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Back to Full PDR-M3 Review
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("First Look" review date: 16 February, 1999, Full Review posted 10 March, 1999)
||1.5 Million pixel sensor|
||1280 x 1024 resolution|
||3X optical zoom|
||Autofocus lens w/macro|
||Flexible "manual" exposure mode|
Toshiba has long been a huge player in the world of computers and electronics, and rapidly established a place for itself over the last year in the digital camera industry. At the low end of their line, they presented users with truly innovative VGA-resolution cameras incorporating built-in PCMCIA interfaces, allowing the cameras themselves to be plugged directly into a laptop computer for downloading images. At the high end, they introduced the PDR-M1 1.5 megapixel digital camera.
The earlier PDR-M1 was a huge success, offering excellent picture quality at a true bargain price. Not only was its price right, but it actually offered more picture-taking control than many cameras costing quite a bit more. In fact, we'd commented on several occasions that the only significant feature it seemed to be missing was a zoom lens. Zoom Lens? Did someone say Zoom Lens? - Evidently, Toshiba was listening, because here comes the PDR-M3 -- In many ways the same camera, only with a 3x optical zoom added, along with some minor but noticeable improvements in image quality. (And as we said, the PDR-M1 already did quite well in the image quality department!)
High Points Overview
The PDR-M3 is housed in an attractive, compact metallized plastic case, with a retracting lens assembly to make the unit more compact in the "off" state. At 4.8 x 3.35 x 2.38 inches (122 x 85 x 60 mm), and 12 ounces (340 gm) without the battery pack, it is slightly larger than average among competing camera models. The thickness of the body prevents it's passing the "shirt pocket" test, being a little too large to fit comfortably into a standard men's-size shirt pocket. It does sport a sturdy metal bracket though, to which a wrist strap can be attached. Another touch we appreciated was the inclusion of a metal tripod socket, a distinct rarity among even high-end digicams these days.
As with essentially every digital camera we've tested, the PDR-M3 is "right-handed," with most of the controls set up for use by the thumb and fingers of the right hand. Overall, we found its design, ergonomics, and user interface to be excellent: The camera controls and menus are very easy to navigate in normal shooting, and even the complexity of "manual" mode was quite easy to maneuver through.
As with most digital cameras today, Toshiba has resolved the "optical vs. LCD" viewfinder dilemma by providing both. The optical viewfinder on the PDR-M1 is clear and bright, but crops the image relative to the CCD's field of view somewhat more than we'd like, showing only about 80% of the area actually captured by the camera at the wide-angle end of the lens' range, and 76% of the final area at the telephoto end. The LCD viewfinder is much more accurate, but still not perfect, revealing about 89% of the final image area. The area shown by the LCD viewfinder is consistently well-centered in the actual field of view of the sensor, as is the optical viewfinder at the wide-angle end of the lens' range. At the telephoto end of the zoom though, the optical viewfinder is biased slightly toward the lower right corner of the CCD's view, producing images slightly off-center up and to the left.
Other than our complaint about excessive image cropping in the optical finder, both optical and LCD viewfinders worked well. The optical finder is bright and easy to use even for eyeglass wearers (a point we're always sensitive too, belonging to that category ourselves), and dioptric correction, shown at right, is provided that appears to span a surprisingly broad range. (Almost enough for Dave to use minus his glasses, quite a feat given his 20/180 vision!) The LCD finder is quite bright and sharp, with a very high refresh rate that makes tracking even fast-moving objects quite easy. Unfortunately, it shares the tendency to wash out in direct sunlight that we've observed in all but a very few LCD screens.
Besides the "live" image itself, the LCD shows a number of useful information displays when used as a viewfinder, including data & time, current image quality setting, digital zoom mode, and a "shake" warning when the camera has selected a slow shutter speed, and the flash is disabled. In "manual" mode, the current status of essentially all of the adjustable settings are shown on the LCD, including exposure compensation, white balance setting, flash exposure setting, and whether "synchro" mode is enabled or not (more on this last option later).
The PDR-M3 has a sharp all-glass 3x zoom autofocus lens design, with a focal length equivalent to a 35-105mm zoom lens on a 35mm camera. (This translates to a range from moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto.) A 2x "digital zoom" is also available, that crops down to the central 640x480 portion of the sensor array. The maximum lens aperture of f/3.8-f/7.6 (wide-angle to telephoto) is a bit "slower" than most current digital cameras, particularly at the telephoto end of the lens' range. In operation, the lens aperture switches automatically between the f/3.8-f/7.6 maximum opening and an f/5.5-f/11 aperture as directed by the exposure system.
The autofocus distance for the lens ranges from 35 inches (0.9 m) to infinity in normal mode, and from 9.75 inches (25cm) to 35 inches in macro mode. The 105mm-equivalent telephoto performance of the lens combines with this close-focusing to produce a very respectable macro performance. In our tests, the minimum area covered by the PDR-M3 in macro mode was 2.9 x 3.6 inches (73 x 91 mm).
The one significant limitation we found in the PDR-M3's optical design was the lack of filter threads for mounting external auxiliary lenses. This is unfortunate, as the camera's excellent exposure control suits it for use by more-sophisticated camera buffs, who frequently would want to further enhance its functionality through auxiliary lenses. (In practice though, virtually all digital cameras with telescoping lenses have foregone filter threads, to avoid problems with damage to the lens mechanisms resulting from overly enthusiastic attachment or removal of balky filters.) We did appreciate Toshiba's inclusion of a lens cover, attached to a short tether which can be tied to the left-hand body lug to prevent losing it.
The PDR-M3's sensor is rated by Toshiba at an official ISO equivalent of 100, very typical for the current crop of digital cameras. The combination of a slightly "slower" lens though, and a maximum exposure time of 1/4 seconds translates to fairly modest low-light performance: Taking the official ISO rating, maximum aperture, and maximum exposure time produces a minimum usable light level of about EV 10.5. This agrees fairly well with our own testing, in which we were able to obtain usable images down to EV10. Not to despair though, as this light level roughly corresponds to well-lit residential interiors: Don't expect to use this camera for outdoor shots by moonlight, but it should work reasonably well in typical residential and office settings.
The PDR-M3 uses a surprisingly sophisticated 64-segment matrix metering algorithm that produced very good exposures under a range of conditions. (Even our tough "outdoor portrait" shot only needed about +0.6EV of exposure compensation, less than most cameras we've tested.) We feel the camera fits the description of "point and shoot" very well indeed in this respect.
The PDR-M3 provides an unusual degree of control over the exposure system in several ways. One such is via an LCD menu option that lets you specify a preference for either greater depth of field or higher shutter speed. While not quite an aperture- or shutter-priority exposure system, this option lets you bias the exposure program in favor of larger or smaller lens apertures, a simple yet useful extension of the camera's automatic exposure system.
Most digital cameras these days allow the user to dial-in some degree of exposure compensation, to handle subjects with difficult lighting. (Backlit subjects, for instance, require more exposure than the meter indicates, since it's basing its calculation in part on the brighter background area.) The PDR-M3 goes most of the competition a step or two better in this area though, by providing not only a wide compensation range of +1.5 to -0.9EV in 0.3 EV steps for ambient lighting, but a range of +/- 0.6EV in 0.3 EV steps for flash exposure as well! This ability to adjust flash exposure is very rare in our experience, and is a feature we'd like to see more digicam manufacturers incorporate in their products. (Reduced flash exposure can contribute greatly to more-natural indoor shots.)
Also like most digital cameras, the PDR-M3 provides an exposure/focus lock function, when the shutter button is half-pressed. This can be useful for situations where a subject is off-center, or as a means to achieve more-accurate exposure by excluding strong light sources near the subject from the exposure determination. (With patience and a tripod, this can also be used as a way to balance the exposure for multiple shots used to compose a panorama.)
One feature we particularly liked on the PDR-M3 was the automatic image "preview" in manual mode: After each picture is captured, it is displayed on the LCD screen, giving you the option to either save it to the memory card, or discard it. The image remains more or less indefinitely, but if you take no action, it will be lost when the camera powers-down automatically to save power.
The on-board flash of the PDR-M3 is quite competent, offering 5 different exposure modes. Its effective range is from 1.3 to 6.5 feet (0.4 to 2.0 meters) at the telephoto end of the lens' range, and 1.3 to 9.75 feet (0.4 to 3.0) meters at the wide-angle end. Contrary to the conservative 1.3 foot minimum distance Toshiba rates it for though, we found the flash worked well all the way down to the minimum focusing distance of 9.75 inches (25mm). Available flash modes are on, off, auto, auto red-eye reduction, slow sync, and "ext sync." In our tests, we were surprised to find how well the built-in flash's illumination blended with the tungsten room lighting in our indoor portrait shot: Many cameras produce unnatural bluish highlights under these conditions.
The "external sync" option deserves special comment: In keeping with the greater degree of exposure flexibility the PDR-M3 offers in other areas, it also includes a thoughtful provision for using it with external, slave-triggered flash units. In "ext sync" mode, the on-board flash fires a single, fairly weak pulse. This is sufficient to trigger a slave strobe unit at reasonable range (up to 2 meters), but not enough to contribute significantly to the exposure. In this mode, the shutter speed is fixed at 1/125, and the lens aperture at its smallest opening (f/7.6-f/11). The white balance is also adjusted to the 5700K value typical of most professional flash units. Again, while far from the level of control provided by a professional 35mm camera, this minor extension of the PDR-M3's capabilities translates into a significant increase in usability.
The PDR-M3 provides a total of six different white-balance settings, including auto, sunny, cloudy, warm fluorescent, cool fluorescent, and incandescent. The white-balance settings are available in the "Manual" record mode, accessible via the 4-way rocker control on the camera's back panel. We found the M3's automatic white balance to work quite well within a reasonable range of illumination, but it had a hard time with the very strong yellowish cast of the lighting for our "indoor portrait" shot, and it seemed to leave a slight magenta tint under normal "daylight" conditions. (Its "incandescent" setting did a fairly good job with the strong color cast of the household incandescent bulbs, but (in common with most digicams we test), its incandescent setting appears to be balanced for professional tungsten lighting, at a color temperature of 3200K.) For daylight shooting, we found the "sunny" white balance setting produced the best results.
Shutter lag and cycle times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This delay is to allow the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long time 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 a little Windows utility developed by Digital Eyes.
We found the PDR-M3's autofocus to be slightly slower than that of many cameras we've tested, requiring about 1.2 seconds for a full autofocus cycle before the shutter tripped. Prefocusing by half-pressing the shutter release in advance of the exposure itself reduced the lag time to about 0.25 seconds, fairly typical of the current range of cameras shooting under that condition. Shot-to-shot cycle times range from 11 seconds in large/fine mode, to 6.8 seconds in 640x480 mode with "Basic" image quality selected, neither the slowest nor the fastest camera we've tested to date.
Camera startup is fairly fast, at just over 5 seconds, and shutdown occurs in about 3.5 seconds. Switching from record to playback mode (with a large/fine resolution image to be displayed) also requires about 5 seconds, while the change back to record mode is almost instantaneous. (You can take a new picture as soon as you rotate the function dial back to either manual or auto record position.)
Operation and User Interface
As we noted earlier, we found the user interface of the PDR-M3 very easy to navigate, despite the range of functions and picture-taking controls it offers. Major operating modes are selected via the function wheel in the upper right-hand corner of the camera's back, as shown at right. Within each major mode, functions are selected from an LCD menu system, using the three controls just above and to the left of the rear-panel LCD screen. The function of these controls varies slightly, depending on whether you're in "Auto or "Manual" record modes.
The three menu-related controls of the PDR-M3 are shown at left. The "Set" button brings up a set of four menus, governing flash operation, image compression, file size, and macro operation. When the menu system is active, you can move between menus by pressing the right or left arrows on the 4-way rocker control (labeled "zoom" in the photo). Once a menu is selected, the up and down arrows on the rocker can be used to choose the menu option you want. After you've configured all your menu choices, pressing either the "Set" or "Menu/Exe" buttons saves the settings. In normal operation (when the menu system isn't enabled), the up and down arrows on the rocker control actuate the zoom lens.
In "Manual" record mode, the LCD is always active, with a 5-menu system constantly present. This manual-mode menu system controls white balance settings, exposure compensation for both ambient and flash illumination, exposure preference (full program, or large/small aperture preference), and the external flash sync function. In manual mode, you can immediately select any of the 5 menus by pressing the left or right arrows on the 4-way rocker control, and then using the up/down arrows to choose the desired option. You save your choices by pressing the "Menu/Exe" button, upon which the up/down arrows on the 4-way control return to their normal function of controlling the zoom lens.
As noted, we found the combination of function wheel and LCD menu system very easy to navigate: We generally like "function wheels", because they separate major camera operating modes, and help avoid the overloading of functions on the various control buttons. In our opinion, this usually produces an operating interface that is easier for novices to learn quickly, and which is quick to navigate in actual use.
With the foregoing as an overview, we'll now plunge into our standard enumeration of camera functions, stepping through the major operating modes one at a time.
Setup mode produces the LCD menu shown at right. Options available here are as follows:
The self-timer option has its own position on the function dial, which unfortunately means you can't use it with any of the special options from the manual-record mode. In self-timer mode though, all of the normal automatic-mode menu options are available, including flash mode settings, image compression, file size, and the macro option. (We frequently find ourselves using self-timers in macro mode, to avoid camera shake on the rickety copy stand we use for our macro shots.)
Manual Record Mode
Five menus are available here, directly from the LCD viewfinder display. (The last menu item is located off-screen to the right, and must be reached by scrolling the cursor with the 4-way rocker control.)
In addition to the preceding "manual mode" menu options,
all the standard "auto" mode options described below
are also available in manual record mode.
Auto Record Mode
In Auto record mode, the LCD display screen doesn't illuminate unless you press the "Disp" button just to the right of it, or the "Set" button above it. The "Set" button brings up the menu system, while the "Disp" button controls the LCD's use as a viewfinder, and display of the information overlay. Once you've made your menu selections, pressing either the "Set" or "Menu/Exe" button will save them. The menu called up by the "Set" button contains four sub-menus, as described below:
The PDR-M3 provides several unusual in-camera effects in playback mode, that may be applied to pictures without resorting to the use of a host computer. Applying a special effect to an image leaves the original untouched, producing a new image in the camera's memory.
This one eluded us until we broke down and read the manual: You can quickly review images stored on the camera's memory card, viewing groups of 9 tiny "thumbnails" at a time. To access this review mode, press the "Disp" button twice in rapid succession. You can scroll through the images displayed by using the 4-way rocker control to move a cursor highlight from image to image. Once you've selected the image you want, you can display it full-screen by pressing the "Disp" button once again.
Playback zoom viewing
We often find ourselves wishing for more resolution and detail in the LCD screen during playback, to see if we caught fine details properly in the shots we've just taken, or if the fine framing is correct. Toshiba addresses this need in the PDR-M3, by providing a "zoom" function when in the playback mode. To use this option, simply press the up-arrow on the 4-way rocker control when in playback mode. You can select display enlargement levels from 1.0 to 4.0x, in 0.2x increments. Even better, once you're zoomed to a given level, holding down the "Set" button turns the 4-way rocker into a scrolling control, moving the zoomed window around the picture as a whole. At the 4X setting, you can really see detail down pretty close to the pixel level. (Note that the example at right is the same "house" shot from other display examples in this article, only zoomed-in 4x!) Overall, this is probably the best implementation of playback zoom we've seen to date. One big grip though: Inexplicably, the view in zoom mode doesn't extend all the way to the edges of the image frame! - This is unfortunate, as it reduces the usefulness of an otherwise excellent feature.
Image deletion is handled in the PDR-M3 through a separate setting of the function wheel. Three functions are provided, to erase either one frame at a time, all frames in the camera, or to reformat the card. In single-frame erase mode, you can either step through full-size images, or switch to the 9-up "thumbnail" display mentioned earlier, by pressing the "Disp" button twice in rapid succession.
As you take pictures with a larger memory card, you'll sometimes want to snap a number of exposures quickly, then "weed out" the ones you don't want to keep. One way of doing this is to use the "protect" mode to lock the images you want to keep, then go back to the Erase mode screen and use the "erase all" option to delete all the unprotected pictures in one fell swoop. Regardless of how you use it, the PDR-M3's ability to protect selected images against accidental erasure is a useful option.
Computer Connect Mode
The PDR-M3 has a built-in serial interface port that can be used to connect it to a host computer for image downloading. This mode enables the port for data transfers. (See below for more details.)
Image Storage and Interface
The PDR-M3 stores its images on the tiny SmartMedia removable memory cards. It ships with a 4MB card, and supports cards as large as 32MB, the largest currently manufactured. SmartMedia cards are slated to grow as large as 128MB over the next year, and we don't know whether existing cameras will be compatible with those larger sizes or not. Regardless, 32MB is a LOT of image storage, corresponding to probably 40-50 pictures at the PDR-M3's maximum image size and quality setting. (The furnished 4MB card stores anywhere from 5 to 80 images, depending on the image size and quality setting.) We liked the fact that the card slot is accessible from the side of the camera (as shown at left), which means you can load and unload the card without taking the camera off a tripod.
On our Pentium-II PC, we timed the transfer of a 689K image file at 2 minutes and 34 seconds via the serial port, and 33 seconds via the FlashPath adapter. This serial-transfer time is a bit on the slow side, more appropriate for a 57Kbaud connection than the 115K that we (thought we) had the connection running at. (Even if the serial port had been a good bit faster, the FlashPath floppy adapter would still have won hands-down, underscoring the value of this accessory.)
Although not included with the PDR-M3 itself, a useful accessory is the "FlashPath" floppy-disk adapter. This device accepts a SmartMedia card in a slot in its side, and then plugs into a standard floppy drive on your computer. With appropriate driver software installed on the host computer, the SmartMedia card can then be read like a floppy of 4, 8, 16, or even 32 MB capacity, and files simply copied off of it. The FlashPath adapter provides file transfers that are typically about 5 times faster than those made with serial connections. Overall, we highly recommend the FlashPath for owners of SmartMedia-based cameras, feeling that the ~$80 "street" price is well worth it, when it comes to the increased enjoyment and usage you'll get from your camera. (We found our own digital camera usage at least doubled after getting a FlashPath adapter!)
As mentioned earlier, the PDR-M3 has a jack for a video-out cable. When plugged in, it turns off the internal LCD monitor, and routes all signals out through the video port. We've found this a very handy function for grabbing screen shots of whatever would normally appear on the LCD screen, and it makes for a great way to share images with friends or colleagues. US and Canadian models of the PDR-M3 will support the NTSC standard, while European models will support PAL.
The PDR-M3 is a bit of a departure from many inexpensive digital cameras, in that it uses a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery, rather than the much more common AA cells. The advantages of the LiIon battery pack are that it's very compact for the amount of power it delivers (1350 mAh), and has no "memory effect" as is suffered by NiCd batteries. The only drawback we see is that you can't get replacement batteries in a pinch at the corner drugstore. Besides the battery pack, the PDR-M3 includes an AC adapter, which will both power the camera and recharge the battery pack. We don't know the official recharge time for a fully-discharged battery pack, but would guess that it's on the order of 5-6 hours. An optional external battery charger is available that cuts this time to 2.5 hours. (NOTE: Because the AC adapter for the PDR-M3 also functions as an in-camera battery charger, we STRONGLY advise against using any power source other than the official AC adapter. Adapters not designed to charge the particular LiIon batteries used by the PDR-M3 could cause severe damage and even a fire hazard!)
The PDR-M3 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. On the Mac side, we didn't test the software directly, due to the particularly delicate state of our Mac system at the time we had the camera in-house. (Our Mac for once gave the PC a real run for the money in the realm of sheer cussedness!) 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.
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-M3'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-M3, 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-M3 took very good pictures, reflecting faithfully the sterling qualities of its ancestor, the PDR-M1. Its exposures were consistently accurate, doubtless thanks to the 64-segment matrix metering it employs. Color and tonal rendition also were quite good, producing good saturation on strong primaries, yet doing a very good job with delicate pastels and skin tones as well. In most cases, with "daylight" lighting, we obtained the best results using the "Sunny" white balance setting, the auto white balance sometimes producing a slight magenta tone.
Resolution was very good, with a visual resolution of 600-650 line widths/picture height, in both vertical and horizontal directions. This puts it right at the top of the current crop of 1.3 and 1.5-megapixel digicams, and even represents a slight improvement over the earlier PDR-M1.
Macro performance is good, but not in the "microscopic" realm that some current cameras achieve. Nonetheless, with a minimum coverage area of 2.9 x 3.6 inches (73 x 91 mm), it should more than meet the needs of most users.
See for Yourself!
Take a look at the test images from the PDR-M3 (with extensive comments), or jump to the Comparometer(tm) page to compare its reference images with those from other digital cameras.
The PDR-M3 is a very strong offering, following in the footsteps of the highly popular PDR-M1. That earlier camera set a benchmark for cost-effective performance that few competing units could match. With the addition of a 3X optical zoom lens, and the retention of all the exposure-control options of the previous unit, the PDR-M3 is a great picture-taking machine at a very competitive price: This is a camera that offers "point and shoot" ease of use, and great pictures, yet provides the photographer with a greater degree of exposure control than most products competing in its price range. - Looks like Toshiba has another winner!
See what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about the PDR-M3, or add comments of your own. (Read what's here, then add your own!)