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Olympus C-211 Zoom

Have your cake and eat it too! - 2 megapixels worth of digital photos, and a built-in Polaroid printer!

Review First Posted: 9/25/2000




MSRP $799 US

 

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2.1 megapixel CCD for 1,600x1,200 images
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3X optical zoom lens
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2-inch LCD monitor
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Built-in photo printer uses Polaroid Type 500 film!
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Pick the photos you want, print as many copies as you like!

 

Manufacturer Overview
An undisputed leader in the digicam marketplace, Olympus America Inc. offers the broadest lineup of consumer/prosumer digital cameras of any manufacturer. Recently, the company teamed up with Polaroid Corporation, the leader in instant photography products, to produce the Olympus Camedia C-211 Zoom, an amazing digicam/photo printer that introduces a whole new category in digital capture devices.

(It's important to note that Fujifilm has also announced digicam/printer combinations, using its own film-based media and thermal autochrome paper, but neither have made it to the U.S. marketplace. Thus, to our knowledge, the Olympus C-211 Zoom is the first such product to hit the US retail stores.)

Most everyone has used a Polaroid instant camera at one time or another. For the average user, however, Polaroid technology has always had two key limitations: 1) Every print (even the bad ones) cost you money, and 2) Short of building an elaborate copy-stand setup, or sending the print to a photo processing lab for copying and printing, there is no way to obtain multiple copies of the photos you've taken.

Because it's fully digital, the C-211 Zoom allows you to shoot and select only the images you want to keep, and since the initial exposure is not made directly on the Polaroid film, as it is in traditional Polaroid models, you have the option of printing only the photographs you want. Likewise, you can make multiple prints of the same digital capture, by simply pressing the "print" button the appropriate number of times.

Finally, the C-211 Zoom allows you to dial-in color and tonal adjustments and apply them to your prints. Combined with the camera's automatic white-balance feature, you can obtain far better prints from the C-211 than you'd normally expect from Polaroid film, especially in tough lighting situations. Best of all, you have permanent high-quality, 2 megapixel digital files of every image you've saved. These can be transferred to a PC for further manipulation, output on desktop digital printer, or uploaded to an online processing service to order larger prints.

With a list price of $799 at introduction, the Camedia C-211 Zoom clearly isn't aimed at the same teenybopper market Polaroid has so successfully won over with its iZone cameras, but it should find a large following in various commercial sectors, where the need for instant prints and digital files go hand-in-hand.


High Points



Executive Overview
The Olympus C-211 is not your typical point-and-shoot digital camera. The camera body measures 7 x 5.25 x 2.5 inches (17.78 x 13.34 x 6.35cm), and weighs 1.67 pounds (760 grams) without batteries, printing media, or SmartMedia card. This may sound a little large and bulky, but this larger size accommodates a very cool feature-the ability to directly print your digital images to Polaroid 500 film.

There are a number of situations where this feature would come in handy. For example, you could use it to document insured valuables, photograph real estate, or show step-by-step progress over the course of a job. The advantage of the C-211 is that you print only the exposures you want, and you have them immediately accessible to drop into a paper file (or to turn over to a client). No matter how you use it, the combination of digital capture and instant printing is a welcome departure from the norm.

The Camedia C-211 Zoom design is very straightforward. All of the controls (except for the shutter release) are within thumb's reach on the back of the camera, and the hand grip on the right side of the camera fits comfortably in the palm of your hand (a neck strap is included). Both the battery compartment and SmartMedia slot are fully accessible when the camera is mounted to a tripod.

A 3X, 5.4-16.2mm, aspherical glass zoom lens (equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera) is built into the camera, constructed with eight elements in six groups. The automatic aperture ranges from f/2.8 to f/8.6, depending on the zoom setting. The through-the-lens (TTL) autofocus can focus from 31 inches (80cm) to infinity in normal mode, and from 8 to 31 inches (20 to 80cm) in macro mode. Some manual focus presets are also available for quick-shooting situations, with set focal distances at 8 feet (2.5m) and infinity.

The C-211 also features 2X digital telephoto, but remember that digitally enlarged images often compromise quality. There is no optical viewfinder on the C-211. Instead, a two-inch, color LCD monitor remains activated whenever the camera is operational, displaying menu items, flash settings, focus modes, and digital telephoto settings in addition to the CCD image display. The camera's lens cap snaps securely inside the threaded lip of the lens barrel; and comes complete with a safety string so you can attach it to the neckstrap of the camera and prevent loss when not in use.

Exposure is automatic. The user makes manual adjustments by selecting different flash modes or by adjusting the exposure compensation, white balance, or light metering. Shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to 1/2 second, though they are not displayed on the LCD. The built-in flash has six operating modes: Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Off, Fill-In, Slow Sync, and Slow Sync with Redeye Reduction. An External Flash mode enables the camera to work with a remote flash and slave unit, but there is no sync terminal for an external flash head.

White balance offers five modes: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, and Fluorescent. Exposure compensation ranges from -2 to +2 in 0.5 EV increments, and is conveniently adjustable without calling up the Record menu. Two metering options include ESP, which averages several points in the image, and Spot, which meters light at the center of the LCD.

In addition to the standard still capture mode, the C-211 offers several special recording modes. Sequence shooting allows the user to capture up to 45 sequential shots, at approximately 1.3 frames per second (depending on image size, quality, information, and the amount of memory available). A Movie mode records up to 15 seconds of moving images without sound, at the 320 x 240 pixel image size. Two text capture modes-Whiteboard and Blackboard-are available for photographing meeting notes or chalkboards. When using an Olympus SmartMedia card, a Panorama mode enables the user to capture a series of photographs that can be stitched together later on a computer. Olympus also offers a variety of special function memory cards.

Images can be recorded at either 1,600 x 1,200 or 640 x 480 pixels, with fine and normal JPEG compression levels available. An uncompressed TIFF quality setting is available for larger image sizes. All files are recorded on SmartMedia cards; an 8MB card is provided with the camera. A USB cable connects the C-211 to either a Windows or Macintosh computer, and an accompanying CD-ROM is loaded with Camedia Master software, which provides image downloading and organizing utilities. Camedia Master also features limited image correction tools, some creative templates, the ability to piece together panoramic images.

Power for the C-211 Zoom is supplied by two CR-V3 lithium battery packs, which are provided with the camera. Four AA alkaline, NiMH, lithium, or NiCd batteries can also be used. We highly recommend that you invest in the optional AC adapter and battery charger. Models distributed in the US include a video cable for NTSC television and VCR devices, and European models are presumably equipped for PAL timing.

Naturally, the biggest news about the C-211 is its ability to print images directly onto Type 500 Polaroid film. As noted, this makes the body rather large and boxy, but the advantages are considerable. Just like any other digital camera, you can shoot as many pictures as you like without cost and delete any you don't like. If you decide you'd like to see one in print, you simply switch the camera to Print mode and press the friendly green button on the camera's back, press OK to confirm that you do indeed want to print the current image, and the C-211 will spit out a Polaroid print in about 20 seconds. Images develop in a couple of minutes, and you can print as many copies of the same image as you'd like. A set of four adjustments extend the camera's printing capabilities. Located in the Setup menu, these adjustments include: Brightness, Contrast, Red/Green Color Balance, and Sharpness. Very impressive!

Overall, we found the C-211 to be a surprisingly versatile camera, despite its fully automatic exposure control. The image quality is fairly typical of a midrange 2 megapixel digicam, but clearly, the most unique feature is the Polaroid printing capability. We miss the sophistication of direct aperture and shutter speed control, but realize that the C-211's intended audience is more oriented toward point & shoot operation than choosing its own exposure settings. Despite the simplified control system, the availability of multiple white balance settings and exposure compensation adjustment make for a dramatic extension to the capabilities of purely film-based Polaroid photography. If you need both instant prints and digitized versions of your photos, the C-211 should be an easy choice.


Design
The broad dimensions of the Olympus C-211 Zoom may keep it out of the "pocket camera" category, but don't let the larger size prevent you from exploring all it has to offer. First and foremost, the C-211's larger size accommodates a self-contained Polaroid print engine. This built-in printing capability allows you to quickly output your digital images on Polaroid 500 film (the same film size used in the Polaroid Joycam and Captiva cameras). In addition to single images, you can create an index print of four or nine images on one piece of film.

Although the camera is significantly larger than other digicams (7 x 5.25 x 2.5 inches or 17.78 x 13.34 x 6.35cm), the C-211 Zoom is lighter than it looks. Fully loaded with batteries, printing media, and a SmartMedia card, it can be handled for extended periods without fatigue, and the accompanying neck strap makes carrying this camera a cinch.



The front of the camera features the lens, shutter button, flash, and Polaroid film loading slot. The lens is protected by a removable plastic lens cap, which is tethered to the camera by a small strap. The film loading slot opens by sliding a small switch on the side of the camera and pulling the compartment forward slightly to remove and replace the used film pack. A large hand grip lies underneath the lens, giving you a nice, firm hold on the camera (thanks to the battery compartment). The extra weight in the grip helps to balance the camera on that pivotal point.




Viewed from the front, the right side of the camera houses a sliding latch to open the Polaroid film compartment, and a hinged plastic door that snaps securely over the camera's video output jack, USB connector, and DC input jack. One of the eyelets for the neck strap is also located on this side of the camera. The opposite side has the other neck strap eyelet and a SmartMedia compartment covered by another hinged, plastic door.

The C-211's top panel features a rectangular plastic door, through which the Polaroid print is ejected. The opening and closing of the door is controlled by the print mechanism, thus preventing light from accidentally exposing the Polaroid film.



All of the camera controls (except for the shutter button) are located on the C-211's back panel. Interestingly, Olympus decided to forego the optical viewfinder and opted instead for an omnipresent LCD monitor. The LCD has a "sunlit" backlight feature, which consists of a white plastic lid on top of the monitor that can be positioned to take advantage of directional light. Controlled by a sliding switch to the right of the LCD monitor, the white monitor lid can be popped open when the sun is behind the camera, and closed when the light source is in front. The result is improved LCD visibility in direct sunlight.

A large dial in the upper right corner of the back panel controls power on/off and camera operating modes, including: Record, Play, Print, and Set-Up. Four function buttons positioned below the monitor control Digital Telephoto, Focus/Info, Flash/Erase, and Menu access. To the right of these buttons is the Zoom lever, with a four-button arrow pad to navigate around the menus. The OK button sets your menu choices, and a Polaroid Digital Print button activates the print mode. The Mode dial is a little tricky, as it is somewhat flat relative to the camera. A finger grip on one side of the dial helps turn it, but it's easy to miss your stop, since the dial doesn't click securely into place at each setting. Just a minor gripe, since it didn't really affect our ability to use the camera.

Finally, the bottom of the C-211 is nice and flat, with only two access points–the openings to the removable battery compartment and the plastic tripod mount. The battery compartment is of an interesting design, with a long tray that slides in and out of the compartment and locks into place. Four AA batteries snap into the tray, and a small switch next to the opening releases and locks the tray into place. The battery compartment and tripod mount are well placed–far enough apart from each other to allow quick battery changes while the camera is still mounted on a tripod. We were also pleased to note that the SmartMedia card slot is accessed from the side of the camera rather than on the bottom panel, where the tripod mount would interfere with a quick media change.

Ergonomically, the C-211 is bulky but comfortable to hold. Our one major beef with the design is that the shutter button on our test unit was so @#%! hard to press! A half press set the exposure and white balance very easily, but we had to really bear down on the button to actually snap the picture. In low-light situations, this made it much more likely that we would jiggle the camera and end up with blurry pictures.


Viewfinder
As we mentioned earlier, the C-211 has no optical viewfinder; its LCD monitor must be activated at all times to operate the camera, making it somewhat power hungry. The 2.5-inch, low-temperature, TFT color LCD monitor has more than 113,500 pixels. A sliding switch on the right side of the monitor controls a backlight feature for shooting outdoors. Flipping the switch down opens a small plastic flap on top of the monitor to reveal a small white reflector. The reflector directs natural light into the monitor chamber, thereby illuminating the LCD image with natural light

We found this "sunlight assisted" backlight option quite useful within a limited range of situations. If the sun was directly overhead (best case scenario), or directly behind us, the sunlight backlight option worked quite well to improve the visibility of the LCD. If the sun was in front of the camera, the internal backlight worked better.

If you do a lot of outdoor shooting, this backlight-assist option could save you a bit of battery power, because the internal backlight is turned off whenever the backlight-assist shutter is opened. Overall, this is a nice feature, but we'd like to see an option that would allow the internal backlight to stay on with the shutter open to provide maximum brightness.

When the camera is in Record mode, the LCD monitor displays the image, a central autofocus target mark (brackets), the number of available images, and the quality setting. By depressing the four buttons below the monitor (left to right), you can adjust the Digital telephoto status, Focus mode, Flash mode, and access the Record mode menu. Exposure compensation is adjusted by depressing the left and right touchpad buttons.

In Playback mode (third icon from the top of the on/off control dial), the LCD monitor provides optional four- and nine-image thumbnail index displays, as well as a playback zoom function which enlarges the captured image 1.5 to 3 times, in 0.5X increments. You can access the index displays by pushing up on the silver zoom lever-once for the four-image index and twice for the nine-image index. To zoom in on the image, push down on the level-once for a 1.5X enlargement and twice for a 3X enlargement. Once the playback zoom is activated, you can use the four arrow buttons on the camera's touchpad to scroll smoothly around the expanded image.

The quality setting is reported at the top of the screen as you access each captured image: Standard Quality (SQ), High Quality (HQ), and Super High Quality (SHQ). Depressing the Info button cycles between the current file name and frame number.


Optics
The C-211 is equipped with a 3X, 5.4-16.2mm, aspherical glass zoom lens (equivalent to a 35-105mm zoom on a 35mm camera), with eight elements in six groups. The camera automatically sets the aperture one of two values, which vary from f/2.8 to f/4.4 or f/5.6 to f/8.6, depending on the zoom setting. Although not mentioned anywhere in the camera's documentation, we also noticed a set of filter threads on the lens bezel, but they appear to be an odd size: We didn't have any filters or adapter rings that fit them, so we can't be certain, but it appears that they are 35 or 36mm in diameter. (Best guess is 35mm.)

The C-211 provides four focus settings: two automatic TTL and two preset functions. By depressing the Focus button under the LCD monitor, you can choose Normal TTL autofocus, which covers objects from 31 inches away (80cm) to infinity (in this mode, no symbol appears on screen); Macro autofocus, indicated by a flower symbol, which focuses on objects from 8 to 31 inches (20-80cm); a Quick Focus manual setting which locks the focus on 8 feet (a 2.5m/8ft symbol appears on screen); and the Quick Focus Infinity setting, indicated by the infinity symbol, zeros in on objects as close as 4.3 feet in telephoto mode and objects no closer than 22 feet in wide-angle mode. (Note: In the 8 feet Quick Focus mode, the actual range of focus will be 5.9 feet to infinity in Wide-angle mode, and from 2.9 feet to infinity in Telephoto mode

The Quick Focus settings are particularly useful when you want to take a quick series of images without waiting for the camera to refocus, or if the light level is so low that the autofocus system can't achieve a good "lock".

The recessed glass lens is protected by a snap-in, plastic lens cap, which attaches to the camera body with a small strap. A series of small filter threads on the inside lip of the lens barrel is presumably designed to accommodate future accessory lens attachments. A 2X digital telephoto setting (controlled by the far left button under the monitor) is available at all focal lengths, but isn't as effective as true optical zoom. Digital telephoto enlarges the center of the CCD image, thereby increasing the amount of noise in the image and softening the resolution.


Exposure
The C-211 operates in Automatic exposure mode only, however the user does have control over exposure compensation, white balance, light metering, and flash. Aperture is automatically controlled, with values of f/2.8 or f/8.6, depending on the optical zoom setting. Shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to 1/2 second, and are also determined automatically.

As there is no optical viewfinder on the C-211, the LCD monitor automatically activates once the camera is powered on. The CCD image is displayed on the screen, in addition to various bits of information about the camera settings. The camera's digital telephoto status, focus distance, and flash modes are displayed on the left side of the monitor; the remaining exposures and image quality are displayed along the bottom; and exposure compensation is displayed on the right. With the exception of exposure compensation and image quality, each of these settings is adjusted using the buttons below the monitor. The camera does not display exposure settings.

Exposure compensation is manually adjustable from -2 to +2 in 0.5 EV increments by pressing the right and left arrow buttons on the back panel touchpad (located inside the zoom lever). White balance (WB) is controlled within the Record menu, with options for Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten and Fluorescent. The C-211's Quality mode is also set within the Record menu, with options for Standard Quality (SQ), High Quality (HQ), and Super High Quality (SHQ). A 12-second self-timer can be activated in the Record menu, with the countdown triggered by fully depressing the shutter button.

Two Light metering options are available, ESP and Spot. Digital ESP metering is the default metering system, which calculates the exposure by averaging light readings from several points throughout the image. Spot metering simply determines the exposure by reading the center of the image (inside the brackets). When shooting in Spot metering mode, you can manually lock the exposure by centering the part of the image you want to meter within the LCD monitor, depressing the shutter button halfway, and then recomposing the shot as you continue to depress the shutter button halfway. The same method can also be used to lock the autofocus, which is also based on the center of the image.

An interesting feature of the C-211's Record menu is that it allows you to make temporary menu changes. This means that if you want to change the White Balance for the current shot only, and return to the original setting quickly, you simply bring up the Record menu, make the change without exiting the menu, compose and expose the shot with the menu on the screen, and press the Menu button to close the menu without applying the setting.


Flash
The C-211 features a built-in flash with five operating modes: Auto, Redeye Reduction, Off, Fill-in, Slow Sync, and Slow Sync with Redeye Reduction. All flash modes are controlled by the Flash button on the back panel. The Auto mode puts the camera in control of when to fire the flash, based on existing light levels. The Redeye Reduction mode fires a small pre-flash before firing the flash at full intensity, to reduce the occurrence of the Redeye Effect. Setting the flash to Off simply means that the flash never fires, regardless of the exposure, while the Fill-in setting fires the flash with every exposure. For night scenes, the Slow Sync setting combines the flash with a slow shutter speed, allowing more ambient light into the image. Finally, the Slow Sync with Redeye Reduction does the same thing, only it fires the small pre-flash in advance. This mode is perfect for night portraits. Olympus rates the C-211's flash as effective from 8 inches to 13 feet (0.2 to 4.0 meters).

Within the Record menu, you can access an external flash option by scrolling to the bottom of the menu and selecting the special functions screen (a star-shaped icon). The final option is external flash. Although the camera doesn't feature a physical connection for an external flash, the camera is set up to work with a completely separate external flash attached to a slave unit. This means that the camera's built-in flash must be activated to trigger the slave unit. We found this a little interesting, in that it would presumably have been simpler to go ahead and include an external flash sync terminal. Regardless, the camera's ability to work with a more powerful, external flash does increase its flexibility.

The drawback to using this mode is that the camera's flash reverts to a single-pop operation. The C-211 (like most digicam flashes) uses one or more pre-flashes before the main exposure to set the white balance, and adjust other exposure settings. However, when the camera is set on the External flash mode, it switches to a single flash, to avoid accidentally triggering the external slave with the pre-flash. By eliminating the camera's pre-flash feature, you effectively reduce the camera's automatic metering capabilities.

The other challenge associate with using the External flash option is getting out of the mode when you're finished. To do so, you must return to the Record menu, re-enter the special functions screen, highlight the external flash option, and go back to normal flash mode by pressing the left arrow on the camera's keypad. You can also quit the mode by turning off the camera and starting it up again. We'd obviously have preferred a more user-friendly interface design for this feature, but were glad to see it included nonetheless, as we expect that many users of the C-211 will want to use external slave flashes to illuminate larger areas. (Examples might be insurance or police work.)

Sequence Mode
The C-211's Sequence shooting mode is activated through the Record menu by scrolling down to the third row from the top and selecting Change. This mode allows you to capture up to 45 sequential shots at 1.3 frames per second. The actual cycle time and maximum number of shots vary depending on the image quality setting, the amount of image information being recorded, and the available space on the SmartMedia card. Note that the mode is automatically canceled when the mode dial is turned from Record to any other position. Also, the flash is automatically disabled and the shutter speed will go no lower than 1/30 second, so darker scenes may be underexposed.

Movie Mode
The Special Function option under the Record menu (last row) offers a Movie recording mode. The C-211 can record up to 15 seconds of moving images, at approximately 15 frames per second (depending of course on the available SmartMedia space). Movies are automatically recorded at 320 x 240 pixel quality. The number of remaining seconds is reported on the LCD screen, along with a gauge that shows you the processing time. (When the gauge reaches the top, the camera stops shooting.) Optical zoom is available while shooting movies, but may work a little slower than it does in still photography mode.

Whiteboard & Blackboard Modes
Accessing the same Special Function option under the Record menu takes you to the Whiteboard and Blackboard recording modes. Both modes make capturing text at meetings or conferences a little easier, with the Whiteboard mode set up for capturing dark text on a light background, and the Blackboard mode set up for capturing light copy on a dark background. The C-211's manual notes that if the recorded text doesn't appear very clear, try boosting the exposure compensation (EV) for sharper results. Either mode can be canceled through the Record menu or by turning the mode dial to another selection.

Panorama Mode
The Panorama mode is available only when shooting with an Olympus brand SmartMedia card. Once the mode is activated, an alignment grid appears on the LCD screen. The four arrow buttons on the back panel let you determine the direction of your panoramic shot, by shifting the arrows on the alignment grid. You can take as many shots as the SmartMedia card will hold. Images can be "stitched" together on the computer, with the Camedia Master software provided with the camera. The Panorama option in the Record menu also doubles as the Special Function mode when using any of Olympus' special function media cards.


Printing
The most unusual feature of the C-211 Zoom is clearly the Polaroid photo printer that's built into it. We don't have a standard format for reviewing printers, so making direct comparisons against other photo output will be a little difficult. Probably the clearest statement to make about the C-211's output is that it looks every bit like the Type 500 polaroid prints you may already be familiar with from Polaroid's own Joycam or Captiva camera models. The prints measure 4.38 x 2.63 inches (111 x 67 mm), with an image size of 2.88 x 2.25 inches (73 x 57 mm). Color rendition and image resolution appear to be very typical of Polaroid Type 500 film, meaning that, to our eyes, the C-211 takes full advantage of the film's capabilities.


The Polaroid film pack lives inside the front of the camera, behind a large, hinged door. Type 500 film (also sometimes sold under the earlier designation of Type 95) has 10 prints per pack, and the C-211 keeps track of how many prints have been made, displaying the number still remaining in the pack whenever it's in Print mode.


Print Mode is a separate selection on the mode dial on the camera's back. In this mode, pressing the large green Print button will print as many copies of the currently displayed picture as you selected in the print-mode setup menu. You also have the option of printing individual frames from movie files, or index prints showing the contents of your memory card. If you want, the C-211 will also print the date or time when the picture was taken along the edge of the image area, or the images filename from the memory card. To avoid inadvertent film waste, you must confirm the print operation by hitting the "OK" button after pressing the green Print button. Once you do this, the print will slowly eject from a hatch on the top of the camera, taking about 20 seconds to finish. Once ejected, the Type 500 film develops in a couple of minutes.

We confess to not being huge fans of Polaroid film's image quality, at least when compared to the best quality conventional prints from a photo lab. (Of course, we have to admit that this may not be a very fair comparison, given the constraints that Polaroid film works under, literally developing itself in broad daylight, before your very eyes.) That said, the C-211 actually offers some significant improvements over film-only Polaroid technology.

In the C-211's setup menu, there's a screen of options you can set that govern the printing process. You can adjust brightness, contrast, green/red color balance, and image sharpening, each across a range of 5 units on an arbitrary scale. Our experimentation with these settings revealed that they provided a very useful range of adjustment in their respective parameters. The one adjustment that was lacking, and that we sorely missed was a yellow/blue color correction option: Shooting under incandescent lighting, most color errors are in this dimension, rather than the red/green one offered by the C-211.

While the tone and color adjustments provided by the C-211's print engine do allow you to obtain better prints than you would be able to otherwise, we suspect they're part of a nefarious plot to sell more film: If we hadn't had the option to change anything, we probably would have been quite content with the default prints we obtained from the C-211. With all these controls at our disposal though, we quickly burned through a pack of film, just playing with the various options.

Although we bemoaned the absent yellow/blue color control, we in fact discovered that the red/green correction was a better fit for the needs of most prints from the C-211. Perhaps it is typical of Polaroid film, but we felt that the prints from our sample unit generally looked a bit better with just a little green correction dialed in.

Another pleasant surprise is that the C-211 let us zoom in and crop out just a portion of each image, with a maximum "magnification" of about 3x. To crop into an image, push the zoom lever in the telephoto direction. Successive actuations of the zoom lever increase the magnification in steps of 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, and 3.0x. As the screenshot at right shows, when zoomed in, the printing area shows on the LCD display as a green rectangle. You can move this rectangle around the image area with the arrow buttons to select the portion of the image you want to print.

It's tough to show print quality over the Internet, thanks to the difference between a print and a computer screen, not to mention the variations between our reader's monitors, and the fact that we had to digitize the prints with a scanner in the first place. Subject to those limitations though, we wanted to show you the range of variation that the C-211 Zoom could achieve in each of its adjustment parameters. To that end, we've assembled the sets of images below. In each trio of photos, the middle one shows the results of the default setting in all parameters, while those on either end represent the extremes of the adjustment being demonstrated. You can see a larger version of each image by clicking on the photos displayed below.

Brightness
No surprises here, the brightness adjustment did exactly what you'd expect...


Contrast
A bit harder to see on the computer screen, but lowering the contrast setting decreased the dark/light range considerably.


Green/Red
As you can see here, this was one of the more pronounced adjustments. For most of the prints we made, we ended up leaving the camera set to a green/red setting of 4, or slightly toward the red side.


Sharpness
This is the hardest to convey a good sense of on the computer screen: When you hold a "soft" and "sharp" photo next to each other, the differences are immediately apparent, and carry a much different impression than do the highly enlarged scans we're showing here. Two things are evident even in the prints though, that are also easily seen here: First, "sharp" prints show the "halos" around high-contrast edges that are the telltale artifact of image sharpening when it's applied to the extreme. In the scanned images, you can clearly see this effect along the edges of the color chips. The second obvious difference is that there's much more "grain" in the highly sharpened prints. You can again see this in the color chips, this time in the form of a graininess in areas that should be filled with perfectly smooth color tints. Overall, we found that the default sharpening applied by the print engine was best for most subjects.


Of course, the biggest impact of digital on the image quality happens inside the camera, as the picture is being captured. With a conventional film camera, the color of the light on your subject will strongly affect the results, unless you resort to auxiliary color-correcting filters. Incandescent light in particular will produce a very strong yellowish cast in film that's been color-balanced for daylight.

With a digital camera though, the white balance system can correct for all but the most extreme color casts as the image is being acquired. All by itself, this capability dramatically extends the usefulness of the Polaroid film system.

Overall, we think the C-211 Zoom (and its likely successors) will carve out a new niche for themselves in the photography business, wherever both prints and digital files are needed. There are numerous applications where a physical print is needed either for immediate use, or to be attached to a paper file, yet where a digital image is also required for long-term archiving, or downstream usage as part of a digital workflow. Real estate, insurance, commercial applications, even law enforcement seem to be fruitful application areas. One of the more unusual uses we've heard of is for documenting makeup procedures for theatrical productions: This has long been a stronghold of conventional Polaroid film, but these days, the prints invariably end up getting scanned for permanent archiving later. The C-211 Zoom appears tailor-made for that usage, and we can easily imagine thousands of units being sold to that market alone. (A tip of the hat to John Henshall for that one!)

We'll avoid the cliché of saying the C-211's applications are "limited only by your imagination", but it does seem to offer some truly unique capabilities. By combining digital input with Polaroid output, it creates a new category of imaging device that we expect will find many uses.


Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a digital camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and it can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported, and because it can significantly affect the picture-taking experience, we now routinely measure lag time using a special electronic test setup.

C-211 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
3.41
Start with lens retracted. Time is delay until first shot captured.
Shutdown
2.5
Time until lens is retracted, camera is powered down. (No pending image processing though.)
Play to Record, first shot
3.26
Time is delay until first shot captured.
Record to play (max/min res)
8.62/3.84
Slower for max res images
Shutter lag, full autofocus
0.7-1.5
Varied with test conditions. Typical number appears to be 0.7 seconds.
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.30
About average
(Prefocus means half-pressed shutter before shot.)
Shot-to-shot cycle time (max/min res)
2.0/2.0
Pretty quick, thanks to buffer memory. First 2-7 shots this fast, then slows, depending on resolution setting.



Overall, the C-211 Zoom is a surprisingly fast digicam, with fairly rapid startup and shutdown times, decent shutter lag under normal conditions, and a very fast 2.0 second cycle time. The shutter delay was a little perplexing, as our normal electronic test setup seemed to confound the camera's autofocus circuitry. (Possibly due to the rapidly flashing numerals.) In any event, while we measured times on the order of 1.5 seconds with our normal test setup, the old Digital Eyes camera timer showed lag times on the order of 0.7 seconds fairly consistently. Thus, we'd rate the cameras shutter delay as 0.7 seconds in normal usage.


Operation and User Interface
We found the user interface on the C-211 to be pretty straightforward, with a fair amount of exposure options controllable through the function buttons on the back panel. Although the lack of an optical viewfinder necessitates the C-211's reliance on its LCD display, we were pleased to note that basic features like flash mode, focus mode, digital telephoto, and exposure compensation can be adjusted without calling up the Record menu.

We should also point out that the Record menu itself is well navigable, showing only one page of options per feature. The ability to temporarily change menu settings is also a plus, allowing you to change a setting, take the picture, and then return to your original settings without going through another menu change.

The C-211's control layout prevents extensive one-handed operation, although this is a minimal issue, since the camera's size practically ensures that you'll want a two-handed grip. Overall, we found the controls to be relatively simple to operate. The only noticeable problem was the excessive lag time between pressing the shutter button and firing the shutter.


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button: Located on the very front of the camera, directly beneath the lens, this silver button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed. When fully pressed, it fires the shutter.


Mode Dial: Positioned in the top right corner of the back panel, this nearly flat dial sets the camera's operating mode, with the following choices:



LCD Backlight Switch: To the right of the LCD monitor, this switch opens and closes the small plastic reflector on top of the LCD monitor. When open, the reflector directs natural light into the monitor chamber, thereby illuminating the LCD image with natural light


Digital Telephoto/Protect Button: The first function button (left to right) below the LCD monitor, this button enables the 2X digital enlargement feature when in Record mode. In Playback mode, this button protects individual images from accidental erasure (except during card formatting).


Focus/Info Button: To the right of the Digital Telephoto/Protect button, is the Focus/Info button, which cycles through the Focus menu in Record mode. Focus options include: Macro, 8 feet (2.5 meter), Infinity, and standard autofocus. In Playback mode, this button cycles between the filename and frame number of the currently displayed image.


Flash/Erase Button: Next in line is the Flash/Erase button. This cycles through the following flash modes when the camera is set on Record mode:


In Playback mode, this button deletes the currently displayed image from the SmartMedia card. After pressing the button, a small confirmation screen asks you to verify the action.


Menu Button: The last button in the line, this one pulls up the settings menu in Record, Playback and Print modes. It also dismisses the menu and cancels selections.


OK Button: Positioned to the lower right of the Menu button, this button confirms menu selections and actions in all modes.


Zoom Switch: Encircling the four arrow keys in the center of the back panel, this switch controls the 3X optical zoom while the camera is in Record mode. In Playback mode, pressing the switch toward the "W" activates the nine-image thumbnail index display. Pressing the switch toward the "T" enables the playback zoom feature.


Arrow Buttons: Four keypad arrow buttons, each pointing in a cardinal direction, are located in the center of the zoom switch. In Record mode, the left and right buttons adjust the amount of exposure compensation (EV) from -2 to +2 in 0.5 EV increments. In Playback mode, the left and right arrow buttons scroll through captured images. When playback zoom is enabled, all four arrow buttons allow the user to scroll around within the enlarged image. In all camera modes, the arrow keys navigate through menu settings.


Polaroid Digital Prints Button: Just beneath the zoom switch, this large, green button initiates the Polaroid printing process when the camera is in the Print mode. In Playback mode, pressing this button twice allows you to set up images for printing on a DPOF compatible device.


Film Tray Release Lever: Located opposite the camera lens, this sliding lever releases the Polaroid film tray.

Battery Compartment Lever: On the bottom panel of the camera, beside the battery compartment, this sliding lever unlocks and ejects the battery tray from its compartment.


Camera Modes and Menus

Record Mode: The Record mode, which allows you to capture still and moving images, is accessed by turning the mode dial to the camera position (second icon from the top). The camera controls both shutter speed and aperture, but you can adjust the flash, exposure compensation, metering system, image quality setting, white balance, and focus. The Record menu is accessed by the Menu button under the LCD (fourth from the left), and offers the following options:


Off: Turning the mode dial to this setting powers the camera off.

Playback: This mode is denoted on the mode dial with the traditional green Playback symbol. It allows users to scroll through captured images on the memory card, enlarge them, view them in an index display, protect or erase individual images, set up images for printing on DPOF devices, and display image filenames. Pressing the menu button displays the following options on the LCD monitor when a still image is displayed:


Pressing the menu button while a movie image is being displayed opens the following menu settings:


Print Mode: Print mode is marked on the mode dial with a green printer symbol. When a Polaroid film pack is loaded into the camera, this mode allows you to print individual captured images on Polaroid film. Pressing the menu button displays the following Print menu:


Setup/Digital Mode: The final stop on the mode dial, this mode sets up the camera for connection to a computer, as well as enables the Setup menu for changing camera settings. If the camera is connected to a computer with a USB cable in this mode, the camera automatically attempts to establish a connection with the computer. Otherwise, the Setup menu is displayed on the screen immediately upon entering the mode, with these options:


All Setup menu options are reset to the factory defaults when the batteries die and no power is being provided by the AC adapter.


Image Storage and Interface
The C-211 uses SmartMedia memory cards and comes packaged with an 8MB card. You can upgrade to sizes as large as 64MB. We like the Camedia C-211 Zoom's file naming protocol, which can progressively number each image, and includes the month and day at the beginning of the file name. This is helpful in determining when your photos were taken, even if they've never been organized.

You can protect the SmartMedia cards by placing a write protection sticker over a specific spot on the card. Stickers can only be used once and must be clean to be effective. Additionally, the C-211 allows you to write-protect individual images by pressing the Digital Telephoto/Protect button on the back panel while in Playback mode. It's important to note that write-protecting individual images does not prevent them from being deleted when the card is reformatted.

The C-211 is also packaged with interface software and a USB cable for speedy connection to both Mac and Windows based computers. Unfortunately, our test unit didn't include the software package, so we weren't able to time the data transfer rate. (USB camera connections generally operate at 250-500KB per second, fast enough that you probably won't need to buy an external card reader.)

Following are the approximate resolution/quality and compression ratios for an 8MB card (compression numbers based on our own computations):

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
Uncompressed
Fine
Normal
High Resolution Images 1 5 16
Approx.
Compression
1:1 4:1 12:1
Standard Resolution Images N/A 32 82
Approx.
Compression
N/A 4:1 9:1



Video Out
US versions of the Camedia C-211 Zoom come equipped with an NTSC video cable (we assume European models are equipped for PAL timing) for connection to a television set. The C-211 can play back captured still images and movies to any television, VCR, or other video output device. The manual notes that some television screens may place a black frame around the image, which will probably print with the image as well. Images may also appear slightly off center on the television screen. 



Power
The C-211 follows the design of other recent Olympus models, by providing for power through either four AA batteries, or two CR-V3 lithium battery packs. (Two of which are supplied with the camera.) We'd strongly recommend buying a couple of sets of high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries and a charger for normal use, as that will be by far the most cost-effective option. The CR-V3 batteries are a good choice for long term "backup" power, since they'll stay fresh in your camera bag literally for years. The lithium cells are just too expensive to warrant serious consideration for a normal power source though.

The C-211 features an interesting battery compartment, basically a rectangular tray that slides in and out of the camera. The tray locks firmly into place once inserted into the camera, and is released by a sliding lever. We found that the C-211 doesn't report the available battery power until the batteries are quite low, so you'll want to keep some freshly charged spares handy. The camera does feature a power saving sleep feature, which lets you set the amount of inactive time before the camera goes to "sleep" (from 30 seconds to three minutes). You can also set the camera to not display images while it's recording them to memory card, which will save a little extra power as well. An AC adapter is available as an accessory.

The table below shows the amount of power used for each of the camera's operating modes.

Operating Mode
Power Drain
Capture Mode, w/LCD
590 mA
Capture Mode, no LCD backlight
440 mA
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
570 mA
Half-pressed w/o LCD
420 mA
Memory Write (transient)
620 mA
Flash Recharge (transient)
1000 mA
Image Playback (w-w/o backlight)
420/280 mA



Overall, the C-211's power consumption is about average among 2 megapixel cameras we've tested. The absence of an optical viewfinder makes for shorter battery life though, as there's no way to avoid using the power-hungry LCD in normal operation. The "sunlit" backlight option will save a little power outdoors, but not as much as we'd expected it to. In normal operation, a set of high-capacity NiMH batteries should provide about 2 hours of continuous recording.


Included Software
The C-211 comes an Olympus Camedia Master software CD, compatible with both Windows and Macintosh operating systems. Camedia Master allows you to download and save images to your hard drive, and provides a basic organization utility. The software also features a few minor image correction tools, such as the ability to adjust brightness and sharpness. There's also a handful of creative templates for enhancing your images and making composites. This latest version of Camedia Master also includes panorama-stitching capabilities, allowing you to assemble multiple images into a single large panoramic photo.


Test Results
In keeping with our standard policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the C-211' Zoom's "pictures" page.

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 images on the pictures page, to see how well the C-211 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Overall, the C-211 produced reasonably good shots, with good color balance the majority of the time. Color balance and tonal range were quite good overall, and noise was reasonably low in the shadows. Resolution was a little on the low side, with a few quirks in our resolution target image that we hadn't seen before: The in-camera sharpening appears to add an odd blue cast to fine vertical detail through a range of frequencies from 200 to 600 lines per picture height. This behavior didn't appear in any of our other subjects, but you could expect it to appear in any image with closely spaced vertical lines of the right dimension. Resolution is also quite different vertically than horizontally, with aliasing limiting vertical resolution to 550 lines per picture height, and discernible detail stopping at about 750 lines. Horizontally though, other than the odd blue hue shift, there is virtually no aliasing, and resolution extends to 800 lines per picture height. Overall, a good performance, but not the best we've seen for a 2 megapixel camera, and further marred by the odd aliasing and sharpening artifacts.

The C-211 Zoom offers limited exposure control, in the form of a +- 2EV exposure-compensation adjustment, in 0.5EV steps. Given digicams' general sensitivity to losing highlight detail, we much prefer a 1/3 EV step size for exposure adjustment. Other than exposure compensation and white balance adjustment, the camera is a pure Point & Shoot, with none of the advanced exposure modes (aperture or shutter priority) found Olympus' higher-end models. Image noise was fairly good, but the camera's low light capability extends to only about 1/2 foot-candle (5.5 lux). This is sufficient to shoot reasonably well-lit city night scenes, but stops short of the incredible low-light abilities of high-end 2 megapixel digicams.

We missed having an optical viewfinder on the C-211, which would have improved capture-mode power consumption quite a bit. To its credit though, the C-211's LCD viewfinder was exceptionally accurate, showing very nearly 100% of the final image area. The "sunlit" backlight option also proved moderately useful when shooting outdoors in strong light, although it still isn't the ultimate answer to making LCDs visible in daylight. (We have to say that it worked remarkably well when the sun was directly overhead though.)

The C-211 is about an average performer in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of 3.03 x 2.27 inches (77.03 x 57.77 mm). This will be adequate for photographing most small objects, but falls quite a bit short of the ultra-macro capabilities of some of the more advanced cameras on the market. The provision of filter threads in front of the lens does allow for the possibility of using auxiliary macro lenses though.

Overall, the C-211 Zoom performs moderately well for its 2 megapixel class, actually doing quite a bit better than we expected it to, given its hybrid camera/printer nature. While Olympus' "camera only" products handily outperform it at the 2 megapixel level, we felt that surprisingly little image quality was sacrificed in the process of adding the Polaroid printing capability.


Conclusion
The C-211 breaks new ground in the digicam marketplace, combining digital photography with instant printing via readily available Type 500 Polaroid film. As a purely digital camera, the C-211 Zoom takes good (if not category-leading) photos with solid two megapixel resolution and good color rendition and tonal range. It's in the instant-printing area that it really excels though, exploding the limitations of conventional film-based Polaroid photography, dramatically facilitating expanded use of a proven, decades-old color print technology. While something of a "niche" product, we see it breathing new life into the instant-print photography business, opening a range of commercial applications and personal usage patterns that weren't previously feasible. If you need both instant prints and digital copies of your photos, this camera is the one to get.

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