Toshiba PDR-M4 digital camera
Tremendous processing power makes a speedy 2 megapixel camera!
(Full Review posted 29 August, 1999)
||2.14 Million pixel sensor|
||1600 x 1200 resolution|
||Full-res shot-to-shot cycle time of 2 seconds!|
||Autofocus lens w/macro, 2x digital zoom|
||Fast startup and cycle times|
Toshiba is one of the truly huge players in the world of computers and electronics. When they moved into the digital camera business a little over a year ago, they brought to bear the full force of their engineering and systems-integration talent, the effects of which are only now being fully seen. At the high end of their line, they previously repackaged units designed by other companies under the Toshiba logo, with only minor firmware variations. With the 2 megapixel PDR-M4 though, they've stepped out with a camera that is entirely "Toshiba inside" (with the sole exception of the CCD itself). In the process, they've incorporated some truly impressive processing power, producing the fastest consumer-level digicam on the planet. (A mere 2 seconds from shot to shot at full resolution, all day long or until your memory card fills up!) Other camera attributes are very strong as well, making a strong entry into the 2 megapixel arena. (We're particularly looking forward to the forthcoming PDR-M5, which will incorporate much of the same electronics as the M4, but with the added inclusion of an optical zoom lens.) Herewith is the story of the PDR-M4:
- 2.14 megapixel CCD sensor offering 1600 x 1200 or 800 x 600 pixel resolution
- 1.8 inch color LCD for preview and image replay and an optical viewfinder for framing images with standard autofocus target mark
- Glass lens with fixed focal length at 7.4mm/F3.2/8 (35mm equivalent: 40mm) and digital zoom (not to be confused with true optical zoom)
- TTL autofocus
- ISO equivalent 100
- 1/4 to 1/1000 shutter speed
- Autofocus from .33 feet (.1 m) to infinity
- Macro mode allows captures from 4 inches to 20 inches (10 cm to 50 cm)
- Modes: single, burst, multi, self timer and bulb
- Burst mode allows 4 frames in 1 second
- Three image quality modes capture from 800 x 600 pixels at 1/16 compression to 1600 x 1200 pixels at 1/4 compression
- Built in flash with five settings: Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, Suppressed and Slow Synchro
- Flash range from 1.7 feet (0.5 m) to 8.2 feet (2.5 m)
- Five white balance settings: Auto, Outdoors, Bluish/Reddish Fluorescent Light and Incandescent Light
- TTL metering using CCD
- Exposure compensation from 1.5 EV to +1.5 EV in 11 settings
- Image capture in JPEG (EXIF Ver.2.1)
- 8MB SmartMedia card supplied with camera (expandable up to 32MB)
- Image transfer via USB, Serial and Video
- Small, easy to handle design
- Utilizes rechargeable lithium-ion batteries or AC adapter
- Lens cover interlocked with photography mode setting
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The Toshiba PDR-M4 offers the convenience of a compact build with the sophistication of 2.14 megapixel sensor resolution. Weighing in at about 9.9 oz (280g) with the battery, the PDR-M4 is ready for action and could easily fit into a coat pocket or purse, and with only a little squeezing, into a standard shirt pocket. The design is relatively sleek, with smooth buttons, few protrusions, and an overall somewhat "retro" appearance. We really liked the retractable lens cover that slides back when you turn the camera on. It's a nice way to avoid tricky mechanics that could easily get fouled up and takes away the annoyance of lost lens caps. The overall design of the camera has a compact but sturdy feel, with a rugged all-metal body construction.
The PDR-M4's menus are all navigable by a rocker toggle button reducing the number of buttons you need to push for camera setup. In Manual capture mode though, the need to first press the rocker up, even when you want to adjust a control down seems a little awkward. For instance, if you want to decrease the exposure compensation, you must navigate to the EV adjustment menu item, press the toggle up to activate that control, and then press it down the required number of times to get the adjustment you needed. Why not just press the down arrow from the beginning?
Both an optical viewfinder and color LCD display panel on the back of the camera assist in composing shots. The optical viewfinder features a multi-colored LED light that reports the status of the camera (on, focus ready, self-timer, etc.). The back LCD panel, in addition to the view, notes the settings of the camera (mode, possible exposures, flash settings, etc.). We found both viewfinders to be a bit looser than other digicams, covering about 79.5% on the optical and 91% on the LCD.
The PDR-M4 features an optical-glass lens with a fixed focal length of 7.4mm/F3.2 to 8, a 35mm equivalent of 40mm. The Macro function captures objects from four to 20 inches (10cm to 50cm) away and is activated by hitting a button on the back panel identified by a flower symbol. The autofocus follows the camera's movement pretty well and works from .33 feet (0.1m) to infinity. A "digital" zoom feature on the camera enlarges the image to twice its size but at the expense of image resolution.
The most impressive feature on the camera is the extremely fast shot to shot cycle time, achieved without reliance on buffer memory. With an average of about two seconds between shots (depending on the mode and settings), the overall camera speed is much closer to that of a film camera than other digital cameras we've tested (August 1999). This greatly-underrated feature keeps you from having to do extensive planning for all of your shots and makes it more likely you'll catch fast moving action. Somewhat at odds with the exceptional cycle time was a slower autofocus response of about 1.4 seconds. (We were surprised by this, as the high-speed processor of the M4 should have allowed it to execute autofocus operations more quickly.) A Burst capture mode allows from four to 16 sequential exposures (depending on resolution) while holding down the shutter button and a Multi capture mode fires 16 exposures at 0.25 second intervals. The Multi exposures are saved as one image and played back animation style like a short video.
The Bulb (time exposure) setting is noteworthy for its ability to produce very low noise, long-exposure images by taking a dark current calibration exposure after the shot itself. This produces very good results and we won't be surprised to see it duplicated by other manufacturers soon. We experienced overall good exposure control but found the auto white balance a bit weak, often obtaining better results with the manual white balance settings.
The on-board flash is controlled by a button on top of the camera and offers five settings: Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, Suppressed and Slow Synchro. The Slow Synchro mode does a good job of allowing more ambient light to influence the exposure but strangely isn't responsive to manual white balance settings. While in Slow Synchro or Suppressed flash modes, a shaking hand symbol appears in the LCD panel, reminding you to use a tripod for when the autoexposure system has selected a long exposure time.
In our tests, the PDR-M4 showed a fairly high level of power consumption, not surprising given the large 2 megapixel CCD, LCD panel, and high-speed electronics. This led us to recommend carrying some spare batteries around or utilizing the AC adapter whenever convenient. A Display button on the back of the camera turns the LCD display panel off, which aids in power conservation.
Images are stored on SmartMedia cards (an 8MB card is included with the camera), and in-camera functions let you copy images from one card to another, compress and reduce image sizes, create storage folders and protect images. The SmartMedia card itself can also be write protected with a one time use sticker.
A Video Out feature allows you to connect the PDR-M4 to a television set, providing NTSC-compatible signals for USA, Canada and Japan models. (We presume that PAL is available on foreign models.) The LCD display must be on for television viewing and a video cable comes with the camera.
Additionally, a software CD for Mac and PC (Image Expert and USB driver), USB cable and a serial cable (RS-232C/RS422) comes standard with the camera. The Image Expert software allows you to create photo albums and make minor manipulations/corrections to images (color correction, rotation, flip and resizing).
Overall, the PDR-M4 proved to be a very capable 2-megapixel camera, with good picture quality, unusually flexible exposure control, excellent low-light performance, and exceptional speed. About the only quibble we could find with it was the somewhat slow autofocus speed.
The Toshiba PDR-M4 weighs in at 8.5 oz (240g) without the battery and SmartMedia and holds the dimensions 4.4 x 2.66 x 1.66 inches excluding its protrusions (112 x 68 x 42 mm). With the battery, it goes up to 9.9 oz (280g). A silver metal case with thin, vertical plastic grips in the front and plastic output and card slot covers keeps the camera very compact and stowable. There's a wrist strap and inset plastic tripod mount as well.
An added feature is the mechanically actuated lens cover which slides over the lens when you turn the camera off and retracts when you rotate the mode dial to a capture position. This clever design avoids possible jams or failures which might accompany a more delicate, automatic mechanism. It also relieves you from lens cap duty. As usual, the battery compartment remains on the bottom of the camera but the SmartMedia slot and the output plugs are accessible on the sides of the camera through plastic flip doors. The SmartMedia flap has a latch to protect the card.
The control layout includes a ridged dial on the top right hand side of the camera that controls the camera's operating modes (Manual, Auto, Off position, Playback, Data Transfer and Setup). The shutter button resides in the center of the mode dial.
A black and white LCD status display on the top left hand side of the camera displays a clock when the camera is off and shows many of the camera settings when on. This status display is useful when trying to conserve power by shutting down the back LCD panel. The self timer, image quality and flash controls rest just below the status display. Once the controls are set, the camera can be operated with one hand but requires two to change any settings. Particularly given the low-light capabilities of the PDR-M4, we really appreciated a small design touch on the LCD readout: A backlight! Whenever you press one of the three buttons below the readout, a soft bluish backlight illuminates for a few seconds, letting you change camera settings in pitch darkness.
The 4-way rocker toggle control (Enter button), Menu, Display, Macro and Erase buttons are on the back of the camera to the right of the color LCD display (more detail on these later).
As is typical, the Toshiba PDR-M4 offers both an optical viewfinder and a color LCD display. While it can be turned off manually, we wished for a default setting to turn the LCD off while in the Auto capture mode. This would assist in conserving battery power without having to remember to hit the Display button all the time. The viewfinder is fairly bright and readable and the brightness adjust feature truly changes the backlight brightness (rather than just the contrast, as do some cameras). However, we found that the color shown in the LCD couldn't always be trusted: We shot some indoor photos with a particular white-balance setting that looked beautiful on the LCD but were very yellowish once viewed on the computer. On the other hand, the "preview" of the white-balance in the LCD is still useful for picking the white-balance setting that produces the *least* coloration of the available options. (In other words, a relatively neutral color balance on the LCD screen won't guarantee neutral color in the file, but the least-colored image on the LCD from among several white-balance options will indeed be the least-colored in the file.) The optical viewfinder's image in our test unit was rotated about one degree relative to the CCD's field of view, but we don't know if this was an early-prototype problem or a production issue. Both optical and LCD viewfinders feel somewhat looser than those of other cameras, with coverage of 79.5% for the optical and 91% for the LCD. The optical viewfinder does not include a dioptric adjustment for eyeglass wearers, but does have a relative high "eyepoint", making it relatively easy to use with your glasses on.
The optical viewfinder features an LED which acts as a visual cue to what state the camera is in determined by the colors green, red and orange. Pay attention to it when composing your shot for status on the autofocus and flash readiness (more on that later).
As far as optics go, the Toshiba PDR-M4 offers a fixed focal length of 7.4mm lens (equivalent to a 40mm lens on a 35mm camera), with two aperture options of f/3.2 and f/8, both selected automatically by the exposure system. A macro function allows captures from 4 to 20 inches (10 cm to 50 cm) and is turned on and off by a button on the back panel. The autofocus on the lens normally works from .33 feet (.1 m) to infinity and there's an option that allows you to change the weighting of the focus area (normally center weighted with options for top, bottom, right and left exposure concentration).
Initially, we were perplexed in our macro shooting with the PDR-M4: The manual specified a minimum macro distance of 4 inches (10cm), but we couldn't get closer than about 6 inches. A quick check with Toshiba revealed that a small percentage of their first production run (apparently 5 or 6 cameras out of a set of 200) had a lens defect that resulted in this problem. A full-production unit was shipped to us that didn't exhibit this difficulty, although we were still obviously pushing the limits at just a shade over 4 inches, since the brooch in our test shot was out of focus. (It stands up above the background by about 0.2 inches.) The minimum capture area measured 3.6 x 2.7 inches (91 x 68 mm). This is reasonably close, about middle-of-the-road for digicams we've tested. The flash does a fairly good job of throttling-down this close, although the perfectly perpendicular subject reflected the flash quite strongly into the lens. While sharpness was quite good, we noticed some softness toward the right-hand edge of the frame. Normally, we'd attribute this to a misalignment of the camera with the subject, but in this case we adopted a trick suggested by a reader for squaring-up copystand shots like this: Lay a mirror on the baseboard, and align the camera so its image is perfectly centered in the mirror. (Handy trick!) Overall macro performance is good, but not in the league of some current cameras.
There is a "digital" zoom feature on this camera which enlarges the image to twice its size (equivalent to 80mm on a 35 mm camera) and is controlled by pressing up on the toggle button. You simply press the down arrow to cancel zoom. Turning the camera off automatically cancels the zoom as well. Like all "digital" zoom functions, though, the image enlargement occurs at the cost of resolution and as such shouldn't be compared to true optical zoom lens. (Stay tuned for the forthcoming PDR-M5 for that.) The manual notes that the zoom image size is fixed to 800 x 600 pixels and that the size on the LCD monitor does not accurately reflect the change. The center of the screen is enlarged so that the image quality of the LCD appears rougher but you can see the sharp detail in the final image. We did find it harder to accurately frame with the "digital" zoom activated though, a problem common to many of the digicams we've tested. As an interesting aside, we found "digital telephoto" shots taken with the PDR-M4 were much sharper than those shot normally in 800x600 resolution mode.
We experienced good control over both ambient exposure compensation and the flash settings on the PDR-M4. ISO is fixed at 100 and the aperture range runs from f3.2 to f8 (automatically selected). Shutter speed runs from 1/4 to 1/1000 of a second and is also automatically selected, except in the Bulb (time exposure) setting which allows exposure from one to eight seconds. EV value ranges from +1.5 to 1.5 in 11 intervals, adjustable in the Manual capture mode. The overall exposure range of the camera, as determined by the specifications just listed is a range of EV 10-21 (in our previous parlance), or from 8-16,000 foot-candles, or 88-175,000 lux. (It turns out we've been misusing the term EV, interpreting it to indicate absolute exposure levels, rather than relative ones. From now on, we'll specify usable light ranges in foot-candles and lux.) In our own tests, we found this rating to be somewhat conservative, with the camera performing quite well down to EV 9 (4 foot-candles, or 44 lux), and producing a very usable image at an illumination level of half that. In Bulb exposure mode, we obtained good pictures as low as EV 6 (0.5 foot-candles, or roughly 5.5 lux), although there was a very strong reddish color cast at that level. (Which turned out to be easy to remove using an "auto levels" function in Photoshoptm.)
AE/AF (autoexposure/autofocus) system has five options available for weighting the exposure and focus, adjustable in the Manual capture mode as well. The default is to base focus and exposure on the center of the picture, but you can optionally bias the camera to look up or down, left or right when determining focus. Four capture modes, One Shot, Burst, Multi and Bulb allow for different shooting speeds but not all the camera functions work with each mode. For example, the self-timer doesn't work in the Burst or Multi modes and the flash settings only work with the One Shot setting. The Burst exposure setting allows you to take anywhere from four to 16 exposures while holding down the shutter button (number of exposures depends on quality setting and memory), and is good for fast moving action photography. The Multi exposure setting allows you to take 16 shots continuously at .25 second intervals and are saved as one 1600 x 1200 pixel resolution image. Bulb provides for unusually long exposure times, ranging from 1 to 8 seconds (more on this later).
Automatic Capture Mode
Automatic capture mode is indicated on the PDR-M4 by a small red camera symbol on the mode dial (Manual is differentiated by a small "M" next to the camera symbol). A small LED beside the optical viewfinder lets you know the status of the camera and if it's ready to take the exposure. The viewfinder LED appears solid green once the focus is locked, letting you know it's safe to take the picture. (Actually, the solid/blinking green LED was a little confusing, and not well explained by the owner's manual: On the one hand, a solid LED appears to indicate focus lock, but a blinking LED could have indicated either a slow shutter speed (just telling you to brace the camera well), or a lack of focus lock. The only reference in the manual to a blinking green LED is during self-timer operation...)
Manual Capture Mode
In the Manual capture mode, you get an extra menu by pressing the center of the round toggle (Enter) button on the back. This menu allows you to control the white balance settings, exposure compensation (EV adjustments), flash intensity (four stages from 0 to 0.9) and AF/AE lock (default center, left, right, up or down). To exit the menu, simply press the center of the toggle switch again and the normal LCD display returns. A nice feature is that while you're in the white balance menu, you can actually see the effect of different white-balance settings in the LCD display as you scroll through them. (As noted earlier though, the actual color displayed on the LCD doesn't accurately portray the final image coloration, so some interpretation is needed.) Photography is possible in the Manual capture mode with the manual setup screen displayed, however, size and quality cannot be set and macro, self-timer and flash photography are not possible while the screen is displayed.
The time-exposure (Bulb setting) capability is particularly noteworthy. The camera actually takes about two times longer than the shutter time to complete the exposure. Apparently, it's first snapping the picture, then taking a "dark current" calibration exposure of the same duration with the shutter closed, thereby measuring image noise. It then subtracts the "dark current" picture from that of the subject to produce very low noise images, even with long time exposures. This is the first we've seen of this approach in a digicam, but it makes excellent sense and produces very good results. We expect to see the technique copied by other digicam manufacturers in the future. Time exposures from one to eight seconds can be set in the Record menu but flash settings are unavailable in this mode.
In Burst mode (set in the Record menu), the shutter will open and close between 4 and 16 times while holding down the shutter button (depending on the quality settings and available memory). You can cancel the exposure by letting up on the button midway. Once the shutter button is released, the LCD panel automatically displays a few choices. Small white frames line the bottom of the screen, representing the number of exposures, and you're asked to save or delete various frames. If you choose Select, you can edit each frame separately. There's also All Select and All Delete. Once you've made your decision, Execute (Exec) carries out your commands and either saves or deletes the images. The LCD then returns to its previous display. If you did cancel the session midway, the photographs already taken can also be saved or deleted. Self-timed and flash photography aren't available in this mode and the camera automatically erases all images if you don't select an option.
In the Multi capture mode (also settable in the Record menu), the shutter opens and closes 16 times while the shutter button is held down. The shots fire off at 0.25 second intervals and the 16 low-resolution (400x300) images are saved as one full image (1600 x 1200 pixels). The manual touts this mode as perfect for continuously photographing moving subjects. As with Burst, the self-timer and flash settings are not available. The images can later be played back in animation style. (This was actually a rather entertaining mode to play with.
To switch to Macro mode, just press the bottom left button on the back panel, indicated by a flower symbol. The flower symbol simultaneously appears on the LCD panel as well as an indicator of the flash setting (with the only choices here being Suppressed and Forced). If the scene is dark and the flash is in Suppressed mode, the shaking hand symbol will also appear in the LCD to imply that you need to either use the flash or a tripod.
The self timer is activated while in Manual or Automatic record mode by pushing the self timer button on the top left of the camera. A corresponding symbol appears on both the status display and back LCD panel. Compose the picture and press the shutter button down half way to prefocus. When you're ready, fully press the shutter button and you have either two or 10 seconds to get into place (depending on the setting chosen in the Record menu). The LED on the optical viewfinder will flash red and if you're using the LCD monitor, a countdown is displayed. To cancel the timer, press the down arrow on the toggle button. Note that the Burst and Multi capture modes are not available with the self timer.
Flash photography can be controlled from either the Manual or Automatic capture modes by a button on the top left (next to the self timer). Press the button until the setting you want is indicated in the status display. You can choose between Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, Suppressed and Slow Synchro. The Auto setting lets the camera judge for itself based on the varying conditions. Forced mode simply means that the flash always fires, regardless of the ambient light. (This mode is also referred to as "Fill" flash.) Suppressed flash is best when the distance is too great for flash to be effective (concert and theater type settings) and basically means that the flash doesn't fire. The Slow Synchro mode fires the flash, but lets the exposure system choose longer shutter times, to let more of the ambient light into the picture: This most effective for night shots, to brighten backgrounds. Slow Synchro does a good job of letting more ambient light in to affect the exposure, but it doesn't seem to respond to manual white balance settings. On another note, if you take a photograph in the Slow Synchro or Suppressed mode of a subject in front of a dark background, the shutter speed slows down and the shaking hand warning appears in the LCD panel. At this point, a tripod is highly recommended. Turning the camera off and back on again does not affect the flash setting and flash is not available for Burst, Multi or Bulb photography modes.
The automatic white balance proved to be a bit weak, leaving a lot of the original coloration in the pictures. On the other hand, the incandescent mode did much better at removing the strong yellowish cast of the indoor portrait shot. (Like most cameras, the PDR-M4's incandescent white balance mode appears to be set for professional tungsten lighting, rather than household bulbs.) There are actually five options for controlling white balance of which automatic is the default. You can manually adjust between Outdoors, Bluish Fluorescent Light, Reddish Fluorescent Light and Incandescent Light.
Performance: Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
At startup the camera comes alive in about 2 seconds, but the quickest we could get a shot off was about 2.8 seconds from power up. (Still very fast.) It also took approximately 2 seconds to switch between the capture and playback modes.
The shutter lag for full autofocus stayed around 1.4 seconds but was shorter for the prefocus or half pressed shutter button at 0.32 seconds. We found these times to be a bit on the slow side, particularly the full autofocus time. (The long autofocus time was surprising, given the amazingly fast shot-to-shot cycle times: We'd have thought that the very high-speed signal processing would have translated into a faster autofocus process.)
For shot to shot cycle times, high resolution images required a minimum of ~1.85 seconds but was about 2.0 seconds on average (very fast, especially for a 2 megapixel camera). The low resolution measured a minimum of 1.7 seconds with an average also around 2.0 seconds. Burst mode allowed a whopping 4.3 frames per second.
User Interface and Controls
We've covered the PDR-M4's operation in passing earlier in this review, as we discussed its various features. In this section, we'll delve into the details of its controls and user interface, walking through every control and menu option.
Like most of today's digital cameras, you control the PDR-M4 through a variety of operational buttons and an easy-to-navigate LCD menu system. You select one of six different operating modes of the camera by using the Mode Dial positioned on the top, right-hand side. The Mode Dial allows you to easily choose which picture-taking or set-up mode you want, and also simplifies the LCD menu system, allowing only those functions relevant to the chosen mode to be displayed. The Shutter button is located in the center of the mode dial. Depending on how you set up the camera, depressing the Shutter button can capture a single shot, or a burst of up to 16 images.
Other controls on the top of the camera include the Self-Timer Button, and the Flash and Image Quality Buttons. The latter two buttons allow you to quickly change the camera settings without having to enter the LCD menu system. The top of the camera also includes the Status Display, which provides information on camera usage. The various text, numbers, and icons appearing here reflect the camera settings you've chosen. Information displayed includes battery level, number of images that can be stored to the camera's SmartMedia card, and icons representing different camera settings, like the picture quality and resolution levels, and the flash settings.
The back of the camera contains an optical viewfinder and a 1.8-inch LCD Monitor, which you can set for either color or black and white viewing. The LCD Monitor can be turned on or off using the DISP button, also located on the back of the camera to the right of the monitor. The PDR-M4 also has an LCD menu option-one of the Record options-that lets you adjust the LCD brightness to suit your picture-taking environment.
Grouped with the DISP button, you'll find the Menu, Macro, and Delete buttons. Depending on the mode to which the camera is currently set, pressing the Menu button displays the LCD menu options specific to that mode. The Macro button enables close-up picture taking, and the Delete button, as one would expect, deletes pictures from the SmartMedia card.
Also on the back of the camera, you'll find the Function Button, a 4-way toggle control combined with a center-actuated push-button. This control is used to navigate through the various LCD menu options, and select and confirm options. Touching one of the four arrows on the perimeter of the control (which has a gentle toggle action), moves between the various menu options and the available settings for those options. After you make your selection, pressing the center of the Function button confirms your selection. The Function button's combined rocker-toggle and push-button operation makes navigating and selecting menu options a breeze.
The left side of the camera contains a digital port for connecting to a PC, a video port for connecting to a television for viewing images, and a DC IN port for connection to a standard AC power supply. The right-side of the camera houses the slot for insertion of the camera's 8 MB, 3.3V SmartMedia card.
The PDR-M4 does not include a separate zoom button. to actuate its "digital zoom" feature. Instead, you can capture an image that is zoomed to twice its original size by setting the mode to either Auto or Manual, and pressing the Up arrow on the Function button.
In this section, we'll review the functions of each of the PDR-M4's buttons, controls, and menu options.
Sets the mode in which you want to operate the camera. The Mode Dial has six positions, including the Off position. The remaining five positions include:
- Manual: For images that require the manual setting of white balance, flash intensity, ambient exposure, and AF/AE (auto-focus/auto-exposure) positions.
- Auto Photography: For normal image capture with all exposure settings automatically determined.
- Playback: For reviewing images on the LCD Monitor or television, and setting individual image attributes like protection, size, compression, etc.
- PC: For transferring images to your computer.
- Set-Up: For choosing basic camera settings, like sound, time, language displayed, and so on.
Two-stage shutter button positioned on top of the camera in the center of the Mode Dial. Pressing the shutter button halfway triggers the auto-focus and auto-exposure systems. Fully depressing the shutter button captures the image and stores it to the SmartMedia Card. As mentioned earlier, depressing the Shutter button can capture a single shot, or a burst of up to 16 images, depending on a Record-mode menu setting.
- Provides either a 2 second or a 10 second delay between pressing the Shutter button and when the camera fires.
- The delay time is an option in the LCD Record menu.
- Operates only when capturing single shots, or when capturing images requiring longer exposures (Bulb photography).
- Disabled when using Burst or Multi Photography modes.
Image Quality Button
Selects the size (number of pixels) and quality (compression ratio) of the image to be captured. Choose from one of the following six combinations:
- 1600 x 1200 pixels (Full); 4:1 JPEG compression (Fine).
- 1600 x 1200 pixels (Full); 8:1 JPEG compression (Normal) this is the default setting.
- 1600 x 1200 pixels (Full); 16:1 JPEG compression (Basic).
- 800 x 600 pixels (Half); 4:1 JPEG compression (Fine).
- 800 x 600 pixels (Half); 8:1 JPEG compression (Normal).
- 800 x 600 pixels (Half); 16:1 JPEG compression (Basic).
The higher the number of pixels (FULL) and the lower the compression
(FINE), the better the image quality; however, as the quality
increases, the number of images that you can store on the SmartMedia
Provides access to one of five different flash options:
- Auto: Fires automatically as needed depending on the light level the camera detects.
- Red-Eye Reduction: Emits a pre-flash just before the shutter fires to minimize the red-eye effect in the subject's eyes in low-light conditions.
- Forced Flash: fires with each shot regardless of the lighting conditions, even during Macro photography.
- Suppressed Flash: Disables the flash regardless of lighting conditions.
- Slow-Synchro: Selects a slower shutter speed to use in conjunction with the flash, allowing the ambient illumination to contribute more of the total lighting.
Navigates through the various LCD menu options, and selects and confirms options. The Function button itself consists of two sets of buttons with separate and distinct functions:
- The Arrow (cross-pad) buttons-located on the perimeter of the Function button-highlight the different LCD menu options and the available selections.
- The Enter button-located in the center of the Function button-confirms the currently highlighted selection.
- Auto or Manual mode: turns the LCD Monitor on and off, and displays the camera settings in the LCD window.
- Playback mode: displays information about the image being reviewed, including image size, the date and time the image was captured, and the name of the folder on the SmartMedia card to which the image is stored.
Turns Macro mode on and off. Macro mode allows you to capture sharp images of subjects within a range of 4 to 20 inches.
Displays available Menu options on the LCD Panel. The menu options vary depending on the mode in which you have the camera set:
- In Auto or Manual Photography modes: displays the Record (REC) menu.
- In Playback mode: Displays the Play menu.
- In Set-Up mode: Displays the Set-Up menu.
In Playback mode, deletes the image currently displayed, or lets you delete all images when held down for two or more seconds. "All Images" erases all images in the current folder, while "Format" reformats the memory card, deleting all images, regardless of folder or protection setting. In Record mode, deletes the last picture captured, or optionally "All Images" or "Format" as above.
Camera Modes and Menus
Following is a description of the major camera modes, and the LCD menu options associated with each mode. (These were mentioned briefly above, while discussing the operation of the mode dial.)
Auto Photography Mode
Used for taking pictures under normal conditions. In Auto mode, the cameras chooses both ambient and flash exposure levels, and white balance is automatically determined.
Zooming an Image
The PDR-M4 is not equipped with a zoom button. Rather, to zoom an image, press the Up arrow button on the Function button on the rear of the camera while in Auto Photography mode. Doing so enlarges the center of the image on the LCD Monitor so that the photographed image appears to be zoomed to twice its original size (equivalent to an 80mm lens on a 35mm camera).
Auto Record Mode LCD Menu Options
Pressing the Menu button in Auto Photography Mode displays the REC menu, which contains the following options:
- REC Mode: Choose the capture mode you want to use.
Select from one of four modes:
- 1Shot: Captures 1 image at a time.
- Macro, self-timer, zoom, and flash options are all possible in 1Shot mode.
- Burst: Captures images continuously when the
shutter button is depressed.
- At the Full Size (1600 x 1200 pixels) image quality setting, 4 images are captured at .25 second intervals.
- At the Half Size (800 x 600 pixels) image quality setting, 16 images are captured.
- Self-timer and flash options are not possible in Burst mode.In Burst mode, the images are not immediately saved to the SmartMedia card. Rather, they are stored temporarily in an internal buffer memory. You can review each image captured and decide to save it or delete it, or you can save or delete all the images at once.
- Multi: Captures 16 low-resolution (400x300)
images continuously at .25 second intervals. The images are stored
in a mosaic as a single, 1600 x 1200 pixel image. This mode is
effective when capturing images of moving subjects. In Playback
mode, the up-toggle action that would normally "zoom in
on" the selected image will initiate a real-time playback
of the 16 images, producing the effect of a short video clip.
- Self-timer and flash options are not possible in Multi mode.
- Bulb: Allows long exposure times for subjects
like night scenes and fireworks displays. Shutter times of 1,
2, 4, or 8 seconds can be selected via the "Bulb" option
on the Setup menu, described below.
- The flash option is not possible in Bulb mode.
- · Preview: Turns the ability to preview an
image immediately after capture on and off. When enabled, each
captured image displays on the LCD for two seconds, during which
you can check the composition and brightness of the image.
- Color: Sets the mode in which the image will be captured:
- Color: Captures the image in full-color (default).
- B/W: Captures the image in black and white.
Note that the LCD viewfinder image also changes from color to black and white, in response to this setting.
- Sharpness: Sets the sharpness at which the image will
- Norm: Normal sharpness (default).
- Soft: Softens the image.
- Hard: Sharpens the edges of objects in the image.
- Bulb: Sets the exposure time when capturing images
in bulb photography mode:
- 1sec: Opens the shutter for 1 seconds. (default)
- 2sec: Opens the shutter for 2 seconds.
- 4sec: Opens the shutter for 4 seconds.
- 8sec: Opens the shutter for 8 seconds.
- Self-Timer: Sets the delay time for taking a picture
in self-timer mode:
- 10sec: Waits 10 seconds before taking the picture.
- 2sec: Waits 2 seconds before taking the picture.
- LCD: Adjusts the brightness of the LCD Monitor in 1-step increments from -5 to +5. (arbitrary units)
Manual Photography Mode
Used for taking pictures when you want to manually adjust the following settings:
- White Balance
- Exposure Compensation
- Flash Intensity
- AF/AE area (auto-focus/auto-exposure)
Set these options by pressing the Enter button while in Manual Mode. The options appear at the bottom of the screen and you can use the Arrow (cross-pad) buttons and the Enter button to highlight and confirm the settings that you want. (In practice, we found this user interface a little awkward: To "activate" a particular menu, you had to first press the up-arrow side of the toggle control, even if you wanted to adjust the corresponding value down. Thus, a reduction in a setting required an up-press, followed by a down-press: Needlessly confusing, when we could discern no reason why the engineers couldn't have simply allowed the down-press in the first place.)
Select from one of five white balance settings depending on the environment in which you are capturing images:
- Auto: Automatically adjusts the white balance setting based on the scene contents.
- Daylight: Adjusts the white balance for normal outdoor lighting conditions.
- Fluorescent1: Adjusts the white balance for images captured under fluorescent lighting to remove the bluish tint that sometimes occurs. ("Cool White" bulbs.)
- Fluorescent2: Adjusts the white balance for images captured under fluorescent lighting to remove the reddish tint that sometimes occurs. ("Warm White" bulbs.)
- Incandescent: Adjusts the white balance for images captured under tungsten lighting.
Allows you to vary the exposure from that selected by the camera, over a range of +1.5 EV to -1.5 EV, in eleven steps of .3 EV each, while viewing the image and monitoring changes on the LCD monitor.
Lets you reduce the intensity of the on-camera flash, to achieve better balance with the ambient lighting, more subtle fill-flash effects, or to compensate for a subject that is lighter than the background. Choose from one of four settings from 0 (default) to -.9, in .3 increments.
Auto Focus/Auto Exposure Area
Allows you to choose which part of the subject to focus on when the shutter button is depressed. Choose from the following:
- Center (default)
- Up (top of the scene)
- Down (bottom of the scene)
Manual Record Mode LCD Menu Options
Pressing the Menu button in Manual Photography Mode displays the same REC menu outlined above in the Auto Photography section.
In Playback mode you can review the images one at a time, or in groups of nine "thumbnails" on the LCD monitor. Besides viewing images on the camera's LCD Monitor, you can also view them on your television by connecting the camera to the T.V. using the video cable included with the camera.
To view images one at a time, simply put the camera in Playback mode and use the left/right Arrow buttons on the Function Button to scroll through the pictures stored on the SmartMedia card.
To view images in groups of nine, set the camera to Playback mode and press the Enter button (press the center of the 4-way toggle control). The images appear on the LCD. Use the Arrow buttons to scroll through the images and then press the Enter button after you have highlighted the image that you want.
To view multi-image pictures, set the camera to Playback mode, and use the Left/Right Arrow buttons until the multi-image picture appears on the LCD. Press the Up Arrow button and automatic playback begins.
Enlarging images (Zoom Playback)
Besides viewing saved images, you can also zoom in on certain parts of the images for a closer visual inspection. Simply put the camera in Playback mode, use the Left/Right Arrow to choose the picture you want to enlarge, and press the Up Arrow button. The image appears enlarged in the LCD and you can pan through the image using the arrow keys. Press the Enter button to return to normal-sized viewing.
Playback Mode LCD Menu Options
Pressing the Menu button displays the Play Menu which contains the following options:
- Slide Show: Lets you view the captured images in an automated sequence.
- Protect: Prevents an image from being accidentally erased. To cancel protection, display the image, press the Menu button, and choose Protect again. It's important to note that if you format the SmartMedia card, all images-even protected ones-are erased.
- Resize: Allows you to resize images previously captured at the 1600 x 1200 pixel size to the 800 x 600 pixel size. Obviously, you cannot scale a 800 x 600 image to a 1600 x 1200 image, nor can you resize protected images, images captured with another camera, or images captured in multi-photography mode. This helps to free up space on the SmartMedia card if you have run out and need additional space to store images.
- Quality: Allows you to compress images to half the size at which they were captured. Images captured at the "Fine" (4:1) compression setting can be changed to "Normal" (8:1), and images at "Normal" (8:1) to "Basic" (16:1). This also helps to free up space on the SmartMedia card if you have run out and need more space for new images.
- Copy: Lets you copy images from one SmartMedia card to another, and guides you through the process. The images that you select are temporarily copied to a buffer in the camera's internal memory so you can remove the current card and insert the card to which you want to copy the pictures.
- Folder: Lets you select the folder containing the pictures you want to view when more than one folder exists on the SmartMedia card.
- LCD: Adjusts the brightness of the LCD Monitor in 1-step increments from -5 to +5.
When you want to connect the camera to a PC for downloading of images, you first need to place the camera in PC mode. PC mode enables the Digital port on the side of the camera for image transfer to your PC. You can transfer images to an PC running Windows '95/'98/NT 4.0, or to Apple Macintosh computers. Utility software to access the images from the camera is included on the CD bundled with the camera.
Set-Up mode lets you customize the camera for your own picture-taking needs. The Set-Up menu appears on the LCD when you rotate the Mode dial to Set-Up mode. The following menu options are available:
- Auto-Off: Sets the time interval for the camera's power save function, which turns the camera off automatically to conserve power when inactive. You can set the time interval to be 1 (default), 2, or 3 minutes.
- Sound: Turns off the beep that you hear when focusing, pressing the shutter button, and selecting a menu option. The default value is On.
- Date and Time: Adjusts the camera's date and time settings.
- Language: Lets you choose the language that you want to appear on the screens. Current options are English and Japanese.
- Image No.: Optionally resets the image number when you take photographs and store them to a folder on the SmartMedia card. When you reset the Image No., the next image taken is assigned the number 0001 and is stored to the smallest-numbered folder on the media card currently inserted into the camera.
- Default: Resets all the camera set-up options to their factory default values
Image Storage and Interface
As we've stated, the Toshiba PDR-M4 utilizes removable SmartMedia memory cards as the image storage medium. An 8MB card comes with the camera, but you can purchase additional cards in 2, 4, 16 and 32 MB sizes. You can also purchase a PC card or floppy disk adapter for image transfer to your computer. With the included 8 MB card, you can get about 8 Fine quality images at an average file size of 960KB file size, 16 Normal quality at around 480KB and about 33 Basic quality images at an average of 240KB. The table below details these relationships in our now-standard format:
|Resolution/Quality vs Image Capacity||
Remember to never remove the SmartMedia or switch the camera
off during data recording or erasing as these actions may damage
the media. Except in the case of copying media from one SmartMedia
card to another, you should only remove the card when the camera
is off. The card actually lives beneath the plastic flap on the
wrist strap side of the camera and is always positioned with
the electrodes facing inside. To remove the card, slide down
the release mechanism next to the cover. Push the card in slightly
and it will pop out for easy removal with your fingers.
To write protect the memory card, place a write protect sticker over the write protect area. Simply remove the sticker to disable write protection. Write protection may fail if the sticker becomes dirty and each sticker can only be used once.
The PDR-M4 organizes images in storage folders. When the SmartMedia card is formatted, it automatically creates a folder entitled 100TOSHI. Data from the photographed images is recorded to this folder and cannot be changed. Once the image numbers reach 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.
In-camera images resizingReducing image size saves memory and allows you to continue taking more pictures. Half sized images (800 x 600), images 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.
In-camera image recompression
Another option for space saving lies in compressing 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). Compressing images also occurs in Playback mode with a similar setup to resizing. The quality setting will be denoted under each image by the number of stars (three for Fine, two for Normal, one for Basic).
The PDR-M4 allows you to copy an image from one SmartMedia card to another, when in playback mode. Select the image to copy and press Enter (you can cancel a selection by pressing Enter again). Repeat the procedure to copy two or more images. When 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'll be prompted to press Enter once copying is complete and can exit the Play menu by hitting the Menu button.
You can erase images in either the Playback or the Automatic and Manual photography modes. When in Playback, use the arrow buttons to select the image and hit the trashcan button on the back panel to erase. You'll be asked to confirm this decision. Protected images cannot be erased, nor can images on write protected SmartMedia. When in Automatic or Manual photography modes, hit the trash can button and the last image taken will be selected for deletion. Again, you are asked to confirm this decision.
You can also erase all the images in the current folder in Playback, Manual or Automatic photography modes. Simply hold down the trash can button for two seconds. The Erase menu appears with the options of erasing a frame or all images or to format the SmartMedia. But even if all the images in a folder are erased, the folder itself cannot be erased. To erase the folder itself, the SmartMedia card must be formatted. The "All Images" erase option only applies to the folder you're currently in.
We've referred consistently in each function to "protected" images. This feature basically prevents the images from being erased or changed in any way. Protect images in Playback mode through the Play menu. Protected images are denoted by a key symbol beneath the image. Protection can be removed through the same process.
The PDR-M4 supports either a conventional serial-port interface (RS-232), or the much faster USB standard for connecting to the host computer. In our tests, we found that even in USB mode, it took the computer (a 350 MHz Pentium-II) about 27 seconds to recognize the camera and be ready to download images. Once past this delay though, USB data transfer was typically (incredibly) speedy, pulling down a 936 KByte maximum-resolution file in only 2-3 seconds. By contrast, serial-port transfer was predictably slow, requiring 92 seconds for the same 936K file. Still, this was roughly 10 KBytes/second, faster than many cameras we've tested using RS-232 connections. (Overall though, it's obvious the huge advantage USB holds for image downloads from digital cameras!)
This camera does have a Video Out feature but only in NTSC format (usable in the USA, Canada and Japan). Foreign models presumably support PAL. Before connecting the camera to any other equipment, the equipment must be turned off. If the camera is connected to a running television, the screen may flicker and the image may not be displayed properly. A video cable comes with the camera and plugs in the Video slot protected by the plastic flap on the side of the camera opposite of the wrist strap. Once the camera is connected to the television, you can take more photographs or just display them. The LCD must be turned on to see images on the television screen. Live images will be displayed at a lower resolution on the television set and will appear less clear than the recorded images.
The PDR-M4 uses a small LiIon rechargeable battery, providing 1100 mAh of capacity at 3.6 volts. As it turns out, this provides less power than you'd think, based on the 1100 mAh rating. (Typical NiMH AA cells provide about 1300 mAh.) The problem has to do with the total amount of energy provided, taking into account the lower cell voltage. Total energy in the PDR-M4's battery is 1100 mAh x 3.6 volts, or 3.76 watt-hours. By contrast, a set of 4 AA NiMH cells packs 1300 mAh x 4.8 volts, or 6.24 watt-hours, roughly 65% more. This translates into somewhat shorter battery life for the PDR-M4, so we strongly recommend buying a couple of extra batteries to carry along with you. The LiIon rechargeables have an advantage over NiMH cells, in that they don't "self-discharge." This means you can keep a couple of them in your camera bag and they won't lose significant charge for fairly long periods of time. (Maybe a month or so?)
Measured power consumption in the PDR-M4 is a bit higher than average as well (these numbers measured while running on 5 volt external power: The current drain from the 3.6 volt battery would almost certainly be higher.) Power consumption with the LCD on in the capture modes is fairly typical of current digicams, but capture mode without the LCD is quite a bit higher than some recent models. Sleep-mode power consumption is VERY low though, meaning you could comfortably leave the camera on all day without fear of draining the battery. On the other hand, you could just as easily shut the camera off, as the startup time of around two seconds is the same, regardless of whether you're waking it from "sleep," or just turning it on via the mode dial. Here's the power ratings that we found:
|Capture Mode, w/LCD||
|Capture Mode, w/o LCD||
|Half-pressed shutter, no LCD||
|Memory Write (Transient)||
|Flash Recharge (Transient)||
|"Sleep" Mode (Auto power-down)||
The PDR-M4 ships with a fairly complete complement of software, and to Toshiba's credit, does a good job of supporting both the Mac and PC platforms. On the PC, the primary interface is Sierra Imaging's excellent Image Expert package, which provides for image import, organization, adjustment, and output. The Mac package consists of three components, Picture Shuttle, used for downloading images, a TWAIN driver for interface to other programs, and EZ Touch for image manipulation and adjustment. Overall, a very competent software package, if not one of the "everything but the kitchen sink" bundles which now seem to be falling out of favor.
Important note: We didn't have a chance to verify this, but a reader wrote to tell us that Image Expert always compresses the images when saving to JPEG format, using a higher compression than the camera would in Fine mode. To preserve your original images, use the Picture Shuttle application, or a card reader to copy images to your computer.
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-M4'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 for the PDR-M4, to see how well the camera performed, and how its images compare to those from other cameras you may be considering buying.
Overall, we felt the PDR-M4 took good pictures, with accurate color, good saturation, and good resolution. Exposures were consistently accurate, although the flash tended to underexpose in most situations. (Not apparently due to a lack of power, as the amount of underexposure was pretty consistent, down to very short camera-subject distances. Under daylight lighting, either the "auto" or "daylight" white balance settings produced good results, but even the "incandescent" setting left a fair bit of warmth under the strong household incandescent lighting of our indoor portrait shot. (We did discover though, that wherever a color cast was left in the image, it was very consistent, and therefore easy to compensate for in an image-editing program, after the fact.)
The biggest news in the PDR-M4 (besides its blazing shot-to-shot
speed) is its exceptional low-light performance: Toshiba has
implemented a slick automatic dark-current calibration process
that effectively eliminates "stuck" CCD pixels, and
dramatically reduces CCD noise on long time exposures. The result
is a camera that takes unusually good low-light pictures, although
we found a strong reddish cast in our low-light tests. As with
the yellowish cast from incandescent lighting though, we found
this red tinge very easy to remove in Photoshop(tm). The result
was surprisingly good color and tonal range, at a light level
of only a half a footcandle (5.5 lux)!
Resolution was good, although not as high as some 2-megapixel cameras we've tested, with a visual resolution of roughly 700 lines per picture height. The normal 800x600 resolution mode showed unusual amounts of color aliasing, but the "digital tele" shots were very clean. (The conclusion being that if you really want to shoot lower-resolution images, either shoot at the higher resolution and resize on the computer afterward, or use the digital tele function whenever possible.)
Macro performance is good, but not in the "microscopic" realm that some current cameras achieve. Nonetheless, with a minimum coverage area of 3.6 x 2.7 inches (91 x 68 mm), it should more than meet the needs of most users.
Overall, we found the compact size, fast shot to shot exposure intervals and retractable lens cover made the PDR-M4 a convenient and user-friendly camera. It's low-light performance is world-class, even when compared to other current (August 1999) models renowned for this capability. We found it to be a workmanlike 2 megapixel design, with standout features (fast cycle time and exceptional low-light capability) that could make it a "must-have" for people with those requirements.
Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a PDR-M4 camera? If you'll post an album of your samples on a photo-sharing service and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, we'll list the album link here for others to see!
- T. Fowler's Sample Images (Where's yours?)
Questions, comments or controversy on this article? Click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about Toshiba PDR-M4, or add comments of your own!