durability and versatility. On the surface, the following three entries seem almost interchangeable. All are under $1,000. All are very compact at about 10 ounces and 5 by 3 by 2 inches. All have a 3:1 zoom ratio and about the same focal length (roughly equivalent to a 35 to 105mm lens in a 35mm SLR film camera). And all are capable of taking extremely high-quality digital images and outputting them to a computer, video monitor or compatible printer. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Each of these cameras offers a degree of specialty that makes them uniquely qualified to succeed in a business environment where specific needs require equally specific solutions.
Epson PhotoPC 750Z: Gonna find me a place in the sun.
If your primary digital camera users do most of their work outdoors and need the ability to accurately check the quality of their exposures before moving on to the next job, you'd be well advised to consider the very innovative PhotoPC 750Z.
As anyone who ever needs to use LCD monitors outdoors will readily admit, LCD-makers' claims of "daylight viewable" displays are as greatly exaggerated as Mark Twain's demise once was. Yes, they are "readable" in "daylight," but the colors tend to wash away and the details disappear in anything approaching bright sunlight. But not on the Epson's excellent two-inch color display panel.
Dubbed a "solar-assist LCD monitor," the unit features a sliding switch which turns off the LCD's backlight and simultaneously opens a sunlight-admitting slot at the top of the screen. The sunlight is thus "transformed" into the world's most powerful LCD backlight. With the screen brightness relatively the same as everything else the sun is falling on at the moment, colors remain pure and vivid and details easy to see even at high noon. You also save some runtime on the unit's four rechargeable NiMH double A's by having the internal backlight turned off.
Even without its optimized-for-daylight-use display panel, the Epson is a very serious, very capable digital camera suitable for both photographically challenged point-and-shooters and advanced amateurs. With a 1.3 million-pixel image sensor and a resolution of up to 1280 by 960 pixels with minimal JPEG compression, the 750Z can produce top-quality screen-filling images for Web sites, e-mail and electronic presentations and close to film-quality prints. The PhotoPC 750Z offers in-camera image enhancement-Epson's HyPict technology- which extrapolates image resolution to 1600 by 1200 pixels. Using HyPict you can produce astoundingly good prints up to 8 by 10 inches (or bigger with a large-format printer) without having to process the images through a photo-editing program first.
The 750Z comes with an 8-megabyte CompactFlash card and 4 megabytes of internal memory. Even with some of that 4 megabytes being used-optionally-to hold printer driver software, it's enough to store about 45 standard (640 by 480 pixel) images after the flash card is filled. At its highest resolution, the Epson will hold about 25 images in its 12 megabytes of standard storage.
Epson uses an all-glass, 3X optical zoom (which can be digitally doubled) with a maximum aperture of f2.8, quite fast for a digital zoom camera. Shutter speeds range from 1/4-second to 1/750 second and both "continuous" shooting and panorama modes are offered.
In addition to fully automatic operation, the camera features manual exposure compensation and white-balance settings, three levels of "film-sensitivity" settings, slow-speed shutter sync, NTSC composite video output and excellent battery life.
The Epson PhotoPC 750Z is priced at $700. For more information, contact Epson at www.epson.com/cam or call (310) 782-0770.
Olympus Camedia 2000: Professional results for serious photographers
You could deploy 2.1-million-pixel Camedia 2000s to all members of your sales force who need to take an occasional point-and-shoot snapshot of a product or location, but why bother? For the price-or maybe even twice the price, however-there is no better digital camera for doing serious photography on the road.
Compared to any camera, film or digital, in this form factor, the Camedia contains a staggering number of tools: a super-fast f2.0, eight-element all-glass lens with a 3:1 zoom ratio (which can be digitally increased 2.5 times), a 1/2 second to 1/800 second shutter, three exposure modes (automatic, aperture priority and shutter priority) identical to those in semi-professional 35mm SLR film cameras, a very intuitive user interface that also mimics those found on most semi-pro SLRs, off-camera single- and multiple-flash control, four flash-sync modes, including rear-curtain sync (a feature typically found only on high-end film cameras), multi-segmented or spot exposure metering, flash bracketing and exposure compensation in 1/3 f-stop increments. You name it and the Camedia can do it-but not for very long on a single set (or charge) of batteries, which is a true Achilles' heel in an otherwise excellent camera.
Powered by four double-A-size batteries (Olympus provides a set of rechargeable NiMH cells and a recharger free via a mail-in offer), the camera runs out of gas faster than any other non-Olympus digital camera I have ever used. While I would expect poor battery life at full resolution, with the Camedia's ultra-mega-pixel CCD creating huge 1600 by1200-pixel uncompressed TIF files, the rechargeable batteries die after about 40 or 50 images when shooting minimum-resolution 640- by 480-pixel JPEGs-alkaline batteries do even worse. The mortality rate for Camedia batteries is scandalously high whether you use flash on all the shots, half the shots or none of the shots, whether you use autofocus or manual focus, the LCD viewfinder or the excellent, diopter-correctible optical viewfinder.
If you're shooting at one of the higher resolutions and need a couple of minutes to set up each shot, you can easily run out of juice within ten exposures. And, if you intend to transfer more than a handful of images to a computer via the serial interface, you're best advised (by Olympus as well as me) to use the optional AC adapter. (Using a SmartMedia-to-PC Card adapter is a far preferable way to transfer images.)
Aside from that, the Camedia is, as noted, a great little camera. It will hold about 35 medium-resolution (1024 by 768 pixels with standard JPEG compression) images on its supplied 8 megabyte SmartMedia card. To further expand its capabilities, you can also use the same accessory telephoto and wide-angle lens converters made for Olympus' highly popular IS-3 35mm film cameras.
Given its extremely high resolution and ability to completely surmount the flash limitations of every other camera in its class, the Camedia is excellent for your mobile workers who need to take detailed, professional-quality images of products, prototypes, tooling or production samples in a mini-studio setting (like a desktop with a white cloth on it) where the camera can be used with an AC adapter.
The Olympus Camedia 2000 is priced at $999. For more information, contact Olympus at www.olympus.com or call (516) 844-5000.
Panasonic PalmCam PV-DC2590: Fax me that image. And do it now!
Viewed from the field, the most impressive feature of the new PalmCam is its compact modem, which allows users to directly send images as faxes to any standard fax machine or to transfer images directly to a PC or Mac running the PalmCam driver software included with the camera. You can even set up the camera to do time-lapse photography and dial in to download the images and erase them to reclaim space on the camera's CompactFlash card.
About the only drawback to the system (aside from the 56K speed barrier inherent in dial-up connections) is that it currently supports only peer-to-peer-and not e-mail-communications. Still, the ability for a rep to transfer images home without having to pack a computer can offer substantial cost and bulk savings under many circumstances.
Other than that, the PalmCam is a fine picture box, able to take short (about four-second) pseudo-movies as well as still images. Built around a 1.3-million-pixel CCD sensor offering a maximum resolution of 1280 by 960 pixels (at either high or low compression), it features an all-glass f2.8 lens with a 3:1 optical zoom ratio (which can be digitally doubled) and a standard 8 megabyte CompactFlash card. Since the modem is the same form factor as a CompactFlash card, two card slots are built in, allowing the use of an extra memory card when the modem isn't needed.
Though the PalmCam does offer manual exposure compensation, a spot-metering option and a choice of manual white-balance settings, it has fewer options for user intervention than the Epson or the Olympus. Flash options (auto/always on/always off/red-eye reduction) don't include sophisticated features like slow or rear-curtain sync, you can't manually select an aperture or shutter speed and the manual four-step zone-focus system has no particular purpose that I could uncover beyond providing approximately correct focusing in conditions that befuddle auto-focus systems-a true manual-focus solution would have been much better. There is, for example, a macro-focus option that sets the focus to 7.8 inches. Since the auto-focus system already has a minimum focus distance of 7.8 inches, the macro mode seems totally superfluous.
There are, however, some very useful features, such as a black-and-white shooting mode for better reproduction of images to be faxed and an innovative standby mode that powers-down the camera without retracting the zoom lens into the "off" position, thereby reducing the time needed to wake the camera up and grab a picture.
The PalmCam's flash system, which is almost perfectly integrated with the camera's exposure and focus controllers, is superb. It didn't wash out subjects at its minimum range (7.8 inches) and it didn't fall off appreciably at its maximum range (about 10 feet). Typically, with small point-and-shoot cameras (digital or film), if you frame a computer in the middle of a table (or a cat on a carpet) the subject (computer or cat) will be perfectly in focus but not perfectly exposed. A poorly designed parallax-correction scheme will render the area of the table (or carpet) in front of the subject too light and the subject itself too dark, forcing you to change the framing to light the subject correctly. Not so with the Panasonic.
The PalmCam PV-DV2590 will take about 130 "fine" (1,280- by 960-pixel high-compression) images on its set of four double-A-sized alkaline batteries if the flash isn't used on more than half the pictures. Panasonic offers a free set of rechargeable NiMH cells, which should last longer, and a charger through a mail-in offer.
If there is one nit to pick about this camera, it is the owner's manual-a throwback to the old days when comedians could make a living standing on stage and reading the English instructions for Japanese electronics. If it were merely semi-literate, it would be an annoying, but "who cares," deal. Unfortunately, many of the malapropisms (such as claiming that "backlit" subjects are very bright) are a full 180 degrees off-kilter and will cause readers to use exactly the opposite settings necessary to get a satisfactory picture.
The Panasonic PalmCam PV-DC2590 is priced at $799.95. For more information, contact Panasonic at www.panasonic.com or call (800) 272-7033.