Kodak, DVC-323 Digital Video Camera
A fast, fun, and powerful "Computer Eye"
||Easy, Fast USB Connection|
||Full 640x480 resolution in Still mode|
||Improved color balance and image quality|
||Full-featured software package|
As we've noted in other reviews, Kodak was one of the earliest entrants in the digital photography arena, and their broad product line both spans and to a significant extent, defines the current market.
With the DVC-323, we see Kodak moving into what promises to be an enormous potential market: The "Computer Eye" cameras. With increasing computer power and storage capacity, and new, higher-speed device interfaces (in this case, the "USB" bus), multimedia may be arriving for the common man (and woman). The DVC-323 and similar devices point to a coming time when cameras on computers become as ubiquitous as CD drives, and images become a natural, effortless part of routine business documents. Outside the office, the potential for video-capable computer-eye cameras is equally large, ranging from providing source material for family email to home-security and infant monitoring.
One attractive feature of "computer eye" devices is their low cost: By relying on the host computer for all the processing power, the cameras themselves amount to little more than a lens, a sensor, and some interface electronics. As a bottom line, if you're content to stay within range of the camera's tether cable, this is by far the cheapest route to digital photo capability.
The Kodak DVC-323 actually marks Kodak's second generation of digital computer eye cameras, and makes significant strides in color balance and image-quality over the earlier DVC-300. A full 640x480 ("VGA") resolution, progressive-scan CCD provides a little over 300,000 pixels of picture information. In still mode, it can capture either full-resolution images, or 320x240 ones more appropriate for email. In video mode, resolution drops to a maximum of 320x240. (Less, depending on a combination of desired frame rate, CPU speed limitations, and chosen output format.)
Until the advent of the DVC-323, most computer video cameras were woefully inadequate when used as still-image devices. The DVC-323 significantly changes that, competing surprisingly well at the low end of the VGA-resolution still camera marketplace.
"Star Trek Phaser Pistol." - If you're a Trekkie, the DVC-323 will be instantly familiar. An elongated case (2.5x2.0x5.0 inches, or 64x51x127mm) fits the hand well, and gives new meaning to the phrase "point & shoot". Actually, the camera is designed to spend most of its time mounted on the included tilting base, sitting on top of your computer monitor. The camera head readily clips and unclips from the base, making it easy to pick up and point at any object you want to take a picture with. The attached 9.8 foot (3m) cable provides a reasonable roaming range, although no one will mistake it for a portable camera. The camera has no power switch or lens cover: It's available whenever the computer is powered up, although only "on" when a software program tells it to become so.
In addition to the weighted plastic snap-on base, the DVC-323 also sports a standard 1/4-inch threaded tripod mount on its underside, allowing use with a tripod for greater stability.
Since the camera is only intended to be used connected to a host computer, there's no need for a viewfinder on the camera head itself: With the high-speed USB interface, there's no lag between what the camera is pointed at and what shows in the preview window on your CRT. Here, your computer screen becomes the viewfinder. For a camera operating in tethered mode, this is exactly what you would want: The high speed of the USB connection makes it truly practical.
The lens of the DVC-323 is interesting in that it is a glass/plastic hybrid. Using the relatively expensive optical glass to best advantage, one of the three elements in the f2.5 lens is glass, while the other two are plastic. The lens has a field of view of 42 degrees, corresponding to a 42mm lens on a 35mm camera. The basic lens coverage area can be modified in software via a "digital zoom" feature, which can enlarge the image and simultaneously reduce the coverage angle to 20 degrees, roughly corresponding to an 85mm lens on a 35mm camera. Of course, this occurs only at some loss of resolution, since all that's happening is the computer is cropping-out a portion of the image and using interpolation to make it fill the selected image area. For still pictures, this is a significant limitation, but for video images, the digital zoom provides very real magnification, since the sensor has more pixels than are used in the video images anyway.
The lens focuses continuously from 5 inches (12.7cm) to infinity, via a single thumbwheel embedded in the top/front of the camera housing. The lens operates at a constant fixed aperture of f2.5, and all exposure adjustment is accomplished electronically via the shutter speed and digitizing electronics.
Kodak doesn't give the DVC-323 an equivalent ISO rating, but does suggest a minimum illumination level of 100 lux. This corresponds to a photographic exposure level of about EV 10. Combining this with the f2.5 lens aperture, and the maximum exposure time of 1/12 of a second would give an effective ISO of 200. In actual practice, we found the 323 could capture usable (albeit lower-quality) images at even lower light levels, leading us to conclude that the actual equivalent ISO rating is closer to 400. This is quite sensitive, but a requirement for a device intended to work well under normal indoor illumination levels.
The DVC-323 uses an "electronic shutter," meaning that the image is captured simply by controlling signals to the CCD sensor. Shutter speed is determined automatically by the controlling software, and ranges from a low of 1/12th of a second to a high of 1/500th of a second. (As an option though, the PictureWorks Live lets you specify "fast" shutter speeds, which prevents the speed from dropping below 1/40th of a second, for capturing moving subjects.)
One of the strengths of the DVC-323 is its excellent white-balance capability: The camera/software's automatic compensation for illumination ranging from incandescent to fluorescent lighting is surprisingly effective, rendering a relatively neutral color balance under widely varying conditions.
Operation and User Interface
The "user interface" of the DVC-323 itself consists of two controls: A push-button to signal the computer to take a picture and a thumbwheel to adjust the focus. Beyond that, operation of the camera is entirely controlled by the software application driving it, so the "user interface" will vary depending on what program you're using it with. Since the included PictureWorks Live software covers most general-purpose camera functions, we'll refer to that package in our discussion here. (Normally, we'd put this information in the "Software" section below. Since the software is so integral to using the device though, we'll cover most functions here, and limit our discussion in the Software section to the other packages shipped with the device...)
When you initially bring up the PictureWorks Live software program, the camera is activated, and you immediately see an image of whatever it's pointing at on your screen. From here, you can adjust the camera characteristics, take a still picture, or record a video.
Camera options include multiple adjustments for Exposure and Color, Image Size and Quality, and Video Recording, grouped in the user interface under tabs with those headings.
The Exposure and Color screen holds a number of useful and very functional controls. You can choose either to let the program determine the exposure, or to set it manually with brightness/contrast slide controls. If you choose the auto-exposure setting, you can also select whether the program bases its determination on the image as a whole, or primarily on the central portion of the scene. (This is useful in situations where your subject is lit differently than the background, as in the case of backlighting, or a lamp shining only on the subject.) Shutter speed options are either "normal," which allows a range from 1/12th of a second to 1/120th, or "fast," which restricts it to speeds ranging from 1/40th to 1/500th of a second for moving subjects.
The color controls on the Exposure and Color control panel are fairly extensive: A "Light Source" selector lets you choose between automatic white balance, daylight, "Office" (fluorescent), or "Home" (incandescent). A "Hue" slider lets you adjust the overall color cast manually, along a scale running from red to green. This seems reasonable, but we would also have liked a control for handling the blue/yellow balance as well. (Full three-channel color control is provided by Kodak's own driver software for the '323 though, and adjustments made there carry over to any application software that works with the device.) A "Saturation" control lets you adjust the intensity of captured colors, with settings running from "low" to "high."
Interestingly, you can use the settings on Kodak's separate "Video Settings" driver software to "lock-in" a custom white balance for a particular situation. It sometimes happens that the camera has a hard time figuring out what to call "white" in a scene. If this happens, you can go to Kodak's Video Settings window, put a white sheet of paper in front of the camera (making sure the lighting is the same as it will be for your final pictures), and then change the white balance setting from "Auto" to another setting (such as "daylight"), and then back again. This re-initializes the automatic white balance system with a known neutral image. This white balance will stay locked in the camera after the paper is removed and you return to your actual subject.
The Image Size and Quality tab takes you to a screen with sliders to set the digital zoom ratio and video quality, and buttons to select finished image sizes. The ends of the zoom slider range are simply labeled "Telephoto" and "Wide," indicating which way to drag the slider for the desired effect. No focal-length equivalents are shown, as they really aren't important: Just look at the screen and adjust the controls until you achieve the framing you want.
The Video Quality slider is labeled to show the tradeoff between frame rate and sharpness or image quality: At high frame rates, the exposure time is necessarily shorter, which makes for images with more noise in them, especially in low-light conditions.
The buttons for setting finished image size are pretty self-explanatory, with two separate sets for still and video recording. In still mode, the camera can capture images at 160x120, 320x240, and 640x480 pixels. In video mode, the available resolutions are 80x60, 160x120, and 320x240. When taking still pictures, the camera automatically switches into the selected higher-resolution mode, and lengthens the exposure time to reduce image noise.
The PictureWorks Live software also includes two intriguing time-lapse settings, that allow you to program the camera to take pictures at fixed time intervals, ranging from once a second to once every 24 hours. In the "Autosnap" mode, the camera will capture individual images at intervals ranging from 5 seconds to 24 hours. These images are either stored in sequentially-labeled files, or you can choose to have the most recent image always overwrite the previous one, leaving you with a single image of the most recent shot. The time-lapse video option lets you choose an interval of 1 second to 1000 minutes, and strings the individual frames together into a normal Windows "AVI" file, so you can view the results as a movie. The end result is a video that shows events that originally took place over a long period of time compressed into a much shorter interval. (Time-lapse movies shot through the window of moving clouds or an approaching storm can be pretty dramatic and a lot of fun. On a more practical note, the time-lapse feature can turn your computer and the DVC-323 into a fairly effective security device.) A "Stop Motion" button also lets you specify a number of frames after which image acquisition should stop when in the "continuous recording" (normal video) mode.
Several adjustments are also available on Kodak's Video Settings driver software that let you set up the camera to work with specific videoconferencing systems. Some of these programs expect very specific images sizes and formats, and won't work if everything isn't to their liking. The Image Format control panel in Kodak's software lets you choose from a wide variety of configurations to find the one that fits the needs of your specific software.
Image Storage and Interface
Well, there isn't any... Alternatively, there's gigabytes! Obviously, since the DVC-323 has no internal storage, our standard topic heading is a bit of an awkward fit here. We can use the space though, to mention available image file formats and file types that the software supports: PictureWorks Live can save images in Windows BMP, JPEG, TIFF, or PNG formats, a wide enough assortment that you should have no difficulty using the image with typical word-processing or page-layout programs.
The camera and its electronics are quite fast, but from a testing and "what should I expect" standpoint, trying to quantify their speed is a real can of worms: The frame rates you get from the DVC-323 will depend strongly on the capability of the computer you have it plugged into. A slow CPU, poor USB implementation, and/or slow hard disk will all detract from the maximum frame rate you can achieve with the camera. Our test computer was a somewhat aging 133 MHz non-MMX Pentium CPU with 48 meg of RAM and a reasonably fast Ultra DMA IDE hard disk. On this hardware, we consistently captured videos at 12.2 frames per second (fps), although we lost frames whenever the program had to write data out to the hard drive. On our PC, it seemed that the camera always recorded at the 12.2 fps rate regardless of image size, but dropped frames from the sequence as we went to larger image sizes. The result at 320x240 was somewhat choppy motion in the recorded movies.
In Kodak's own testing, the 323 consistently scored highly, relative to other USB-connected devices, losing out only to a dedicated board/camera combination from US Robotics. On a "high end" PC, they clocked 160x120 videos at 18 fps, and 320x240 ones at 11.9 fps. We can't confirm or deny these numbers, and don't know the characteristics of their test machine, but present the figures anyway as a potentially useful data point.
Again, not much for this standard category: The DVC-323 draws its power from the host computer via the USB connection. The spec sheet claims a maximum drain of <500ma at 5 volts DC.
We discussed the Kodak video driver software and PictureWorks Live at some length above. In addition to the basic picture-taking and camera-control functions we described, the program also includes several image-enhancement functions, such as image sharpening or blurring, cropping and rotation, posterizing, and embossing.
Other software included with the 323 includes the ever-popular Kai's Power Goo, for "morphing" people and objects into photo-quality caricatures, and two popular videoconferencing packages; Microsoft's NetMeeting and CU-SeeMe from White Pine software.
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 DVC-323 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
The DVC-323 is clearly a breakthrough in the low-cost "computer eye" category of digital cameras, with image quality falling only slightly short of the best standalone VGA-resolution cameras. Indeed, since the raw images are captured and stored completely uncompressed, the images show none of the compression artifacts that detract from the image quality of most low-end portable digital cameras. In our resolution test, using the "WG-18" ISO test target, the resolution measured about 400-450 line pairs/picture height in both horizontal and vertical directions, although horizontal resolution appeared to be slightly higher. (The camera produced strong color artifacts as the repeating lines approached frequencies of 425 lp/ph. These artifacts were more pronounced in response to vertical lines, but began at lower frequencies for horizontal ones.)
We felt that raw images from the DVC-323 had a somewhat "soft" appearance, but the sharpening function built into the PictureWorks Live application did an excellent job of "focusing" the images, without introducing artifacts of its own due to over-sharpening. The images we've put on the site here are "raw," without the benefit of this sharpening function, as we wanted to most fairly portray the operation of the camera itself. You may want to play with the images in PhotoShop or another image-manipulation program though, to see for yourself how well they take sharpening.
Although this camera obviously wouldn't be used for outdoor real estate shots, the "house" image shows the camera's ability to capture detail, and the complete absence of compression artifacts. It also demonstrates the two principal weaknesses we observed in the camera: Limited dynamic range, and center-to-edge light falloff. Some detail is lost in the center of the image, because the mulch in the flower bed is rather washed out due to over-exposure. At the same time though, the edges of the image are unusually dark, even though the scene lighting was scrupulously uniform.
The DVC-323 also has an exceptional white balance capability: It can easily neutralize color casts ranging from slightly warm to quite cool. In our testing though, it wasn't able to completely remove the warm cast from residential incandescent lighting, regardless of whether we used the "incandescent" or "automatic" white balance settings. (Overall, we found the "automatic" setting worked the best for us in all conditions, and that is how we operated the camera in all our shots.) Since white balance is such a key capability of a camera with the intended usage of the DVC-323, we included shots of the "Davebox" test target taken under daylight, incandescent, and fluorescent conditions in our set of test images for the DVC-323.
We found the macro capability of the DVC-323 quite striking, with a minimum coverage area of roughly 4.7x3.5 inches (11.9x9.0mm). This is quite impressive, especially in such an inexpensive device.
See Kodak's Test Images
In preparing for this review, we spent a long time wrestling with the USB ports on our studio Windows machine. There's really a whole side-story to be told about the USB bus: When it works, it's nothing short of fantastic, but if your computer isn't equipped with the capability, you may as well just wait and buy one that already has that feature, rather than attempting the upgrade. - Chances are, any Windows machine bought since about Fall of '97 will have USB installed and working, and any machine with the new Windows '98 will be fully enabled. The Windows machine in our studio fell into an awkward in-between situation: It had USB ports, but they weren't enabled, and we needed to upgrade to a special version of Windows '95 to get them working. After probably 30-40 hours of elapsed technician time, they're finally working, but it 'weren't pretty! Now that they are, we (finally) have our own standard test images up on the site.
While we were struggling with the USB port, we posted some comparison images provided by Kodak, shot with a variety of "computer eye" competitors, including their previous DVC-300. Even after we had our own images up, we felt that the Kodak comparison was valid, and would be useful to our readers as well. The upshot was we that decided to leave the Kodak images on-line: Check them out in Kodak's area on the Imaging Resource. Kodak also included a good discussion of quality factors in digital video devices, which we have posted as a framework that the sample images appear within. Please note that all material in Kodak's area is provided by Kodak, and not by the Imaging Resource. Accordingly, we do not vouch for the validity or representative accuracy of any of this material. The Kodak tests appear to be reasonably well conducted and controlled, and remarkably even-handed, but we take no position and make no comment on their results.
The Kodak DVC-323 represents a genuine step forward in image quality for tethered computer video cameras. It not only is a capable digital video device, but works surprisingly well as a VGA-resolution still camera as well. If you're looking for a tethered digital camera at a great price, the DVC-323 looks like a sure bet!
Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a DVC323 camera? If you'll post an album of your samples on one of the photo-sharing services and email us at [email protected], we'll list the album here for others to see!