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Toshiba PDR-M81

Toshiba steps into the 4-megapixel arena with a value-priced, full-featured model.

Review First Posted: 08/24/2001



Click to Buy Now at State Street Direct!
MSRP $799 US

 

*
4.2-megapixel CCD for files as large as 2,400 x 1,600 pixels
*
Sharp, Canon-built 2.8x ( 35-98mm equivalent) lens.
*
Sophisticated exposure mode, plus six preprogrammed scene modes for excellent creative control.
*
Fast USB port for computer connection


Manufacturer's Overview
A true leader in the digital imaging industry, Toshiba America introduced its first digital still camera in 1996. The PDR-2 revolutionized consumer digital photography by offering the first PC Card interface, a low-power CMOS chip for image capture, and an interface specifically designed for use with Toshiba's popular laptop computers. The company is also known for inventing the SmartMedia flash memory card, one of the most popular in-camera storage formats in the digicam industry, and the FlashPath card adapter, which enables users to read SmartMedia cards directly from a computer's 3.5-inch floppy drive.

Since 1996, Toshiba has introduced a full line of digital cameras, all priced for the beginning and advanced photo enthusiast ($400 to $1,000). Its current crop (July 2001) includes eight models, which range from the entry level 2.1-megapixel PDR-M21, to the 3.3-megapixel PDR-M65 (introduced in January), to the latest 4.2-megapixel model, the PDR-M81. The new M81 models offers a broad range of auto and manual exposure features, making it suitable for all levels of users, from novice to advanced amateurs.


High Points



Executive Overview
Neatly housed in an all-plastic body, the PDR-M81 is a significant update to Toshiba's already established digicam line. The PDR-M81 has all the features we enjoyed in the previous PDR-M70, but with a larger, 4.2-megapixel CCD and full manual exposure control. The PDR-M81 is compact at 4.2 x 2.8 x 1.8 inches (107 x 71 x 47mm), barely fitting into an average shirt pocket. It's also very lightweight, at only 8.5 ounces (340 grams), and comes with a small carrying case and wrist strap. (We'd actually prefer a bit more "heft" to the camera, as its plastic body gives it a somewhat cheap feel.)

The PDR-M81 offers a real-image optical viewfinder and a 1.5-inch color LCD monitor for composing images, The LCD monitor's detailed information display includes exposure information, camera settings, battery power, and even a small histogram for double checking your exposure. A Canon 2.8x zoom lens is built into the camera, with a focal length extending from 7.25-20.3mm (equivalent to a 35-98mm lens on a 35mm camera). Focus is automatically controlled from 31 inches (80cm) to infinity in normal mode, and from 4 inches to 2.62 feet (10 to 80cm) in Macro mode. Three fixed-focus settings are available via the Focus button (which also accesses the Macro mode), and include one meter, three meters, and infinity settings. A digital zoom function increases the camera's zoom range by 2.2x (just remember that digital zoom generally decreases image quality).

When it comes to exposure, the PDR-M81 provides as much or as little control as you need. In the Automatic record mode, you can choose fully automatic exposure, or select from a handful of Scene exposure modes (Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night, and Multi-Shot). While the Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night modes deal with specific shooting situations, Multi-Shot mode would be useful in any situation where you need to capture fast-changing action, and where speed is more important than resolution. Multi-Shot mode captures a series of 16 small (600 x 400-pixel) images at intervals of approximately 0.13 seconds (7.5 frames per second), which are saved as one 2,400 x 1,600-pixel image (good for creating timelines of moving subjects).

Under the Manual record mode, you have the greatest control over exposure. Here, you can choose from Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual exposure modes. In Program AE, the camera maintains control over aperture and shutter speed, while the user controls other variables such as ISO, White Balance, etc. In Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, the user controls aperture or shutter speed, while the camera selects the most appropriate corresponding exposure variable. Manual mode gives the user complete control over both. Apertures are adjustable from f/2.9 to f/8, and shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to 15 seconds.

By default, the camera determines exposure using the Multi metering system, which measures light across the entire frame, but a Spot metering option is also available. Sensitivity is adjustable to ISO equivalents of 100, 200, and 400. You can lighten or darken the exposure by adjusting the exposure compensation from -2 to +2 exposure values (EV) in one-half step increments. White Balance is also manually adjustable, with six settings to match a variety of light sources. The PDR-M81 also provides Color, Contrast, and Sharpness adjustments.

An Autoexposure Bracketing mode captures three images at different exposures (-0.5, 0.0, and -0.5 EV), allowing you to choose the best exposure from the set. In Burst Photography mode, the PDR-M81 captures three images in quick succession (at approximately 0.8-second intervals), from which you can choose which image(s) to keep. (Actual frame rates vary with image size and quality, as well as the amount of image information being recorded and the shutter speed.) For self-portraits, the PDR-M81 offers two- and 10-second Self-Timer modes, controlled by a button on top of the camera. There's also a Movie mode that captures moving images with sound at 320 x 240- or 160 x 120-pixel resolution sizes.

The PDR-M81 saves images in one of three resolutions (2,400 x 1,600-, 1,200 x 800-, and 720 x 480-pixels), with three JPEG compression levels available (Fine, Normal, and Basic). Images are saved to SmartMedia cards, and an 8MB card is included with the camera. A software CD contains USB drivers and interface software for downloading images, and a USB cable connects the camera to a PC or Macintosh computer. An AV cable (NTSC for US and Japanese models, PAL for European models) connects the PDR-M81 to a television set, which can be used for image composition or playback. For power, the PDR-M81 requires four AA alkaline, NiMH, or lithium batteries (four alkaline batteries are supplied with the camera), or the optional AC adapter, which is available as an accessory.

With an updated user interface, larger CCD, and full manual exposure control, we're quite pleased with the new PDR-M81. It's a great digicam for novices who want to learn more by incrementally increasing the amount of user control, and it has enough features to keep more advanced consumers interested.


Design
Despite its lightweight, all-plastic body and its relatively compact size, the Toshiba PDR-M81 provides a whopping 4.2-megapixel CCD and full manual exposure controls. At 4.2 x 2.8 x 1.8 inches (107 x 71 x 47 millimeters) and only 8.5 ounces (340 grams) without batteries or SmartMedia, the Toshiba PDR-M81 just barely fitting into a normal shirt pocket, and comes with a wrist strap and soft carrying case for easy toting. The light weight is doubtless due in part to its all-plastic body, but for our part, we'd gladly trade a little weight for a more rugged feel. (The M81 just feels a little cheap when you pick it up.)


At the front of the camera is the 2.8x Canon lens, which telescopes out from the camera body when powered on. The lens retracts into a small recessed casing whenever the camera is powered off or left inactive for a set period of time. A small, plastic lens cap fits into this recessed area to protect the lens when not in use, and attaches to the camera body via a tiny strap, which prevents it from being accidentally lost. Also on the front of the camera is a small microphone, the optical viewfinder window, flash, and self-timer light. The PDR-M81 doesn't offer much of a hand grip, though a sculpted, rubber strip on the front panel provides a resting place for your fingers as they grasp the camera.


The right side of the camera (when looking at the back panel) holds only the SmartMedia compartment and wrist strap attachment eyelet. A sliding switch releases the compartment door, revealing the memory card slot.


On the opposite side of the camera are the input jacks (DC In and AV/USB) and a speaker.


A variety of camera controls are on the camera's top panel, including the Self-Timer, Image Quality, Flash, Shutter, and Power buttons, as well as the Mode dial. A small status display panel reports a variety of camera information, such as flash mode, image quality, and battery power.


The remaining camera controls are on the back panel, along with the LCD monitor and optical viewfinder eyepiece. Controls include the Four Way Arrow pad, Zoom control, and the Menu, Focus, Folder, Erase, and Display buttons. A small LED lamp next to the optical viewfinder eyepiece indicates the camera's current status, such as when focus and exposure are set or the flash is charging.


The PDR-M81 has a nice, flat bottom panel, which contains the plastic, threaded tripod mount and battery compartment. The battery compartment door features a sliding lock switch, and slides out before opening. The battery compartment and tripod mount are much too close to allow quick battery changes while working on a tripod. However, we do appreciate the side access to the DC-In jack, which is very useful when operating the camera on a tripod in the studio.


Viewfinder
The PDR-M81 is equipped with a real-image optical viewfinder and a color LCD monitor for composing images. The optical viewfinder zooms along with the lens, but it does not show digital enlargement, which requires the LCD monitor. Though there is no diopter adjustment, the optical viewfinder does have a fairly high eyepoint, which should accommodate most eyeglass wearers. An autofocus target crosshair in the center of the view indicates the camera's focus area. An LED lamp on the right side of the eyepiece reports camera status. For example, if it lights green, focus and exposure are set. A flashing green light indicates that the autofocus or autoexposure systems are having trouble taking a reading. A glowing orange light indicates that the flash is charging, and a red light appears when the camera is writing information to the memory card. If the LED lamp flashes red, the camera has an error and an error message should appear on the LCD screen.

 


The 1.5-inch, wide-view, low-temperature polysilicon TFT LCD monitor has approximately 117,600 pixels. The LCD displays an abundance of camera information, including exposure mode, battery power, exposure settings (in manual modes only), the number of available shots, flash mode, file size and quality, a histogram (also in manual modes only), and any exposure adjustment settings, such as Exposure Compensation or White Balance. The Display button below the LCD monitor controls the information and image display, cycling through the following options: Image with information display, image only, and no display. In addition to the LCD-based menu system, the LCD also displays direct menu options along the left side of the screen. These menu options are accessed by pressing the "Enter" button in the center of the Four Way Arrow pad. (We have to admit that we found this a little tricky at first, and had to refer to the User Guide to understand how to activate the menu, although we soon found it a faster way to change exposure settings than the main menu system.)

In Playback mode, the PDR-M81 offers an Index display mode that shows as many as nine thumbnail images on the screen at once. You can also enlarge captured images on the LCD screen and check on fine details or framing.

In our tests, the M81's optical viewfinder was quite tight, showing only 81 percent (wide-angle) to 83 percent (telephoto) of the final frame area. The LCD viewfinder did much better, showing 96-97 percent of the final image. We like to see optical viewfinders showing 90 percent or more of the final image area, and LCD viewfinders showing as close to 100 percent as possible. On that basis, we gave the M81's optical viewfinder poor marks, but the LCD received fairly good ones.


Optics
A Canon 2.8x, 7.25-20.3mm lens is built into the PDR-M81, the equivalent of a 35-98mm lens on a 35mm camera. Aperture can be manually or automatically adjusted from f/2.9 to f/8. The PDR-M81 employs a contrast-detection autofocus mechanism, with a focal range from 31 inches (80cm) to infinity in normal mode, and from four inches to 2.62 feet (10 to 80cm) in Macro mode. A Focus button on the back panel accesses the Macro mode, as well as three fixed-focus settings (one meter, three meters, and infinity). Though the PDR-M81 does not feature a focus lock button, you can manually lock the focus by pointing the center of the frame at a specific part of the subject and halfway pressing the Shutter button, then reframing the subject while keeping the Shutter button halfway pressed. This locks focus and exposure until the Shutter button is either fully depressed or released.

In addition to the PDR-M81's 2.8x optical zoom, the camera also features 2.2x digital zoom, which is enabled through the Record menu. Once activated, digital zoom is controlled with the Zoom rocker button on the back panel. Digital zoom is accessed by zooming past the normal telephoto range, which is indicated on the LCD monitor by a progress bar (the digital zoom portion shows up in red). We always remind our readers that digital zoom is merely enlarging the center portion of the CCD, which decreases the overall image quality with excess noise and / or lower resolution.

Optical distortion on the M81 is a bit better than average at the wide-angle end, where we measured an approximate 0.59 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared much better, as we found only two pixels of barrel distortion (about 0.08 percent). Chromatic aberration is moderate, showing about three pixels of coloration along either side of the target lines. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) We'd thus say that the PDR-M81's lens is overall of fairly high quality, although we did observe significant softness in the corners of the frame.


Exposure
The PDR-M81 offers a great deal of exposure control, with a range of exposure modes that give you as little or as much control as you want. The Mode dial on top of the camera controls the basic recording mode, offering Automatic, Manual, or Movie modes. Within these selections are a variety of options to choose from.

Under the Automatic setting, you can choose from Full Automatic, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night, and Multi-Shot exposure modes (via the on-screen menu option). In Full Automatic mode, the camera makes all of the exposure decisions for you, with the exception of flash and file size settings. Portrait mode adjusts the aperture so that the background is blurred and the subject is the main focus (by using a larger aperture and decreasing the depth of field). Landscape mode adjusts the camera for distant scenes and landscapes, by setting the focus for infinity and using a smaller aperture for a greater depth of field. In Sports mode, the camera increases the shutter speed to "freeze" fast-paced action. Night mode allows you to photograph people against dark backgrounds, such as city scapes, without losing any of the background details or color. (The flash is fixed in a Slow-Synchro mode automatically.) Finally, the Multi-Shot mode actually takes 16 shots at intervals of approximately 0.13 seconds (7.5 frames per second), which are saved as a single 2,400 x 1,600-pixel image. This is a good mode for moving subjects, as the resulting image can be used as a timeline.

When the Mode dial is set to the Manual position, you have a choice between Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual exposure modes (also changed through the on-screen menu). In Program AE mode, the camera continues to select the shutter speed and aperture settings, but you have control over all other exposure variables, such as White Balance, Exposure Compensation, and Metering. The histogram also displays in the LCD monitor, providing an indication of the tonal distribution. Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes give you control over either aperture or shutter speed, depending on the mode. Available aperture settings range from f/2.9 to f/8, and shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to 15 seconds. In both modes, the adjustable value is changed by pressing the up and down arrows. Manual exposure mode provides full control over both shutter speed and aperture (the up and down arrows control aperture, and the left and right arrows control shutter speed). In Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual exposure modes, if the camera's metering system disagrees with a variable choice, that variable is displayed in red, but the camera will still take the picture. (The User Guide also notes that in Manual mode, if the aperture is set to f/2.9, the 1/1,000-second shutter speed is unavailable.) Additionally, as you adjust aperture, shutter speed, or Exposure Compensation, the histogram display reflects the change, giving you an idea of the exposure outcome.

The PDR-M81 employs a Multi Metering system by default, which reads light from the entire frame and calculates the best overall exposure. Through the on-screen menu, a Spot metering option is available, which bases the exposure on a reading from the very center of the frame (useful for high-contrast subjects). Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-half step increments. An Autoexposure Bracketing mode takes three consecutive images at -0.5, 0.0, and +0.5 EV settings, allowing you to choose the best overall exposure. Light sensitivity is adjustable in the Manual record mode, with available settings of 100, 200, and 400 ISO equivalents.

The PDR-M81 offers six White Balance settings, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Blue Fluorescent, Red Fluorescent, and Incandescent. One thing we'd like to point out here is that with as much manual control as the PDR-M81 provides, a manual White Balance setting would have been welcome. That said, the camera does offer a nice range of color control, with Standard, Vivid, Monochrome, and Sepia settings. You can also adjust the image contrast and sharpness settings. A Self-Timer button on top of the camera cycles between the two- and 10-second Self-Timer modes, which provide a short delay between the time that the Shutter button is pressed and the shutter actually releases. The Self-Timer light on the front of the camera blinks to indicate the countdown, and a numeric countdown appears in the LCD monitor as well.


Flash
The PDR-M81's built-in flash operates in one of four modes: Auto, Red-Eye Forced Flash, Forced Flash, and Off. (A Slow-Synchro mode is only available in the Night photography mode, and is automatically enabled.) The Flash button on top of the camera controls the flash mode. Auto mode places the camera in charge of when to fire the flash, based on the existing light conditions. (Auto mode is not available in the Manual record mode.) Alternately, Red-Eye Forced Flash mode fires the flash with every exposure, regardless of light level. A small pre-flash is fired before the full flash, to reduce the occurrence of red-eye effect. The Forced Flash mode works in a similar manner, only without the red-eye pre-flash. Finally, Suppressed mode simply disables the flash, so that it does not fire at all. Toshiba estimates that the PDR-M81's flash is effective from 2.62 to 9.84 feet (0.8 to 3.0 meters) with the lens at full wide angle. We do our flash tests with the cameras' lenses set at their telephoto position, which reduces the effective range somewhat, giving more of a worst-case indication of performance. In the PDR-M81 testing, we found that flash intensity was low even at the minimum 8-foot distance (where we beginning measurements), and steadily decreased from that point on. Therefore, we rate the M81's flash range at less than 8 feet, an inadequate performance overall.

Burst Photography Mode
Available through the on-screen menu, Burst Photography mode captures a maximum of three images at approximately 0.8 second intervals. The actual frame rate depends on the shutter speed, file size and quality settings, and the amount of image information to be recorded. Images are temporarily stored in a buffer memory, which allows you to pick which frames are actually stored to the SmartMedia card. After the series is captured, the LCD monitor is automatically enabled (if previously turned off) and a set of options appears on the screen. You can either save or delete images independently, save all images, or delete all images in the series. The green LED lamp next to the optical viewfinder eyepiece flashes until you make a decision.

Movie Mode
The PDR-M81 also offers a Movie recording mode, which is entered by turning the Mode dial to the movie camera position. A full press of the Shutter button starts and stops recording. Movies are recorded with sound for varying amounts of time, depending on the size / quality setting chosen, and the amount of available space on the memory card. The recording microphone is on the front of the camera, just over the lens. Two resolution sizes are available -- 320 x 240- and 160 x 120-pixels -- with three compression levels available at each image size. Recording times vary from 30 seconds at the highest quality 320 x 240-pixel option, up to three minutes in the lowest quality 160 x 120-pixel resolution. The flash and optical zoom are unavailable in Movie mode, though you can operate the 2.2x digital zoom during recording. Interestingly though, you can set the M81's optical zoom lens to whatever position you like before recording starts. This is a bit of the best of both worlds, in that you still retain much of the usefulness of the optical zoom lens, even though you're not able to change its setting during the exposure.


Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a 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 can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, we now routinely measure it using an Imaging Resource proprietary test system.

 

Toshiba PDR-M81 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
4.0
About average for cameras with telescoping lenses.
Shutdown
3.2
Time until lens retracted and ready to put away. A bit faster than average.
Play to Record, first shot
1.37
Time until first shot is captured, from playback mode. Quite a bit faster than average.
Record to play (max res)
1.1
Quite a bit faster than average.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
1.13 / 0.99
Somewhat slower than average. (Higher number is for telephoto lens setting, lower is for wide angle.)
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.69
Slower than average
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.27
A little faster than average.
Cycle Time, max/min resolution
1.5-6.2
1.4-1.9
Highly variable (prototype issue?). Camera doesn't appear to use a buffer memory to speed image capture.
Cycle time, continuous mode
0.51sec
(1.97 fps)
Pretty fast for a 4-megapixel camera. Bursts range from 3 frames at max res / quality to more than 60 frames in lowest res / quality mode.

 

Our PDR-M81 test unit was a bit of a mixed bag in the speed category. It started up and shut down quickly, but both shutter lag and cycle times were on the long side. It's possible that some of this was due to the evaluation unit's being a prototype camera. We'll re-test with a production model if / as / when we get one, and if the numbers are significantly different, we'll update this report.


Operation and User Interface
The PDR-M81 has a slightly different user interface than what we've become accustomed to in other Toshiba digicams. Overall, the user interface is fairly straightforward, though it took a quick read of the manual to understand how to activate the on-screen menu options. The camera is very dependent on its LCD menu system, especially when in any of the manual exposure modes. We generally like to see more external control on a digicam, and though the PDR-M81 allows you to activate the Self-Timer, change the flash mode, and set the file size and quality externally, you still require the LCD menu to alter exposure mode, Exposure Compensation, and White Balance settings. That said, we were pleased to see a very uncomplicated menu system, with the available options confined to one page. The small status display panel on top of the camera is also quite helpful, as it reports a fairly extensive amount of camera information, allowing you to operate the camera without the LCD monitor (although no exposure settings are reported).


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button: Positioned on the far right of the top panel, this silver button sets focus and exposure when pressed halfway, and fires the shutter when fully depressed.


Power Button: Just behind the Shutter button, this button turns the camera on or off.


Mode Dial: Located diagonally to the left of the Shutter button, this notched dial controls the camera's main operating mode. Options are Movie Record, Manual Record, Auto Record, Playback, PC, and Setup.


Self-Timer Button: The first button in a row lining the status display panel, this button cycles through the two- and 10-second Self-Timer modes, as well as the normal record mode, when pressed repeatedly.


Image Quality Button: Directly behind the Self-Timer button, this button cycles through three file size and quality combinations (which are established through the Setup menu).


Flash Button: The final button in the series lining the status display panel, this button controls the flash operating mode, cycling through Auto, Red-Eye Forced Flash, Forced Flash, and Supressed Flash.


Zoom Rocker Button: Positioned in the top right corner of the back panel, this rocker button controls the optical and digital zoom in any record mode. In Playback mode, the button controls the Playback Zoom.


Four Way Arrow Pad: Adjacent to the LCD monitor on the right side, this button has four arrows, one in each direction (up, down, left, right). The center of the button acts as the "Enter" key, which confirms menu selections. In any record mode, the Enter button activates the on-screen menu. The arrow keys navigate through settings menus in any camera mode. In Manual record mode, the left and right arrows control the Exposure Compensation (except in Manual exposure mode, where they control shutter speed). In Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, the up and down arrows control the designated exposure variable (in Manual exposure mode, they control the aperture setting).

In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images. When an image has been enlarged, all four arrows pan the view. The Enter button activates the nine-image Index Display mode.


Menu Button: Just below the Four Way Arrow pad, this button calls up the settings menu in any camera mode.


Focus Button: In any record mode, this button cycles through a variety of focus settings when pressed repeatedly. Choices are Autofocus (AF), Macro (flower symbol), One Meter (1m), Three Meters (3m), and Infinity (infinity symbol).


Folder Button: Directly below the Menu button, this button allows you to select a specific folder for image playback. In any record mode, pressing this button creates a new folder.


Erase Button: Located below the Focus button, this button pulls up the Erase menu in Playback mode or any record mode.


Display / Information Button: Situated just below the bottom left corner of the LCD menu, this button controls the LCD display in any record mode. In Playback mode, this button displays an information page about the current image, reporting exposure information and camera settings. Pressed a second time, this button displays a histogram for checking the exposure.


SmartMedia Compartment Release Switch: Protruding slightly from the compartment door on the right side of the camera (when looking from the back), this switch unlocks and releases the compartment door, revealing the SmartMedia slot.


Battery Lock Switch: Recessed in the battery compartment door, this sliding switch unlocks the door so that it can be slid open.


Camera Modes and Menus

Movie Mode: Noted on the Mode dial with a movie camera icon, this mode allows the user to record movies with sound, for as long as the memory card has available space. Pressing the Menu button pulls up the Record menu, with the following options available:



Manual Record Mode: Marked on the Mode dial with an "M" next to a camera icon, this mode captures still images and provides very flexible exposure control. The following menus are available:



Automatic Record Mode: A single camera icon designates this mode on the Mode dial. Here, the camera controls all exposure decisions, with the exception of flash mode. A variety of preset shooting modes are also available.



Playback Mode: The traditional green playback symbol indicates this mode on the Mode dial. In Playback mode, captured images and movies can be reviewed, and images can be deleted, resized, protected, set up for printing, or played back in a slide show. The following menu options are available in the Playback settings menu:



PC Mode: Designated on the Mode dial by a crooked arrow icon, this mode allows you to connect the camera to a computer and download images.

Setup Mode: A wrench icon indicates this mode on the Mode dial. Here, you can change basic camera settings. The following menu appears on the LCD screen upon entering the mode:



Image Storage and Interface
The PDR-M81 utilizes SmartMedia as its image storage medium, and an 8MB card comes with the camera. Larger capacity cards are available separately (as large as 128MB). SmartMedia is easily write-protected by placing a write-protection sticker over the designated area on the card. Likewise, removing the sticker disables write-protection. Remember that these stickers can only be used once and write-protection may fail if the sticker gets dirty. To protect individual images from accidental erasure (except from card formatting), the settings menu in Playback mode gives you an image protect option. Protected images are denoted by a key symbol beneath the image. Protection can be removed through the same process.

The PDR-M81 organizes captured images into storage folders. When the SmartMedia card is formatted, it automatically creates a folder entitled 100TOSHI. You can create a new folder by pressing the Folder button in any record mode. Movies are recorded to a separate folder indicated by a movie camera symbol. Once the image number reaches 9999, a new folder (101TOSHI) is automatically created. When there are two or more xxxTOSHI folders, the playback folder default is the folder assigned the largest xxx value. You can change the playback folder by pressing the Folder button in Playback mode, and selecting a folder from the list.

Three resolution sizes are available on the PDR-M81: 2,400 x 1,600-, 1,200 x 800-, and 720 x 480-pixels. Images can also be saved at one of three JPEG compression levels: Fine, Normal, and Basic.

Reducing image size saves memory and allows you to continue taking more pictures. Low-resolution images (720 x 480 pixels), taken in the Multi mode, protected images, and images from another camera cannot be resized. While in Playback mode you have the option of selecting which images you want to resize and are given the option to reconsider before executing the command. Also through the Playback menu, you can compress images (images already in Basic quality, images from another camera, and protected images cannot be compressed, nor can you compress images on write-protected SmartMedia). The quality setting will be noted under each image by the number of stars (three for Fine, two for Normal, one for Basic).

The PDR-M81 allows you to copy an image from one SmartMedia card to another, through the Playback menu. Select the image (or images) to copy and press Enter (you can cancel a selection here as well). If you execute the copy, a Change Card message will appear, allowing you to remove the old SmartMedia card and replace it with a new one. Follow the menu prompts and select OK when finished. Don't remove the SmartMedia card (except when indicated) or turn the camera off during the copying procedure to avoid damaging the card.

You can erase images in either Playback or Record modes. When in Playback mode, use the arrow buttons to select the image and hit the Erase button on the back panel. You'll be asked to confirm this decision. Protected images cannot be erased, nor can images on write-protected SmartMedia. When in Record mode, hit the Erase button and it selects the last image taken. Again, you are asked to confirm this decision. The Erase menu also allows you to erase folders and format the SmartMedia card.

The table below shows the number of still images and their compression ratios for an 8MB card:

 

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
High
2400 x 1600
Standard
1200 x 800
Low
720 x 480
Images
Approx.
Compression
Images
Approx.
Compression
Images
Approx.
Compression
Fine
Quality
6
5:1
27
5:1
41
5:1
Normal
Quality
9
7.5:1
41
7.5:1
62
7.5:1
Basic
Quality
19
15:1
82
15:1
124
15:1

 


The PDR-M81 is accompanied by a USB cable and interface software for connecting to a computer.


Video Out
US versions of the PDR-M81 are packaged with an NTSC AV cable (PAL for European models) for connection to a television set. The PDR-M81 can play back captured images or movie files as well as use the television set as an enhanced LCD monitor for composing images. The camera can be set to handle either NTSC or PAL timings through the Video Out option under the Setup menu.


Power
The PDR-M81 is powered by four AA alkaline, NiMH, or lithium batteries (a set of four single-use alkaline batteries come with the camera). We really don't recommend standard alkaline cells for any digicam, as the amount of battery life is significantly shorter than that of rechargeable batteries. An AC adapter is available as a separate accessory, which we recommend purchasing to save battery power when downloading images, or playing back captured images and movies. The PDR-M81 reports the available battery power on the LCD monitor as well as on the smaller status display panel. The camera does feature a power saving Auto-Off feature, which lets you set the amount of inactive time before the camera shuts off (one, two, or three minutes).

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

 

Operating Mode
Power
(@ 5v)
Est. Minutes
(1600 mAh
batteries)
Capture Mode, w/LCD
670 mA
129
Capture Mode, no LCD
570 mA
151
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
670 mA
129
Half-pressed w/o LCD
580 mA
149
Memory Write (transient)
870 mA
n/a
Flash Recharge (transient)
1100 mA
n/a
Image Playback
660 mA
131

Overall, the PDR-M81 has fairly good battery life, running about two hours in most operating modes. This is pretty good, given its 4 megapixel sensor and advanced feature set, but we still strongly recommend buying a couple of sets of high-capacity NiMH batteries and a good charger to go along with them.

About Batteries
We've gotten so many emails about power issues for digicams, that we're now inserting this standard notice in the reviews of all AA-powered cameras on our site: Don't even *think* about using alkaline AA batteries in a digicam! Despite their being packed in the box with many cameras, they simply don't have the juice to handle typical digicam demands. (Even the "high power" ones the battery manufacturers say are designed for devices like digital cameras.) Spend the $35-40 or so it takes to get a set (or two) of high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries and a good charger! The few dollars up front will save you literally hundreds of dollars in the long run, not to mention the hassle of wimpy batteries running out in the middle of the action. We suggest you buy two sets of batteries, so one can always be in the charger, ready to go, and so have two sets available for longer excursions. Good brands of batteries include Maha (our favorite), GP, Kodak, and Nexcell. Also, buy the highest capacity AAs the manufacturer makes, the few extra dollars for the extra capacity is usually well worth it. Getting a good charger is critical though, almost more so than buying good batteries. We recommend the Maha C-204F (see the photo at right), the charger we use the most in our own studio. - Read our review of it for all the details. Or, just click here to buy one, you won't regret it.


Included Software
The PDR-M81 specification sheet lists Sierra Imaging's Image Expert (for both Mac and Windows platforms) as the software that ships with this model. (Because our evaluation model did not come with a software CD, we are unable to provide details.)


In the Box
Included in the box with the PDR-M81 are the following items:



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 PDR-M81'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 PDR-M81 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Overall, the PDR-M81 produced nice looking shots, with a fairly accurate color balance most of the time. The camera's White Balance system did well throughout most of our testing, handling a variety of light sources without too much trouble, though we noticed a slight magenta cast in many of the shots. (We primarily used the Auto WB setting.) The PDR-M81 had some trouble with our Indoor Portrait (without flash), producing color casts in response to the incandescent lighting. Color balance looked pretty good on our Davebox target, with the PDR-M81 distinguishing tough tonal variations, though the large color blocks are a little undersaturated. The PDR-M81 also reproduced the blue flowers in our Outdoor and Indoor test shots with purplish tints, a common problem among digicams (these blues are hard to accurately reproduce). Given our evaluation model's prototype status, we won't be too picky about color. (There's some room for improvement, but we'd expect that from a prototype unit.)

The PDR-M81 performed well on our "laboratory" resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 650 lines per picture height, in both horizontal and vertical directions. We found "strong detail" out to at least 1,100 lines, and "extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until about 1,400 lines. This is a bit off the best performance we've seen from competing 4-megapixel models, but not too bad. While the resolution was good, the M81's images were characterized by a slight softness, and marked softness in the corners. Again, not terrible, but also clearly not in the top tier of 4-megapixel cameras on the market.

Optical distortion on the PDR-M81 is a bit lower than average at the wide-angle end, as we measured an approximate 0.59 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared much better, as we found only two pixels (0.08 percent) of barrel distortion there. Chromatic aberration was moderate, showing about three pixels of coloration along either side of the target lines. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

The PDR-M81 offers great exposure control, from a full Manual mode to control over ISO and metering options. The camera performed well in our low-light test, capturing bright, usable images at light levels as low as 1/4 foot-candle (2.7 lux) at the 100 ISO setting (images were still usable at the 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) setting, though slightly dim). At the 200 and 400 ISO settings, images were bright and usable as low as 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux). At all three ISO settings, the camera's Auto white balance had some trouble interpreting the dim light source, and produced very magenta images from 1/16 to one foot-candle.

The PDR-M81's optical viewfinder was a little tight, showing approximately 82 percent frame accuracy at wide-angle, and about 83 percent at telephoto. The LCD monitor fared much better, showing approximately 96 percent of the image area at wide angle, and approximately 97 percent at telephoto. Since we generally like to see LCD monitors as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the PDR-M81 performed well here, but could use some improvement in its optical viewfinder.

The PDR-M81 performed very well in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of just 3.30 x 2.20 inches (83.8 x 55.8 millimeters). Resolution was very good, with a lot of detail in the coins and brooch. Details were just slightly soft, and corner softness was again present. Though slightly magenta, overall color looked good. The flash had trouble throttling down for the macro area, overexposing the image, with the strongest intensity on the right side of the frame.

Overall, the PDR-M81 prototype performed nicely, providing excellent exposure control and nice image quality, with good color and great resolution.


Conclusion
Based on our testing, the PDR-M81 seems well-suited for photographers who are interested in taking good pictures at an affordable price. It includes most of the features and exposure capabilities demanded by the photo enthusiast, with the most noticeable missing feature being a connector for external flash units. In the current 4-megapixel digicam field, it isn't a leader in any category of performance or image quality, but it isn't far off the mark in any aspect. Given Toshiba's aggressive pricing strategy, the PDR-M81 may offer a good value for those on a limited budget who are interested in buying a full-featured 4-megapixel digicam. If you can afford the higher prices, you'll get better pictures from a Sony S85 or Olympus C-4040 Zoom, to name just two. But if you have a more modest budget, we think you'll be quite happy with the results produced by the PDR-M81.

<<PDR-M81 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

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