HP and Kodak Make Some Quiet News|
Mike Pasini, The Imaging Resource
(Saturday, September 1, 2007 - 13:01 EDT)
The two companies advanced issues of no small significance to ordinary snapshooters this week. After visiting with both companies recently, we review each of them in depth.
SAN FRANCISCO -- This week's product announcements by Hewlett-Packard and Kodak were overshadowed by the introductions of Canon's 40D and Nikon's full-size sensor 3D and its D300 dSLR, to name just two of the big newsmakers. But for consumers, the HP and Kodak announcements may have been the big news.
The two companies advanced issues of no small significance to ordinary snapshooters. On the camera end, Kodak has developed an intriguing approach to high ISO shooting and rethought Scene modes. On the printing side, HP -- undaunted by Kodak's low-priced inks initiative -- continues to refine the photo printer into a more and more useful (and easy to use) appliance. And in the living room, Kodak has leapfrogged Sony with high definition output of both stills and video.
With ISO claims so high they beg for commas (like Olympus' 10000), the question camera reviewers constantly grapple with is just how usable are these high-gain options? The higher your ISO, we all know, the more noise there is in the image. At some point, it's no fun to look at.
At what point is the matter of some debate. On-screen viewing, which enjoys the advantage of directly displaying the full bit depth, is a better place to look at high ISO images -- particularly since you aren't looking at each pixel but rather at a resampling that minimizes the problem. But prints can be a disappointment as the original data is halftoned onto the sheet. How you look at your images can determine how useful you see high ISO.
We sat down with Kodak's Jerry Magee, who has been in this digital photo thing from the days of the QuickTake 100 (that would be the very beginning in 1994) and recently moved into the consumer photo ring to bring some photographic attributes to the cameras. So he's not the guy responsible for the purses and beaded wrist straps.
His take on the ISO movement was intriguing. We can gain a stop of usability every year, he said. What looked good at ISO 200 last year, looks good at ISO 400 this year. And so on.
Before him on the table were the three cameras Kodak announced this week: the Z812 IS, the V1233 and the V1253. The ISO news on these cameras starts with the high limit of ISO 3200.
We smiled. We've seen ISO 3200 before. If you save the color, you lose the detail. If you hold the detail, the noise gets ugly.
Jerry made the point that Kodak has a vested interest in photo prints. They sell the paper, the ink and the printers, after all. So they've worked hard on a formula to devise the limit of acceptable ISO for a 4x6 print. (Typical consumers aren't pixel-peepers, 4x6 prints account for the vast majority of printed output.)
The larger part of this calculation depends on advances in Kodak's unheralded Color Science chip (the equivalent of Canon's DIGIC and Sony's Bionz image processors), which can now produce a usable 4x6 print at ISO 1600. The smaller part of it depends on the resampling or binning of high megapixel data (the V cameras have 12-Mp sensors while the Z has an 8.2-Mp sensor) into smaller images (2.2 to 3.1 megapixels depending on the sensor size for ISO 3200), subjugating the noise.
The Color Science chip is tuned to produce good flesh tones, he told us. Kodak calculates that 70 percent of all images are people pictures. With a clearer signal on the sensor and a better image processor, higher usable ISO can be achieved. He quickly showed us prints taken at night, in full daylight and everything in between to prove the point.
And they were the best high ISO images we've seen. We didn't see noise in the shadows, color was held and there was still more detail than you might see with your naked eye. Most impressive was a shot of an old building at night. The exterior was clearly visible with the tungsten light illuminating the contents of the rooms, and a red, white and blue bunting hanging over a window was clearly red, white and blue. The only illumination was a street light.
So what's the flash for? Jerry laughed, but was quick to reply that on these cameras it's primarily for fill light in sunlit shots. You can't get around that.
But how do you tap into the new high ISO capability?
It's something of a nuisance even for reviewers to find the ISO option and step through the choices. So how's a consumer, with a lot of other things on their mind, to bother with ISO?
Kodak has taken a fresh approach to this issue, too, it turns out. On the Z camera, for example, it depends what mode you're using. In Auto mode, where the camera does all the calculations unimpeded by the photographer, the Auto ISO setting can range from 64 to 1600. That exceeds the High ISO auto mode of some competitors, incidentally. Switch to Programmed Auto mode and Auto ISO ranges even higher to 3200. And if you hazard Manual mode, you can tap into ISO 8000, Jerry claimed (although we don't find that in the specs).
That makes a lot of sense. As you take more control of the camera, you expand the range of usable ISO without having to make yet another adjustment.
If only someone would do that with Scene modes, we thought. And indeed, Kodak has addressed that issue, too, in the new cameras, with an automatic Scene Detection feature that can identify the kind of shot you're taking as you frame the image.
Is it a landscape? Is it a portrait? Is it a night shot? The new Kodak Color Science chip simply consults its database to figure it out, much as multi-point exposure metering relies on a database to determine if it should expose for the whole scene or the bottom half (to avoid darkening the sky) or the middle (for a portrait), to simplify.
We tried a few shots around the table to see if the V cameras could tell Jerry's face was a portrait. If you zoomed in too far (which we like to do), it had to think about it too long. But back off a bit and it was quick to decide. As Dave is found of saying, we'll have to see how this works outside a conference room, but our first impression was pleasant.
One of the sample prints Jerry showed us was of a birthday cake in the darkness outside with Tikki torches blazing in the background (as we recall, but we may be mixing that up with another event we attended). One shot was taken conventionally with flash and one without, relying on the high Auto ISO capability of the camera. Both were great prints, providing you the option of how you'd like to remember the event (if you're the baker, presumably, the you'd go for the flash shot).
But Jerry, we asked, what's with the red eye? Indeed, the flash image showed severe red eye in the birthday girl. How had the automatic Scene Detection not realized the flash was going to ruin this portrait? Oh, you still have to manually activate red-eye reduction, he confessed (making a note of the problem).
There's always room for improvement.
THE PRINTER WARS
When we sat down with HP, our experience with the Kodak all-in-ones was fresh in our minds. So was the apparent Kodak mole at HP. It seems as soon as HP's ad agency Porter Novelli releases a news item about the company's print products, Kodak's agency (Ketchum) releases a point-by-point rebuttal. Even _before_ HP releases its news, sometimes. Ah, the thrill of corporate espionage.
HP's print strategy is far reaching. A lot of that is corporate nonsense, conjuring up Print 2.0 (from Web 2.0) as a stew of better printing from your Web browser (well, if it's Explorer anyway), services like Tabloo's montaging and product diversification (more than prints) from Snapfish, which will also allow you to hook into content from others for photo sharing.
There are IT aspects to all this, too, with the company helping IT managers keep track of supplies on groups of printers much in the same way as your USB inkjet tells you how much ink is left in its cartridges. You can even instruct a shared printer to hold the job until you get to the printer and pop a button (you know, in case it's a confidential document).
But what caught our attention were two new photo printers (from the six announced). HP's Azmat Ali gave us the grand tour before we enjoyed a brief hands-on look at the new line up.
Let's start off by saying we were quite unimpressed with the A826 inkjet that looks like a giant egg. That one, Azmat told us, is a home printing kiosk you can put in your kitchen and get 4x6 or 5x7 prints with a wave of your finger across the touch screen interface.
If your kitchen is your office (and for some people it is) that may make sense, but I found the unit too large with no clear benefit over its smaller, more portable A626 printer. This Vivera inkjet can also print 4x6 or 5x7 prints and has the touch screen, but doesn't need a permanent installation.
Even though they're inkjets not dye sub printers, we're fond of HP's compact photo printers. Toss some paper in the slot on top, pop in your card (or plug in your camera) and presto, you've got 4x6 prints. They can do a lot of other tricks (like add captions and titles or remove red-eye) but all you really need sometimes is an appliance not a power tool. And HP's compact photo printers are just that for prints.
The new touch screen interface really is a breath of fresh air and we were happy to see it extended to the company's line of all-in-one printers. These are not just printers, scanners and fax machines but full fledged photo printers, too.
Unlike Kodak's four-color AiO printers (count 'em, there's only four), HP uses six Vivera color inks. They're dyes, not the pigment inks Kodak uses, but that perhaps isn't the advantage Kodak is claiming. As our Kodak 5300 diary points out, the saturation of Kodak's pigments is not as intense as dyes, despite the company's claims to the contrary.
At the high end of this line (there are four HP all-in-one printers), with a price tag around $400, the C8180 gives you everything. WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity makes it easy to network the printer while making it accessible to camphones, too. The built-in card reader can also archive images to the built-in CD/DVD burner, which can also label the discs with LighScribe technology. And unlike any of the Kodak AiO printers, you can scan transparencies like six frames of a color negative film strip or a set of four slides.
We also like the smart paper feeding of these printers. On the Kodaks you have to push in the 4x6 paper tray. Want a 5x7? You have to remove the letter size paper and reconfigure that tray for 5x7. On the HPs, you can drop either 4x6 or 5x7 in the photo paper tray, leaving the letter size tray for plain paper, and the printer will draw from the correct tray depending on what page size you've selected. It's such an obvious approach, you have to wonder why Kodak didn't think of it. More than once, in working with the Kodak 5300, I've simply forgotten to get out of my chair and push in or pull out the photo tray. Quite a pain, friends, when you have a few prints queued.
But that's the high end. To its credit, HP hasn't forgotten the low end. And about this time of year, that's a big seller, with a new crop of kids headed off for college. Do you really want to send a $400 printer into a dorm room?
And yet, just a cheap printer is not a particularly savvy buy. For very few more notches on your credit card, you can get an all-in-one that provides scanning (photocopying) as well as printing (a handy thing for college students). HP hasn't forgotten that, although the low-end all-in-one is now up to $139 list from the previous $99 street level (where things that disappear in dorms are not long rued).
But for that $139 you get some handy features like WiFi (providing a business opportunity for your contribution to the dorm), very fast printing (30 pages a minute in black, 23 in color, 4x6 photos in 25 seconds), Vivera inks and a 48-bit scanner.
Those ink cartridges are still substantially more expensive than Kodak's. We told Azmat we can't get Mom (who has had an HP all-in-one for several years now) to buy replacement cartridges even at Costco. She sees the $75 price tag and puts it off until she wants to print something and she's out of ink. We have to call 911 to get her going again.
We were quite beside ourselves when she confessed that a recent visitor had used the printer to copy all her tax records. Mom was upset about the paper but we knew the real cost were those ink cartridges. Some people have no shame, apparently.
So all the talk about bundles and capacity and the price of paper can't quite overcome the psychological burden of that higher price tag, I argued.
When I told Mom I'd made the case for her, she wanted to know just one thing. "Did they give you any ink?"
The other disturbing issue -- at least for Mac users -- is HP's ridiculous software scheme. On the one hand, HP delivers a lot of value (image editing, asset management, all sorts of things you probably didn't know were installed with the printer). On the other, though, there are all sorts of background processes looking for activity of one kind or another whether the printer is on or off.
In the worst case, this can corrupt a perfectly robust OS X installation depending on whether the USB printer is on or off at boot, something HP really doesn't handle well even in the best case. Updating an old system to a new computer using target mode can also ruin the installation if the old system was using a different version of the HP printing system.
But even in the best case, putting your computer to sleep with an HP (or a Kodak for that matter) can be an insomniac-like adventure.
It's just too complex. When we complained to Azmat about that, he confessed he's the guy who's working on the next generation of the driver and that's one of his windmills. "I'm on it," he promised.
BINDING YOUR PRINTS
Sometimes the incidentals are essential and during our visit with HP, we ran across one such. The new HP Photo Books are worth looking for -- no matter which kind of printer you have.
When our niece got her wedding proofs back from the pro who did her wedding, they were silver halide proof sheets bound with a plastic spiral binding. The problem with this arrangement was that it had no stiff cover, so it flopped over to one side or the other precariously begging one or another corner to be smashed, bent, creased or folded.
We spent some time at PMA looking at photo books in general. But it wasn't until we got on the plane home and overheard a presentation by a very nice woman to a quite relieved stand-by who boarded with but couldn't sit with his wife and young child that we saw something we thought would fly.
The problem with most of these books is the binding. They require a special procedure. Like melting an adhesive. Or punching holes. Sometimes they're permanent, sometimes not.
HP's Photo Books use a spring clamp for a binding. Pull the covers wide apart and the spring snaps open. Pinch the binding together and the spring snaps shut. You can "edit" your book at will, rearranging or replacing pages (prints) to your heart's desire.
And with the hard cover, our pro friend could deliver his proofs without the cheesy spiral binding or floppy presentation. They're quite attractive, too, with a two-toned linen cover in five colors featuring a porthole for the cover shot and handling page sizes from 5x7 to letter size. And at $14.99 you can give them away as presents, too.
Certainly worthy of a Nobel prize, we thought.
THE HD WARS
As exciting as this business is, there's one field where despite the frenetic activity, nobody has scored a goal. That's putting images on your high definition television.
Not everybody has an HDTV, of course, but with the impending doom of analog broadcasting (which really won't affect you cable subscribers), everybody seems to be in the market for a television. And they aren't coming home with 480 line sets. They're coming home with 720 or 1080 line sets.
Those numbers measure the number of scan lines that run down the short side of your TV from top to bottom. The higher the number the more detail your set displays, although it's hard to find a 32-inch TV with more than 720 lines.
The other dimension (along the long side) has waffled depending on the aspect ratio of your TV. CRT televisions -- even high def ones -- still offer a 4:3 aspect ratio, while LCD and plasma units tend to come in 16:9 sizes.
Now consider your multi-megapixel camera. It captures images of _much_ greater resolution than that. And yet, when you plug in your camera to your TV with that yellow video plug, all you get is the 480 resolution image (640x480).
When are we going to see cameras that plug into an HDTV with at least 720 resolution?
We're seeing it this year. Sony, for example, offers high definition output on all of its 2007 cameras. But there are two problems with Sony's solution.
The first is that to get from the camera to the TV, you almost always (with rare exception) have to also invest in an accessory cable, dock or dock/printer. Connecting to an HDTV isn't as simple as the yellow video cable that comes with every camera. You need a high-def composite cable and they aren't cheap. So Sony gives you three options, none of them in the box with the camera. We reviewed Sony's dock option a while ago.
The other problem is the Sony cameras, despite having a 16:9 aspect ratio for still shooting, do not have high definition video recording. You can do video only at 640x480 and 30 fps. That's 480 lines. Not 720.
Hybrids like the Canon TX1 do take HD video at 720 with a 16:9 aspect ratio and that perfect for your HDTV -- even if you use the lower quality setting which saves half the card space of the high quality setting. But where's the digicam that does HD?
Kodak's new Z and V cameras all do HD video, shooting at 1024x720 at 30 fps in 16:9 format. In fact, the V1253 even has a 16:9 LCD.
Like Sony, however, you need an accessory to connect to your television. Kodak's dock solution is a bit more robust, however, than Sony's dock. It can deliver HD video, as opposed to just stills.
It also has a broader base so it doesn't tip over like the Sony dock when you plug the composite cables and audio cables to the back. When we asked why it used composite cables rather than HDMI cables, Jerry told us Kodak's research shows that most sets have free composite connections but no free HDMI plugs (which are usually taken up by the primary video source). We confessed in our case that was certainly true.
The $99 Kodak dock, which will also recharge your Kodak camera (justifying it's existence as an accessory, to our mind), also has two USB ports and an SD card reader. And because the dock includes a playback chip, anything plugged in gets the whole slide show and video treatment. A remote control is part of the package, too.
Jerry said the storage requirements for HD video are such that Kodak is only marketing the HD-video capable cameras as able to manage video snippets, not whole clips. In fact, there isn't a low-quality option like the TX-1, so you really will burn through storage (think 4-GB cards).
But we liked the concept. Our review of Apple TV hardly describes the unmitigated pleasure it's given us -- regardless of the camera we've used. Just copy the images to a folder in our Pictures directory, click on the checkbox for that directory to upload the images wirelessly to the box and in a few minutes everyone can enjoy pictures from the day's event in the living room, no matter whose camera was used.
The Kodak dock promises something nearly as democratic, with full HD video too.
It was quite a week for photo enthusiasts of all stripes. Once again, we saw that nobody has a monopoly on innovation. That may cause red-eye for engineers, but it's putting big smiles on the faces of consumers.