Hewlett Packard PhotoSmart C20 Digital Camera
Second-generation device from HP combines excellent quality with ease-of-use.
||Full megapixel sensor (1152x874)|
||Combined auto/fixed focus lens design|
||Excellent picture quality|
||"Photofinishing" software for easy printing(!)|
||Built-in flash, AC Adapter included|
Hewlett Packard (HP for short) is a company that literally needs no introduction in the world of computers and electronics. (But we're going to introduce them here anyway ;-) They've long been associated with imaging of one sort or another, through their broad line of printers and scanners. Recently, they've entered the digital photography market, although with a slightly different focus than many manufacturers: Rather than view digital cameras, scanners, and printers as isolated accessories to home or office computers, they've taken an approach more oriented to users interested in photography for the sake of the pictures themselves. HP's PhotoSmart System is just that, a system intended to bring truly high-quality digital photography to the consumer. In this review, we'll cover their C20 digital camera. Other reviews on this site address the PhotoSmart scanner, and the system seen as a whole, including the PhotoSmart printer. (If you haven't seen its output yet, the printer deserves special commendation: First-time viewers of its prints invariably have a hard time telling them from actual photographic prints.)
The C20 camera is actually the second in HP's PhotoSmart line: Their first unit was actually manufactured by a third party, and quite honestly didn't do the HP name justice. The C20 decisively corrects that, presenting consumers with a truly easy-to-use digital camera having excellent image quality, good ergonomics, and an affordable price.
The HP C20 digital camera sports the by-now familiar profile of a typical film-based point & shoot camera, although its smoothly curving case design fits the hand better than most units we've tested. A 1/3", megapixel CCD captures 1152 x 872 pixel images. Images can be saved in a total of 3 different quality/size combinations, with the two higher-quality formats saving images at the full 1152 x 872 size with different compression levels, while the lowest quality setting saves images at a reduced size of 576 x 436 pixels. Standard features include both optical and LCD viewfinders, an all-glass variable-aperture lens with a 35mm equivalent focal length, and a four-mode built-in flash. A key feature is the powerful HP PhotoSmart photo finishing software, that eases not only image download and storage, but printout as well.
With overall dimensions of 5 x 3.15 x 1.9 inches (127 x 89 x 48 mm), and weighing in at 10.9 ounces (307 gm), the HP C20 camera is definitely not a candidate for shirt-pocket transport. On the other hand, we found that it fit our hands well, making for steadier shooting.
Although the body is constructed entirely of molded plastic, the "feel" of the camera is very substantial, thanks in part to the weight of the rear-panel plastic housing. The camera front is much lighter-weight, and definitely feels like plastic when you tap on it, but the overall heft of the device for the most part dispelled that perception. We also liked the metal tripod socket on the camera's underside - most cameras we've tested to date have used plastic for this important structural detail. We mentioned the ergonomic, curved housing of the camera in the overview: Several thoughtful details contribute to comfortable usage, including a rubber grip under your fingers, where they wrap around the right side of the camera; a sliding lens cover that also serves as an on/off switch, and even a slight relief on the left-hand side of the camera's rear panel, to provide just a smidgen of extra "nose room" when sighting through the optical viewfinder. Controls are conveniently located, supporting one-handed shooting in normal situations, with the left hand being required only to access the LCD-based menu options. (Like every other digital camera we've tested, the C20 is clearly a right-handed device.)
As with most digital cameras today, the C20 avoids the "optical vs. LCD" viewfinder dilemma by providing both: A bright optical finder is located slightly to the left of center on the back panel of the camera, and a 1.8 inch LCD panel is positioned just to the right of center. The optical viewfinder is marked to show the approximate field of view for both normal and macro shots, and also contains vertical and horizontal registration marks at its center, to aid in positioning and orienting the camera relative to the subject. The optical viewfinder's accuracy is typical of the digital point & shoot cameras we've tested, showing about 87% of the final image area captured by the CCD sensor.
The LCD viewfinder's accuracy on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise, displaying exactly what the sensor was seeing at any moment. (Surprisingly, such deadly accuracy is rare, even with LCD viewfinders. You'd expect that the LCD would display exactly what the CCD was seeing, but in most cameras, the LCD image is cropped relative to the sensor's field of view.) Other characteristics of the LCD screen on the C20 are about middle-of-the-road: Frame rate, resolution, and image sharpness are average among similar cameras. Although strong sunlight could still overwhelm the LCD backlighting, we felt that the anti-glare coating on the LCD worked better than most, making it more usable as a viewfinder in outdoor, sunlit shooting conditions.
One parameter by which LCD screens differ is the "refresh rate." Expressed in frames per second, this describes how frequently the camera updates the image seen on the LCD screen. This is one area in which the C20 is a bit slower than most, with a screen refresh rate that appears to be between 2 and 3 frames per second. This would be an issue for fast-moving sports action, but for those situations, the optical finder would almost always be your first choice anyway.
Unlike film-based cameras, we have no way of independently evaluating lens quality on digital point & shoot cameras, but can only observe the operation of the lens and sensor working in concert. The lens on the C20 is advertised as being an all-glass design, with a focal length equivalent to a 39mm lens on a 35mm camera, a moderate wide-angle. The lens is a variable-aperture design, switching between apertures of f2.8, f5.6, and f11, as called for by the autoexposure system.
One unusual (and convenient) feature of the C20 is that its macro mode is fully automatic: The normal focusing range is from 2 feet (50 cm) to infinity, while the macro range works from 8 inches (20.3 cm) to 2 feet (50 cm). What's unique is that the camera handles switching between normal and macro without operator intervention. (Most digital cameras require the user to manually choose "macro" mode via a pushbutton or menu option control.) At closest approach, the camera captures an area of 6.7 x 8.8 inches (22.4 x 16.9 cm) in macro mode.
The C20's lens system is an "active" autofocus design, deriving its focus information by analyzing contrast differences within the scene as the lens focus is adjusted. This means that below a given light level, the autofocus system may not be able to determine focus, even though the camera could still capture a usable picture otherwise. (See the next section for a discussion of the C20's exceptional low-light capability.) Actually, the camera only needs the autofocus function for objects closer than about 2.6 feet (80 cm), an interesting fact that we missed our first time through the documentation.
We were puzzled by the "AF" option on the camera, as we hadn't previously seen an autofocus camera with an option to turn the AF function off. What we missed in our reading of the manual (and had to be politely pointed out to us by the HP tech support staff) is that the C20 is by default a fixed-focus camera, but one that has an autofocus option. In many ways, this is the best of both worlds, in that you needn't worry about losing a low-light shot due to an autofocus failure, as long as the subject is further away than the 80cm minimum fixed focus distance. Also, you don't lose shutter-delay time to the autofocus mechanism unless you absolutely need it. When you activate the AF function, you'll have to allow about a second for the focus mechanism to operate, and the light level will need to be brighter than about EV 7.5-8. If the light level is too low for the autofocus to operate, a red LED next to the viewfinder will blink rapidly. (As described below, the slow blink indication of this same LED means "slow shutter speed".)
The C20 is rated at an equivalent ISO speed of 100, although we felt its low-light performance should have earned it a much higher rating, possibly 400 or so. The mechanical shutter on the C20 can time exposured from 1/500th of a second, down to an incredible 2 seconds(!) Combined with the f2.8 - f11 range of available lens apertures, the camera could be expected to produce well-exposed images in lighting ranging from EV 7 to EV 21. This is a very broad range, but in actual use, we found we could achieve entirely adequate exposures at light levels as low as EV 4-5! (In fact, with the exposure compensation set up all the way, we found that the camera could totally blow-out an exposure at a light level of EV5.5, and actually produced a recognizable image at an astonishing EV2.5!) In very dim light, using the maximum 2 second exposure time, a few bad CCD cells show up as bright "twinkles" in the image, but far fewer of them than we're accustomed to seeing in the few other cameras capable of this sort of extended time-exposure. The net of this is that the C20 is exceptionally well-suited to low-light shooting!
IMPORTANT NOTE: It's once again for our standard tirade against users who think that they can blithely hand-hold a camera taking a time exposure, just because it happens to be digital. The C20's remarkable maximum exposure time absolutely requires the use of a tripod to achieve usably-sharp images. A general rule of thumb is that an amateur photographer can hand-hold for exposures as long in seconds as the inverse of the lens focal length in mm. (Huh? - Just divide 1 by the lens focal length, and that's your maximum "safe" exposure time. In the case of the C20, with it's 39mm lens, figure that anything slower than 1/39th of a second requires a tripod.) With the C20, if the red LED in the viewfinder is blinking, the camera has selected a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second or lower (as nearly as we could tell from light-meter readings based on an ISO of 100), meaning you'd better use something to steady the camera with during the exposure.
While the C20 demonstrated extraordinary low-light capability, it seems to choose longer shutter speeds first, rather than cranking up the amplification on the sensor, probably to reduce noise and improve image quality. This means that, while the camera will behave like an ISO 400 device in extremely low-light conditions, in moderate illumination, it operates at the ISO 100 rating its specifications indicate. Thus, as far as camera shake is concerned, you need to act as though you're shooting with ISO 100 film.
The autoexposure system on the C20 operates "through the lens" (TTL), so it is less likely to be affected by stray light than otherwise, but is still subject to being fooled by unusual subjects, whether a light object against a dark background, a backlit subject, or one that's unusually uniform in overall brightness (such as a snow or beach scene). To accommodate these situations, HP included an exposure adjustment control with a range of +/- 2 f-stop (EV vaue), in 1/2 stop increments. This is a reasonably broad range, adequate to the majority of situations you're likely to encounter. Our one quibble with this feature though, is that it's buried on the back-panel menu system, rather than being readily available via the external pushbutton controls. We find ourselves using this capability fairly frequently (when it's accessible), and so prefer to have it immediately accessible.
We liked the focus/exposure lock function of the C20, that allows you to pre-set the exposure prior to taking the shot itself: Pressing the shutter button halfway actuates the autofocus and autoexposure systems, without actually triggering the shutter. Once the exposure and focus is set in this fashion, they will stay "locked" at the selected settings as long as you hold down the shutter button. With this feature, you can easily accommodate off-center subjects by turning to center them, locking the focus and exposure, then turning back to frame the shot to your liking before firing the shutter.
The C20's white-balance (ability to compensate for the color cast of different lighting conditions) is completely automatic, with no provision for manual override. Fortunately, we found that it worked quite well, retaining enough of the lighting coloration to preserve the "feeling" of the shot, without the color cast overpowering the subject colors.
In normal operating mode, the C20 cycles fairly quickly, and is ready to take the next picture about 8 seconds after the previous one in its highest resolution mode. At the lowest resolution setting, this cycle time drops to about 3 seconds.
One parameter we've only recently begun paying attention to (in response to feedback from our readers) is the shutter delay on digital cameras: Depending on the camera and operating mode, some cameras can delay for an appreciable fraction of a second between the time the shutter release is pressed, and the time the shutter actually fires. (The intervening time being required for the lens to focus, the autoexposure circuitry to do its thing, etc.) In the case of the C20, if you just press the shutter button arbitrarily, it will take as much as a second (a rough estimate) for the lens to focus and the shutter to fire. (In autofocus mode, this delay stretches to upwards of two seconds.) This is long enough to be an issue for fast-moving subjects. However, we found that the shutter response is nearly instantaneous if you pre-focus by half-pressing the shutter button first.
The built-in flash has a working range of 8 inches (20 cm, the minimum macro distance) to 8.2 feet (2.5 m). It offers a total of five operating modes, including auto, auto red-eye reduction (firing a pre-flash to close-down subjects pupils, reducing the dreaded "red eye" efect), always on ("fill" flash), always on with red-eye reduction, and always off. We found that the flash did a good job of throttling-down its power for close-up shooting, although it would wash out light-colored subjects at the camera's closest focusing limit.
One feature we particuarly like on the C20 is that the exposure-compensation adjustment mentioned earlier also applies to the flash! For reasons we don't understand, this is actually a pretty rare capability on digital cameras, and one we found very welcome on the C20. All this really means is that the exposure-adjustment control works just as you'd expect it to, regardless of whether you're using flash or not. As simple as it may seem, this is a function that's usually overlooked by camera manufacturers, and one that we believe will contribute greatly to the C20's ease of use.
Operation and User
In working with the C20, it's clear that HP's engineers strove in every way to make a device that was "user-friendly" and simple for non-technical people to use. Being both photography buffs and technophiles, we tend to like more, rather than fewer, controls. We can well understand that not everyone feels this way, and believe that the C20 will appeal to a wide audience with its easy-to-navigate user interface.
As with most digital point & shoot cameras, the C20's controls are arranged so the most frequently used functions are available via the external pushbuttons, while other functions are accessed via a menu system built around the rear-panel LCD display screen.
The camera has two basic modes: "Record" mode for picture taking, and "Review" mode for viewing previously-capture pictures on the LCD display. Record mode is enabled any time you slide open the lens cover, while you enter review mode by closing the lens cover, and pressing the purple "on" button in the upper right-hand corner of the camera's rear panel.
Record-mode controls include the frequently-used functions accessible via the top-panel push buttons, as well as the menu-based items accessed via the LCD. The top-panel buttons control flash mode, autofocus/self-timer operation, and image quality setting. Interestingly, these controls remain active even when in "review" mode, a feature we hadn't seen before. This means that you can change the image quality setting or flash mode while reviewing the previous shot. This strikes us as a nice piece of user-interface engineering, since you'll frequently want to change one of these settings while looking at your previous shot.
Some flash-mode options, and the image-quality control remember their settings between times the camera is powered on. That is, if you've set the camera for a "medium" image quality and shut it off, it will power-up with the same image quality setting selected. The flash setting is a bit odd in this respect, although we understand what the designers were trying to do in setting it up this way: The camera always powers-up with the flash in one of its two "auto" modes. The intent here is to make sure you don't lose a shot by leaving the flash set in an odd exposure mode. Thus, if you select "red-eye auto" flash mode, that's how the camera will be set the next time you turn it on. On the other hand, if you've explicitly turned the flash off, it will reset itself to "auto" mode on the next power-up.
When in record mode, you can activate the LCD viewfinder function by pressing the purple button in the upper right-hand corner of the camera's rear panel at any time. This brings up the record-mode menu, defaulting to the "take pictures?" option. To activate the LCD viewfinder, you must press either the "menu" or "OK" buttons on the rear panel. (A minor user-interface quibble: We would have made the purple button immediately enable the viewfinder, with a press of the "menu" button required to bring up the menu first. Of course, this would have put our much-loved exposure-compensation function one more button-press away from immediate accessibility.)
The top-level record-mode menu presents you with three options, selected by pressing the "<" or ">" keys next to the LCD screen. The options are "Take Pictures?" (the default), "Set Camera Exposure?", and "Set Screen Brightness?". "Take Pictures" enables the LCD viewfinder, while the other two do exactly what you'd expect them to. You choose each option by first selecting it with the "<>" (hereafter, "arrow") buttons, and then pressing the "OK" button. In the case of the exposure and screen brightness options, this lets you into the adjustment screen for that option, where you can move a cursor back and forth with the arrow buttons. Once you've achieved the setting you desire, you enable it by pressing the "OK" key. The screen brightness adjustment is fully interactive, in that the screen brightness actually changes as you adjust the cursor back and forth. The exposure adjustment isn't interactive at all though, despite the fact that it shows a portion of the last viewfinder scene on the LCD panel while you're making the adjustment. That's it though, the viewfinder scene just stays there, not changing in response to your cursor movements. Once you've pressed "OK" though, the screen returns to a live viewfinder display of whatever the camera is pointed at, with the effect of the exposure compensation fully evident.
As mentioned above, review mode is entered by pressing the purple back-panel button with the lens cover closed. The first screen you see is a selection menu asking what function you want to execute, with the default being "Review Pictures." Pressing the OK button will display the last picture taken, and you can move between images by using the arrrow keys. The picture-review display conveys several useful pieces of information about each photo. As each photo is first displayed, the date and time it was taken are briefly shown in the upper right-hand corner. One, two, or three green diamond icons appear along the bottom of the display, indicating the quality mode the image was captured in. Finally, a tiny number in the lower right-hand corner of the image tells you which image is being displayed.
The cycle time between images (how quickly you can move from one to the next) in review mode varies depending on the quality level each image was stored at. The highest-quality images take about 3 seconds to come up on the screen, while "standard" quality ones take only about a second.
While you're viewing images, pressing the "Menu" button brings up the menu system with the default selection set to "Erase?" Pressing OK gives you choices of "none" (to cancel the erase operation), "one," or "all." If you choose "all," the C20 will ask you again to make sure you really want to zap all your photos at once.
Other options available in review mode allow you to "lock" individual pictures so they won't be erased as part of an "erase all" operation; to set the LCD brightness; to switch the video output format to NTSC (United States) or PAL (Europe and Japan). You can also set the date and time, and format a new memory card if desired. To scroll through images quickly, a "view small photos" mode shows 9 images on the screen at a time, with the currently-selected one highlighted with a yellow border. You can move the highlight around the screen very quickly with the arrow keys: Pressing OK will display the selected image full-size. (When you scroll past the end of the 9 images shown on the screen, the camera will display a fresh set of 9 on the screen for you to select from.)
A final review-mode menu option activates the "slide show" function that cycles through all the images in the camera, displaying each for a fixed amount of time. The slide-show interval can be set via the host software, while the camera is plugged into the serial connection. Per-slide times ranging from 1 to 30 seconds, with 2 seconds being the default. We confess that we'd have liked a better provision for controlling slide shows interactively, via the button controls. The slide show function itself limits you to the fixed time interval programmed into the camera. While you can step through the camera's images in normal "review" mode, there appears to be no way to turn off the date/time, image-quality, or frame number displays.
The HP PhotoSmart C20 is unusual in that a variety of functions not accessible to the on-camera controls can be set with the PhotoSmart software. These features include the self-timer delay (1-60 seconds, with a default of 10), auto shut-off time (1-10 minutes, with a default of 5), communications parameters, a "maximum size for auto detection for memory cards" (32 or 64 Megabytes), and even the LCD language. (If you happen to be multi-lingual and want to practice your foreign languages, you can download new menu language to the camera from the host, choosing from among US or International Englis, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, or Korean.)
Image Storage and Interface
The PhotoSmart C20 stores images on a removabe CompactFlash card, with a 4 megabyte card provided as standard equipment. These cards are quite compact, although not as much so as the SSFDC "SmartMedia" cards used in some cameras. The advantage of the CF cards though, is that they are available in very large sizes (as of this writing, up to 48 megabytes), for quite reasonable prices. Adapters allowing CF cards to be read in standard PC-card slots on laptops are available fromeither HP or third parties, and well worth the modest cost if your computer has PC-cards slots availabe: Downoads via the PC slot take seconds, as compared to minutes for serial-cable transfers.
The maximum number of images that can be stored on each memory card varies a fair bit, depending on the image quality level selected. The C20 stores images as standard JPEG files, at two different image sizes (1152 x 872 and 512 x 384). The two highest image quality modes correspond to different levels of image compression applied to the larger file size, while "normal" quality employs the smaller image size. Image capacity of the furnished 4-meg card is 8 "superfine" image, 20 "fine" ones, or 40 "normal" ones.
As a minor aside, we liked the fact that we could easily insert or remove the CF card while the camera was mounted on a tripod. Not a big thing, but some cameras use a bottom-mounted latch for the CF socket, meaning you have to unmount them from a tripod in order to pull the card.
Data can also be downloaded from the camera via a standard serial interface, at a maximum speed of 115 Kbaud. Download of typical Large/Fine mode images took about a minute apiece on our standard 233MHz MMX Pentium PC. ("Normal"-quality images take less than half as long to download.) HP provides only one way to get images out of the camera, the very robust PhotoSmart software: No TWAIN driver is provided for interfacing the C20 directly to other applications, but the PhotoSmart software package acts as a TWAIN image source instead. Sadly, no Macintosh interface is provided at all. (Unless you happen to have a PC-card reader on your Mac, in which case you can pull images directly off the CF card very quickly.) While the PhotoSmart software was no speed demon in downloading image files to the PC, it is highly automated, so image offloads aren't too painful, even if they do take a while. (We liked the PhotoSmart software very much overall: See our coverage of it below.)
A nice feature of the C20's interface software is that it provides a significant degree of automation: It will automatically detect when the camera is plugged into the serial port, and begin downloading images unattended. - Just plug the camera in and go do something else for a little while. As we'll discuss later, you can also pre-assign standard image output sizes to the different image quality settings, helping to further automate the printing process.
In addition to the serial computer interface, the C20 also has a connector for displaying images via standard NTSC or PAL video. This is a apability we've generally found more useful than we first expected: Connected to a TV with a video input jack, the C20 becomes a portable presentation machine. Since you can copy unmodified images back onto the card, you can assemble a series of images to use as part of a presentation, and be self-contained save for a video display device of some sort. (Note that, like most digital cameras, the C20 is rather finicky that its images be formatted in strict adherence to EXIF JPEG format, and be in exactly the form the camera left them in: Most image-manipulation programs don't adhere to this strict standard, with the result that you probably can't modify a photo and expect the camera to display it.) Being frequent business travelers, we've found digital cameras to be a great way for the family back home to feel more connected with our business activities: A "slide show" of sights and people from a business trip is great for sharingthe events of the trip with the kids. (And the spouse left behind!)
The PhotoSmart C20 is powered by AA-sized batteries, and is shipped with a set of standard alkaline ones. Like most digital cameras, it's not worth your time or money to bother with standard alkaline batteries: Invest in a set of AA NiMH rechargeable batteries and a good charger, and you'll be far ahead of the game. Nonetheless, the fact that the camera can run on standard AA batteries means that you'll never need be stranded without batteries, since AA alkalines are available literally everywhere.
We did notice one quirk with NiMH batteries in the C20 though: The output voltage of NiMH (and NiCd) rechargeable cells is a bit lower than that of alkaline batteries. By contrast though, the cell voltage stays more or less constant throughout the battery's charge life, only dropping off sharply at the very end of the charge. The battery-condition indicator in the C20 appears to be calibrated for alkaline cells, and so will incorrectly display the "half empty" (or is that "half full?") indication after only a few shots with a freshly-charged set of NiMH cells. No worry, though: The indicator will continue to show "half full" for many, many shots thereafter, thanks to the relatively "flat" voltage curve of the NiMHs. Thus, NiMH cells work fine in the camera, if you don't mind looking at a "half full" battery indication most of the time. (One note though, once the indicator moves down from half-full, you'll have very little charge remaining in your battery pack: Swap them out immediately!)
Software is an important part of the PhotoSmart story, thanks to the PhotoSmart "photofinishing" software that's provided with the C20 (and which is integral to the operation of the PhotoSmart scanner and printer as well.) We plan a more complete presentation on the entire PhotoSmart system, including this unique software in the near future, but for now will describe some of the functioning of the photofinishing program, and explain why we feel it is so significant.
With digital cameras, the task of getting images into your computer is trivially easy, almost without regard to the type of camera you purchase. True, some incorporate fancy software to ease the image-transfer process (as does the C20), but even the worst are faster than manual processes like image scanning. The real catch comes when it's time to actually do something with the pictures you've taken: It's a genuine hassle most of the time to sit down, tweak and crop the images, and feed them out to the printer. Worse, unless you're printing full-sheet images, you often end up wasting expensive inkjet paper printing the images out one at a time. The end result is often that the images stay in the computer, rather than being shared with the family. (My wife refers to this as the "digital black hole effect.") HP recognized this problem, and developed the PhotoSmart Photofinishing application; one of the slickest solutions we've seen for getting images back out of the computer in an efficient and painless manner.
The part of the process that's missing for most digital photographers is called "photofinishing" in the conventional, film-based world: The conversion of an assortment of randomly-exposed images into a set of presentable hard-copy prints. Face it, while computers are wonderful, and email nearly universal, when it comes right down to it, most people interact with images as pictures printed on physical pieces of paper. Photo albums, framed prints hanging on walls, prints displayed on a mantlepiece or other furniture at home, on a desk at the office, prints stuffed into a wallet -- all of these common uses require print-on-paper. As digital photographers, we have an array of wonderful inkjet printers (including HP's own "PhotoSmart" printer, which we'll discuss in greater depth elsewhere) available to create stunning prints from our digital photographs. In most cases though, there are significant obstacles to actually making the prints. Most applications only support one print per page of output paper. This isn't much of an issue when you're dealing with plain copier paper, but with photo-quality glossy paper running $0.50 to $1.00 (US) per sheet, it's prohibitively costly to routinely print out a cameraful of images. Programs exist that will gang-up prints of a uniform size, to print multiples of 2, 3, 4, or more images per page of output, but generally their capabilities are limited to printing the same number of copies each image, all at the same size. Finally, if you want to make individual adjustments to the images (for color, tone, cropping, etc), the process can become laborious in the extreme.
HP's PhotoSmart Photofinishing application addresses all these issues in a single, exceptionally easy-to-use, well-integrated application. To crank out a batch of prints, simply point the application at a folder on your hard disk (or at the camera itself) containing the images you're interested in. The program will display thumbnails of all the images, allowing you to select the ones you're interested in. All the images are displayed initially: Deselect the ones you're not interested in by highlighting them and then click the "remove" button. (They'll be removed from the active selection, but the original files aren't deleted from the camera or hard drive.)
Once you've selected the images you want, go to the "adjust" menu to adjust either exposure or color settings. We found the image-adjustment tools to be easy and flexible to work with. The "exposure" controls include separate sliders for adjusting the density of the shadows, midtones, and highlights, as well as an adjustment for setting the amount of sharpening applied to the images before printing. (A "reset" button will also set everything back to normal with a single click, if you get too lost in the adjustment process.) As you make adjustments to each image, the results are shown in a preview area. The color tools are similarly intuitive: A circular, rainbow-hued color control lets you adjust the overall color cast of an image very easily and interactively. A "saturation" slider controls the intensity of the colors. In all cases, it appears that the software is doing some optimization itself, before you even touch the controls, as the default positions of the various sliders and cursors vary from picture to picture, and we found that most images required fairly little additional tweaking. (Meaning that in most cases, you can just hit "print", and you'll get prints looking no worse than typical drugstore photofinishing.) In "adjust" mode, you can also type in a caption for each image, if desired.
Beyond image adjustment, there's the issue of arranging for multiple copies of images, printed at various sizes, all the while trying to make the most efficient usage of expensive paper and ink. This is where the PhotoSmart software really shines: While in adjust mode, each photo appears as a thumbnail in a scrolling list along the right-hand edge of the screen. Under each is a popup menu showing the image size, and a control to set the quantity of prints for that picture. The size menu initially defaults to the image size in pixels, meaning the image will print at a default size based on a "pixels per inch" setting you can adjust elsewhere in the program. To change the size of the print, you simply click on the popup, and choose from a range of pre-configured image sizes (which, again, are also user-configurable). This combination of controls makes it easy to request multiple copies of different images, with different sizes chosen for each image. (If you want different-sized prints of a single image though, you'll need to set up each size as a separate print job; only a minor effort.) For instance, you could ask for three 3 1/2 x 5 prints of image number 1, one 4x6 print of image number two, and so on.
When you select an output size for an image, the cropping guides in the preview window will automatically adjust themselves to the appropriate aspect ratio (a fancy term for the ratio of length to width): Adjusting either the crop height or width will adjust the other dimension in lock-step. You can also slide the cropping area around on your image to achieve the best composition. To handle images shot in "portrait" orientation, the software allows you to rotate both the screen preview and the crop box orientation.
When you're all done setting up your photos, the PhotoSmart Photofinishing software will take over the output process for you. There's one additional wrinkle that HP threw in though, that makes the program especially valuable: The "Paper Saver" option will automatically rotate and place your images on the final output pages to optimize paper usage! This is really slick, and over time could probably justify the purchase price of the entire camera system! (We've probably spen 4 or 5 times the original printer cost on paper and ink for our in-house inkjet.)
We've heard comments from some experienced users that the HP software's "user friendly" interface made them feel a bit like they were back in grade school, but we found little in it to complain about. The only minor deficiencies we found were the lack of any feedback as to portions of the image being pushed to either solid white or solid black by the highlight and shadow adjustment sliders, and the inability to specify multiple different print sizes for individual images. These are both fairly minor complaints though, and the overall usefulness of the application can hardly be overemphasized. (One side note though: The Photofinishing software assembles the pages as a single large file for each page. This means it likes a LOT of disk space to run with, on our system, insisting on at least 65 megabytes of free disk space before it would consent to operate. This may be a limitation for some folks with older systems, but with hard drive prices as low as they are these days, it's pretty cheap to dramatically upgrade your system's capacity.)
Oh yes, one important closing note: While HP would certainly like to see everyone buy their excellent PhotoSmart photo-quality inkjet printer, the PhotoSmart Photofinishing software has no bias toward any particular output device -- it will happily output images to any printer you can install normally under Windows.
After all of our focus on the Photofinishing software, we feel like we're slighting the other package included with the C20 camera, Microsoft's Picture It. While we won't go into the level of detail we just did with the Photofinishing software, we'll make at least the passing comment that Picture It is a very capable "consumer-level" imaging program. It includes multiple templates for creative projects, and a full range of image-editing tools. It's ability to quickly create photomontages is particularly impressive.
As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed: Explore the links at the bottom of this page, to see how well the Hewlett Packard PhotoSmart C20 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
The comments here are a summary of our more detailed analysis on the "Pictures" page for the C20: Refer to that page for a more in-depth analysis of the test results.
Overall, we were very impressed with the image quality from the C20: Images were well-exposed, with bright, clean colors and good detail. The fact that such pictures could be obtained with little attention to manual exposure adjustments or white balance correction speaks well of the C20's suitability as a general-use digital camera for consumers. (Inveterate knob-tweakers will find relatively few things to adjust on the C20: The good news is that you'll rarely feel a need to!) Although we don't have a quantitative test for it, we were particularly surprised and impressed by the C20's low-light capability, thanks to its 2 second maximum exposure time.
Detail and resolution was quite good, with a visual resolution of approximately 600 line pairs/picture height in both vertical and horizonatal directions, quite competitive with other cameras in a similar price/performance range. Performance in the outdoor far-field shot was very good as well.
The optical viewfinder on the C20 was about typically accurate, showing 93% of the field of view captured by the CCD. The LCD viewfinder was exceptionally, showing as near to 100% of the CCD's capture area as we could measure.
The C20 did moderately well in macro mode, hampered somewhat by the combination of its moderately wide-angle (39mm equivalent) lens, and relatively meager close-focusing distance of 8 inches (20 cm). The resulting images were sharp and showed good detail, but the minimum capture area of roughly 7 x 9 inches (22 x 17 cm) was a bit larger than most of the competition. The flash did work reasonably well up to the closest focus distance though, successfully throttling-back its output enough for all but the lightest subjects.
See for Yourself!
Take a look at the test images from the C20 (with extensive comments), or jump to the Comparometer(tm) page to compare its reference images with those from other digital cameras. Comments, issues, or (heaven forbid) an error in the review? Email us & let us know!
We confess that at first approach, the very simple user interface of the C20 led us to not expect a great deal from the camera: For whatever reason, we've become conditioned to associate quality images with complex devices. We were very pleasantly surprised then, by the quality of the images the C20 produced. Particularly in conjunction with the excellent PhotoSmart Photofinishing software, HP has created a truly useful digital camera that even computer neophytes will be comfortable with. We focus on the phrase truly useful: More than any other digital camera we've seen to date, the HP C20 holds the promise of easily-produced hardcopy prints to share with friends and family.
Do you have a C20 camera? If you'll post an album of your samples on one of the photo-sharing services and email us at email@example.com, we'll list the album here for others to see!
For More Info:
View the data sheet for the HP C20
View the test images from the C20
Questions, comments or controversy on this article? Click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about HP PhotoSmart C20, or add comments of your own!
Top 3 photos this month win:
1 Canon PIXMA PRO-100
2 Canon PIXMA MG6320
3 Canon PIXMA MG5420