Making a (Features) List
By Mike Pasini, Editor
Imaging Resource Newsletter
'Twas the night before the last 20 shopping days before Christmas and the phone was beeping like a smoke alarm. "Yeah, who is it?" we heard our recording answer as we checked the snooze alarm. Three a.m.
"Mike! Mike!! Mike!!! Pick up! It's your brother-in-law Chezzie!!!"
No rolling over. But no rush either. Chezzie records messages only a bit shorter than director-cut audio books. Were there such a thing.
"I was down at Cameras & Kaboodles again yesterday and I finally found it!! The perfect digital camera! Perfect, Mike, perfect!!! I wanted to know if you know about it and whether I should get the extended warranty and ..."
We picked up before we could be assaulted by another exclamation point.
"Chezzie, do you know what time it is?" Of course he knows. He lives three blocks away.
"Yeeees," he pretends we've insulted his intelligence. "But I've been drinking this fantastic new coffee from Moonbullion and I don't really want to sleep any more! At all!!! It's fantastic!"
"You said that," we observed to reassure him we were paying attention. "What's this camera you found."
"It's a Praktica Something or Other, I don't remember."
"You don't remember the model?"
"Details! No," he caffeinized. "But tell me, Mike, since you're such an expert. Is it a good camera?"
"Is what a good camera?"
"Ah, Mike!!! Really! I don't remember the name of it. Praktica or Aetna or Bazooka something. Something like that! But it had 3.75 megapixels and two zoom lenses and it made real cappuccino."
"Intriguing. Did you like the pictures it takes?"
"But how could I see pictures unless I buy it?!?" he said with some disdain for our expertise.
"By going to the Comparometer (http://www.imaging-resource.com/IMCOMP/COMPS01.HTM) at the Imaging Resource site, like I told you. Dave just did a megawombo update."
"You haven't been to the site?"
"Sure, sure, I've been," he lied through his coffee-colored teeth.
That's when it occurred to me I could write without fear of embarrassing Chezzie about his problem. Which is a common one this time of year. Not getting snowed by featuritis but remembering to check for the most important features when that old purchasing impulse sweeps over you.
So (at the risk of seeming Scroogish) here's One Guy's Opinion on the Big Picture. Grain of salt not included.
Top Digicam Features
You may find some very low-end cameras at your local purveyor for under $50. They typically sport a 640x480-pixel image size with a fixed-focus wide-angle lens and a cable connection to the internal 2-MB to 4-MB storage. Often without a flash (an unfeature that disables many Webcams, too). Avoid even as a toy (well, OK, as a toy).
Point-and-shoot digicams run a wide gamut but are cast from the 35mm or APS design mold. You get enough resolution to make 5x7 prints, internal flash and external storage. All other things being equal, concentrate on the optics (is it a zoom? what's the range?) and performance (shutter lag).
The higher-end digicams (we are excluding the pro digicams) are surprisingly friendly. Can someone just pick one of these up and get great shots? Yep. Design tends to run toward the SLR style with the odd (but versatile) swivel not to be ignored. Bigger image size (but more demanding of your computer system) and more features than you can possibly commit to memory may seem like overkill, but today's stars are tomorrow's meteor fragments.
Even though it's hard to go wrong in today's market, some features are more important than others. You can, by the way, rely on our reviews if you can't get to a store to see how your candidates measure up.
Fit, finish, size. Get into a store and pick up a few models to find one you like to hold and is comfortable to carry. Can you bond with it? It will have to become second nature, after all. The scary truth is that some of these designs are not designed at all.
Zoom lens. No zoom? Don't bother. A zoom makes every pixel count.
Built-in flash. No flash? Don't bother. A good tie-breaker is an external flash synch connection (because off-camera flash is the only way to avoid red-eye). You may not want to carry around a flash, but the built-ins are still not very impressive (point-and-shoot quality).
Removable media. Your choice (CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick), but make sure it has some, and gravitate toward the kind you can already pop into your system or you're also going to be in the market for a card reader (CompUSA had a Lexar for under $40 recently).
Accepts rechargeable AA batteries. Nothing worse than a dead (and expensive) proprietary lithium battery at the picturesque end of a holiday dinner. Rechargeable, yes, and standard, so you can pop anything in. If you forego this item, we'll still love you, but only if you promise to buy a backup and keep it charged.
Fast LCD monitor. You're going to be framing with this, so it should keep up with the action. It's surprising how many don't. In-store test.
Fast shutter. Same problem. When you press the shutter, you don't want the camera to "get around to it." You want it to snap into action. In-store test (take a few and see how easy it is to miss the shot).
EV settings. Exposure values (and meter modes) may seem a little intimidating, but you can pretty much assume you'll have the basic assortment of meter modes. So look for small EV steps. Being able to over- or under-expose by up to 2 full stops (a range of -2.0 to +2.0) in at least half-step increments (0.5) is important. Some cameras can handle 0.1 increments. Others go by thirds. Fine. But this is very important stuff to have.
Cables. If you have an older computer system (serial, SCSI interfaces), you may not get the gear in a new camera to make the connection. It may be available (if you ask) but take six weeks to arrive.
What doesn't matter (well, in our Less Than Humble Opinion):
Movie modes. Continuous shooting is great (and not the same thing), especially if you're used to a motor drive. But if you want to take movies, you want a camcorder. On these pups movies (MPEGs, typically) just wipe out your storage.
MP3. Ditto. (Hey, we're purists!)
Accessories like bags and rechargers.
Extended warranties. Nothing will cover obsolescence, the true bane of the game. Problems will show up early, during the normal warranty. If you worry anyway (like Chezzie), use a credit card that extends the warranty.
Digital zoom. Nice for composing but it's just in-camera cropping. You can do that on your computer. Just remind yourself you have 100x digital zoom at home.
Top Scanner Features
Hard to go wrong here. Prices have become laughably tiny. But technical issues have not. Your older system may have a tough time finding a match. That could be your biggest issue with a new scanner. Same-size scans of photos don't profit from resolutions higher than 300 samples per inch but line art will. If you plan to scan line art, 600 samples per inch is the minimum (assuming at least a 600 dpi printer, anyway). But forget about scanning 35mm negatives and slides (they're always enlarged, so you need greater resolution). And just a reminder so you don't spoil the excitement: lock your scanner whenever you move it.
The same interface you already have on your computer. Got USB, get USB. Got Firewire, get Firewire. Got SCSI, get SCSI. Don't and you may even have to upgrade your system software to handle the new interface. Ugh.
A large enough page size. Are you an attorney? Get a legal-sized image area, not a letter-sized one.
Color depth. Something in the thirties. Never less the 24-bit color. You'll no doubt end up at 24-bit, but it's nice to be able to select which eight bits per color to use if your scanner can see more. It may be hard to take advantage of this sort of feature, but it's a good tie-breaker.
Lift-off top. Not everything you scan is flat.
Optical resolution. What the hardware can do. You can interpolate resolution yourself in your image editing program. 600x600 pixels will do.
Power. A USB scanner may not need an AC adapter, making it a handy companion for a laptop.
Copier software. Nothing is quite as annoying as having a scanner, computer and printer and running down the street to make a photocopy. You can do this at home, but it's laborious without dedicated software.
Scanning software. Bundles vary. Look for an Adobe plug-in, optical character recognition software (OmniPage, for example). Don't expect the interface to the scanner software to make much sense unless you've done this sort of thing before. There are after-market alternatives, too.
What's not important:
Transparency adapter. Slides and negatives are tiny and have to be enlarged quite a lot to be seen. You won't be able to get enough resolution from most flatbeds.
Top Inkjet Printer Features
Hard to go wrong here, too. Seems like everything does photo imaging, is inexpensively built and fairly reliable. Drivers are so important here, though, that you should visit the manufacturers' Web sites to see how good they are about updating their drivers.
The same interface as your computer. (See Scanners, above)
A driver for your operating system (visit the manufacturer's Web sites to see what's supported).
Separate color and black ink cartridges (more efficient). One big old black (for routine stuff) and either a separate color cartridge or individual ones.
Paper handling options (single-sheet feed).
Resolution at least 600x600 pixels.
A photo imaging mode. This is tricky (explore the Web site, even download and install the driver, read the README). You are looking for halftone options. Almost all modern inkjets provide a "photo" mode. If you're shopping in a store, get a sample.
Dispute resolution. Use our Web site at http://www.imaging-resource.com to look at sample digicam images (store them on your system, print them on your printer), compare features (like shutter lag) and reassure yourself. The most unnerving thing about digital imaging is the purchase. After that, it's nothing but riotous fun.
Purchase protection. Not what the salesperson says (they always say, "Yes") but what your credit card promises.
Back to Chezzie
"Mike, Mike, Mike!!! Enough already!" my brother-in-law moaned as the sun was beginning to light the eastern sky. Or was it the parking lot lights at the mall?
"Sorry, Chezzie, are you writing all this down?"
"Yes, yes, yes!!! What did you say after 'Comparometer"?"
Just go to the site, Chezzie.