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HP PhotoSmart 215

HP's entry-level model offers ease of use for beginning shooters.

Review First Posted: 3/10/2001

MSRP $299 US


1.3 megapixel CCD delivers up to 1,280 x 960-pixel photos. (Good for up to 4 x 6-inch prints.)
43.4mm equivalent lens provides good scene coverage for snapshots.
2x digital zoom gets you closer, albeit with lower resolution.
Ultra-simple operation is ideal for entry-level users.


Manufacturer Overview

Hewlett Packard (HP) is one of the true giants of the information age. Their products range from scientific instruments to personal computers, to the most popular line of laser printers in existence. Along the way, they've developed a popular line of digital cameras, inkjet printers, and scanners intended to make digital imaging accessible to the home and small-office user. They've apparently succeeded well in this, as their PhotoSmart 315 camera was the biggest-selling camera in the US in the 2000 Christmas season. In an earlier review, we were very impressed with their PhotoSmart S20 print/film scanner, which produced very high-quality images with virtually no tweaking or adjustment.

The subject of this review is HP's PhotoSmart 215 digital camera, a 1.3-megapixel unit designed for the ultimate in operating simplicity. As such, it lacks the controls for exposure and white balance adjustment we're accustomed to seeing on the more advanced cameras we commonly test. Even lacking such controls though, it proved surprisingly adept at producing usable images under a wide variety of shooting conditions. For those images requiring post-capture tweaking and adjustment, we found its software to be both friendly and functional. While other cameras may boast higher resolution or more advanced exposure controls, the PhotoSmart 215 offers an easy entry to the world of digital photography at a very affordable price: If you're mainly interested in emailing images or prints 4x6 inches or smaller, the PhotoSmart 215 could be a good choice.

High Points

Executive Overview

The HP PhotoSmart 215 is designed for those consumers who want an easy-to-use, point-and-shoot digital camera, without having to fuss over exposure controls. The 215's simplified user interface and automatic exposure controls give consumers just that -- straightforward digital photography with no hassles. Measuring approximately 5 x 1.5 x 3 inches (127 x 38 x 76.2mm), the 215 has a smooth silver finish and is just about the right size to fit into a large coat pocket or purse. A small wrist strap accompanies the camera for a little extra security.

The Camera's simple design features very few external controls and an uncomplicated LCD-based menu system. The 1.3-megapixel CCD produces images as large as 1,280 x 960 pixels, with three JPEG quality settings available. On the back panel is a smallstatus display screen directly over the 1.8-inch color LCD monitor. The status display reports camera settings and enables you to operate the camera with the LCD monitor switched off, thus conserving battery power. The real image optical viewfinder has a high eyepoint which should be comfortable for most eyeglass wearers. You can also compose images with the rear LCD monitor on, which provides an unobstructed view of the image composition (all camera settings are reported in the status display panel only). An interesting feature of the PhotoSmart 215 is the ability to customize the Welcome screen, which appears on the LCD monitor whenever the camera is powered on. Through the Playback menu, you can choose one of your own images to appear when the camera is activated, giving the 215 a more personalized feel.

The 6.68mm lens (equivalent to a 43.4mm on a 35mm camera) features a focus range from two feet (60cm) to infinity in normal mode, and from four inches to three feet (10cm to 1 meter) in macro mode. Focus is automatically controlled, as is the lens aperture, which ranges from f/2.8 to f/8. A 2x digital telephoto digitally enlarges the center portion of the CCD image, resulting in slightly softer resolution and a more pixelated final image. While the 215's lens does not feature filter threads, an accessory lens adapter mount is available from Tiffen Company, accommodating macro, wide-angle, and telephoto lens kits, as well as a series of creative filters.

The HP 215 features complete automatic exposure control, with shutter speeds ranging from 1/750 to 1/3 second, and automatic white balance settings. The CCD's light sensitivity is set at ISO 100. The user has control over Flash settings, Digital Zoom (2x), Image Quality, Macro mode, and the Self-Timer. An Instant Review function automatically displays the digital photograph immediately after capture on the LCD monitor, giving you the option to delete the image before it records to the memory card. (This function can be disabled through the settings menu.) The 215's built-in flash operates in Auto, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, and Flash Off modes, with an effective flash range from two to eight feet (0.6 to 2.5 meters). These limited exposure options reduce the camera's low-light capabilities, but should handle most reasonably bright shooting conditions.

Three JPEG quality settings are available on the PhotoSmart 215 -- Super Fine, Fine, and Basic. Both Super Fine and Fine quality settings record images at the 1,280 x 960-pixel resolution, while the Basic setting records images at 640 x 480 pixels. Images are saved to a CompactFlash card (Type I), and a 4MB card accompanies the camera. Through the Playback menu, images can be "locked" to protect against accidental deletion (except through card formatting).

A USB cable and software CD provide high-speed access to a computer for downloading images. The software CD contains ArcSoft PhotoImpression 2000, ArcSoft PhotoMontage 2000, and HP camera drivers. Unfortunately, the software is compatible with Windows systems only, so Mac users will need to purchase separate software and a card reader to download images (Hewlett-Packard's website does not offer Macintosh camera drivers). PhotoImpression 2000 provides a nice offering of image downloading, organizing, editing, and printing utilities, while PhotoMontage 2000 is a more creative application, allowing you to create a large, mosaic-type image from hundreds or thousands of tiny images (either from your own collection or from the program's library).

Four AA alkaline batteries power the PhotoSmart 215, and Hewlett-Packard warns against using any rechargeable batteries. A set of batteries comes with the camera, but the AC adapter is available as an accessory item (and one we highly recommend for image playback and downloading).

With its limited features and exposure controls, the PhotoSmart 215 is a great digicam for those consumers who want a straightforward, easy-to-use digital camera. There are only a few decisions to make, such as whether or not to use the flash, digital telephoto, or macro modes, keeping the 215's operation very simple. Small and portable, the PhotoSmart 215 offers hassle-free operation for most average shooting conditions. The availability of Tiffen accessory lenses and filters is a plus, extending the camera's shooting options to include telephoto and tighter macro photography.



Marketed as a simple, point-and-shoot digicam, Hewlett-Packard's PhotoSmart 215 features a very clean body design with a minimum of external controls. Measuring approximately 5 x 1.5 x 3 inches (127 x 38 x 76.2mm), the camera's smooth, silver body is just a little too wide for a shirt pocket, but should fit easily into a large coat pocket or purse. A wrist strap accompanies the camera for a firmer hold.

The front of the 215 has a lens, optical viewfinder window, built-in flash, and self-timer LED. The 6.68mm lens is protected by a clear plastic cover that never moves out of place, thus eliminating the need for a lens cap. A soft, rubbery finger grip on the right side of the camera's front panel, provides a comfortable spot for your fingers to cling to as they wrap around the camera. Aside from the slight protrusion of the lens and the small finger grip, the front of the 215 is very smooth and featureless.

The left side of the camera has no controls, just a smooth, rounded surface. The right side has two compartments, one for batteries and one that contains the USB and AC power connector jacks, plus the CompactFlash memory card slot. The CompactFlash card loads with the electrodes going in first, and the "face" of the card toward the compartment door. Though there is no diagram on the camera body to direct you on how to insert the card, it will not go into the slot facing the wrong way, so you don't have to worry about improper insertion. Instead of pressing a release button to retrieve the card, you simply pull it out of the slot with your fingers. The accompanying wrist strap also features a small clip for pulling the memory card from the slot. Both compartments are covered by hinged, plastic doors that snap in and out of place easily. The battery compartment features a locking switch and accommodates four AA batteries. In the lower right corner of the right side is the eyelet for attaching the wrist strap.

The top panel of the camera features only the shutter button, which is large and slightly recessed into the top of the camera, making it easy to find.

On the back panel are the camera's remaining controls, plus an optical viewfinder eyepiece, LCD monitor, and small status display panel. Although the optical viewfinder does not have a diopter adjustment dial, it does have a reasonably high eyepoint to accommodate eyeglass wearers. Two LED lamps next to the eyepiece report the camera's status. A solid green LED indicates that focus and exposure are set. A flashing LED indicates a problem with the camera, or the camera's inability to focus on a difficult subject.

We are always glad to see the inclusion of a small status display panel, which reports the majority of the camera's settings and allows you to work without the LCD monitor enabled. The 215's status display panel also shows the current level of battery consumption and the number of available images. There are only three camera controls on the 215's back panel, a Menu dial, a Mode switch, and the LCD display switch.

Finally, the 215's bottom panel is perfectly flat, except for a plastic, threaded tripod mount and the battery compartment's locking switch. We were glad to see that the CompactFlash slot is accessible while the camera is attached to a tripod. However, the battery compartment's proximity to the tripod mount makes quick battery changes while working with a tripod impossible. Though the compartment door opens to the side, it must first slide down before opening out. On the upside, the AC connector is accessible through the memory card compartment, so you can work with the AC adapter while it is attached to a tripod.



The 215 features both an optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor for composing images. Located in the top left corner of the camera's back panel is the real image optical viewfinder. While the eyepiece doesn't offer a diopter adjustment dial, it does have a relatively high eyepoint for eyeglass wearers. We were able to see the full image view at a pretty good distance from the eyepiece, which should work for most lens thicknesses. Two camera status LEDs next to the eyepiece report when focus and exposure are set (a solid green LED). A flashing LED indicates a problem with the camera or that the autofocus system is having trouble focusing on the subject.

Also on the camera's back panel is the 1.8-inch color LCD monitor, with a total of 61,600 pixels. A sliding switch on the right, bottom corner of the back panel controls the LCD display, turning it on or off. No information is displayed on the LCD monitor, providing an unobstructed view of the image composition. Instead, camera settings are reported in the small status display panel just above the LCD monitor. Though reasonably bright, the LCD display has a relatively slow refresh rate, which may slow down composition a bit.

In Playback mode, the LCD monitor offers an index display mode, which shows nine thumbnail images on the screen at a time. You can also enlarge captured images up to 2x for closer examination of details. In Playback mode, the LCD displays the date that the image was taken, the quality setting, and the image number for about two seconds with each new image display.



The PhotoSmart 215's 6.68mm lens is equivalent to a 43.4mm lens on a 35mm camera. Apertures are automatically controlled, and range from f/2.8 to f/8. Focus is also controlled automatically and ranges from two feet (60cm) to infinity in normal mode. In macro mode, focus ranges from four inches to three feet (10cm to one meter). As we mentioned earlier, an LED next to the optical viewfinder eyepiece lights a solid green when focus is set. If it's flashing, the camera's autofocus system may be having trouble focusing on the subject, due to backlighting or the distance between the subject and the camera. You can manually lock focus for a specific part of the subject by framing the target focus area in the center of the viewfinder, depressing the shutter button halfway, and then recomposing the shot while keeping the shutter button halfway depressed. Focus will remain locked until you let go of the shutter button, or fully depress it to make the exposure.

While the 215 does not offer an optical zoom, it does feature a 2x digital zoom, controlled through the camera's settings menu. Keep in mind that since the digital zoom is merely cropping and enlarging the center portion of the CCD, digitally enlarged images often result in higher image noise and/or softer resolution.

The 215's lens does not feature filter threads, but an accessory lens adapter is available from Tiffen Company (an accessory catalog accompanies the camera). The lens adapter clips onto the side of the camera body and aligns with the lens opening, accommodating a series of macro, wide-angle, and telephoto lens kits. A set of Tiffen creative filters is also available to add to your shooting options.



In an effort to keep things simple, Hewlett-Packard has included virtually no exposure controls on the PhotoSmart 215, maintaining its positioning as a simple-to-use, point-and-shoot digicam. Exposure is automatic, with only one capture mode available. Apertures range from f/2.8 to f/8 and shutter speeds range from 1/750 to 1/3 second (which limits the camera's low-light capabilities without flash). Neither aperture nor shutter speed is reported in the status display panel. (We often like to see these settings reported, even if they are automatically controlled, so that we have some idea of what settings the camera has selected.) White balance is also automatically controlled, and there is no exposure compensation adjustment. The camera's light sensitivity is fixed at an ISO 100 equivalent.

By offering very few options in its settings menu, Hewlett-Packard accomplishes its goal to provide a very straightforward digicam for consumers who don't want to make a lot of exposure decisions. Though it does not feature a spot meter or exposure lock function, you can lock the exposure reading in the same manner that you lock the focus, by centering the target portion of the subject in the frame, depressing the shutter button halfway, reframing the subject with the shutter button halfway depressed, and then fully depressing the shutter button.

Aside from the Macro and Digital Zoom options offered in the settings menu, the 215 also offers a 10-second self-timer. Once the timer is enabled, a full press of the shutter button triggers the 10-second countdown before the shutter fires. The small, red LED on the front panel flashes slowly for the first eight seconds, then flashes rapidly for the remaining two. The self-timer is automatically canceled after the image is captured.

The 215 also features an Instant Review function, which displays the captured image immediately after exposure. The image can then be deleted before being saved to the memory card by pressing down on the Menu dial. You can turn Instant Review off through the settings menu (under the Setup option). The display only lasts a few seconds, enough time for the image to be recorded to the CompactFlash card.


The PhotoSmart 215 features a built-in flash with four operating modes: Auto, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, and Flash Off. As you'd expect, the Auto Flash places the camera in control of when to fire the flash, based on the existing light conditions. Auto with Red-Eye Reduction works in a similar manner, except the flash fires a small pre-flash before firing the flash at full power, to help reduce the effect of red eye. Finally, the On setting fires the flash with every exposure, regardless of light level, and Off simply disables the flash completely. The camera reports the flash mode in the small status display panel above the LCD monitor. If the flash icon is blinking, the flash is charging, and the camera will not allow you to take the exposure. Hewlett-Packard estimates the 215's flash to be effective from two to eight feet (0.6 to 2.5 meters).


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 is to allow 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 Imaging Resource proprietary testing..

Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart 215 Timings
Time (secs)
Power On -> First shot
A bit slow for a camera with a fixed lens, but not too bad. The longer time is if the camera has been powered down for some time, and needs to charge the flash before it's ready to snap pictures.
No lens to retract, so no delay before you can return it to your pocket.
Play to Record, first shot
Time until first shot is captured, from Playback mode. Fairly fast.
Record to play (max/min resolution)
1.4 (2.2)/0.9
Pretty fast. (Times shown are for first view (low-res) and full-res view. Third time shown is for low-res files.)
Shutter lag, full autofocus
Average to slightly faster than average. (Macro shooting slows to 1.3 seconds though.) Variation appears related to subject matter, how easily the camera can focus on it.
Shutter lag, prefocus
Quite a bit faster than average.
Cycle Time, max/min resolution
Fairly slow, not a great choice for sports or fast action.

Overall, the PhotoSmart 215 is average to somewhat slower than average in its shooting. Shutter delay is actually pretty good, ranging from average to faster than average, depending on the subject matter. (Mid-range digicams we've tested tend to have shutter delays of about 0.8 seconds. The 215's delay runs from 0.65 to 0.8 seconds, depending on how easy the subject is for it to focus on.) When the camera is prefocused by pressing and holding the shutter button down halfway prior to the exposure, the shutter lag decreases to only 0.11 seconds, quite fast by any standard. Shot-to-shot cycle times are quite slow however, as much as 8.0 seconds for maximum-resolution images. The PhotoSmart 215 is thus a fine choice for idle snapshots, but shouldn't be considered if you're interested in shooting fast-paced action, where you'd like to squeeze off several shots in just a few seconds.


Operation and User Interface

The PhotoSmart 215 offers a very straightforward user interface, with few controls and a very simplified camera settings menu. While we normally prefer to see more external controls and less reliance on the LCD monitor, the 215's handful of controls hardly makes this an issue. In addition, the small status display panel above the LCD provides a continuous report of camera settings, allowing the user to work without the battery-hungry LCD monitor turned on. When you do need to activate the LCD menu to adjust camera settings, it takes a little getting used to, so we've briefly described the process below. The accompanying instruction manual is also very easy to follow, with detailed instructions and diagrams for all of the digicam's functions.

The LCD camera settings menu is small enough to fit onto a single page. The notched menu dial, located to the left of the LCD monitor, protrudes from the camera back at a 90-degree angle rather than being flush to the surface, so you rotate it up and down rather than from left to right. To activate the LCD menu, you press the dial down, like a button, and then roll the dial down to scroll right through the menu choices (which are lined up along the top of the monitor), and roll it up to scroll left through the icons. When you reach the menu item you want to adjust, you press the dial down again and the available settings appear below the selected icon. At this stage, rotating the dial up or down allows you to scroll up and down through the menu selections. When you reach the desired setting, you press the dial down one more time to activate that setting, and the settings menu automatically shuts down. If you want to make further menu adjustments, you have to start over.

The following list includes both external controls and the LCD menu settings.

Control Enumeration

Shutter Button: Located on the camera's top panel, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway depressed, and fires the shutter when fully depressed. When the Self-Timer is activated, pressing the shutter button triggers the 10-second countdown.

Menu Dial
: Positioned on the left side of the LCD monitor, the Menu dial activates the settings menus when pressed in Record or Playback modes. Once the Record menu appears on the LCD screen, turning the dial up and down scrolls through the available menu items from left to right and back again. Once it stops on a menu item, pressing the dial brings up the options under the selected menu. Turning the dial then scrolls through the menu options, and pressing the dial again acts as the "OK" button to confirm menu selections.

In Playback mode, turning the dial scrolls through the captured images on the memory card. Pressing the Menu dial brings up the Playback menu options, which are selected and activated in the same manner as described above. When the Magnify icon is selected over a captured image, it magnifies the image, and turning the menu dial scrolls up and down through the enlarged image. Pressing the Menu dial while the image is magnified allows you to switch to the left and right scrolling option.

Mode Switch
: Located to the right of the LCD monitor, this top switch controls the camera's operating mode. Settings include Capture (up), Off (center), and Playback (down).

Display Switch
: Just below the Mode switch, this switch controls the LCD display. Pushing it up turns the display on or off.

Battery Compartment Lock Switch
: This sliding black switch on the bottom of the battery compartment door locks and unlocks the door.


Camera Modes and Menus

Capture Mode: Marked on the Mode switch with a camera symbol, the Capture mode is used to record digital images. Shutter speed, aperture, and white balance are all automatically controlled. Pressing the Menu dial in Capture mode displays the following Capture menu options:

Playback Mode: This mode is labeled on the M ode switch with the traditional playback symbol, a triangle enclosed in a rectangle. Images can be reviewed, deleted, locked, or magnified. Pressing the Menu dial activates the following settings menu:


Image Storage and Interface

The 215 records images to a Type I CompactFlash card, and a 4MB card is packaged with the camera. Upgrades are available separately, up to 64MB. The CompactFlash card inserts into the card slot with the electrodes going in first and the "face" of the card facing the compartment door. The card will not go into the camera the wrong way. You can remove the card with your fingers, or with a small clip attached to the wrist strap.

Never remove the CompactFlash card while the camera is performing any function, to avoid damaging the media. The LCD monitor reports when the camera is accessing the card, but Hewlett-Packard recommends waiting until the camera is powered off to remove it. The 215's status display panel reports the number of available images that the card has room for, next to a small CompactFlash icon. If the icon is blinking, the card is either full or has some type of problem and needs to be checked.

Entire CompactFlash cards cannot be write-protected, but the 215 allows you to protect captured images through the Playback menu. The Lock menu option lets you write-protect individual images, or all images on the card, which protects them from being accidentally erased (except from card formatting).

Three JPEG compression levels and two image sizes are available on the 215. Super Fine and Fine quality settings record images at 1,280 x 960-pixel resolution. The Basic quality setting records 640 x 480-pixel images. Below are the approximate still image capacities and compression ratios for a 4MB CompactFlash card:

Resolution/Quality vs Image Capacity Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart 215
High Resolution

1,280 x 960 pixels

Standard Resolution

640 x 480 pixels

Approx. Compression
Approx. Compression
Super Fine Quality
Fine Quality
Basic Quality

A USB cable and software CD also accompany the 215, for quick connection to a PC or Mac. Unlike some cameras, the 215 requires that you install its software application to download images from the camera, rather than letting the camera "mount" on the computer's desktop like another disk drive. That said, the software that comes with the 215 struck us as being very easy to use, and the image-download process was quite fast. When you connect the camera to the computer, the software application is automatically launched, and a window appears showing small "thumbnail" versions of all photos in the camera. While we didn't time it, the thumbnail display comes up very quickly, a nice feature. The actual file download takes a little longer, and is slower than other USB-equipped cameras we've tested: We clocked the 215 at 16.5 seconds to transfer 2.4 megabytes of images (9 maximum-resolution files), a transfer rate of 145 KBytes/second. This is as much as two to three times slower than higher end cameras we've tested, but taking approximately 30 seconds to empty the provided 4MB memory card is not too bad. (And vastly faster than cameras using serial-port interfaces.)


Video Out

The 215 does not have a video output capability.


Four AA alkaline batteries power the 215, and a full set accompanies the camera. Hewlett-Packard specifies not to use rechargeable batteries with the 215, although we had no problems during our extensive testing. (It's possible that the camera may not like the way NiMH and NiCd batteries' voltages drop very rapidly once their charge is exhausted. We still advise you to buy and use a set or two of good-quality NiMH cells and a charger, but in light of HP's warning, caution our readers to pay close attention to the battery-charge indicator on the camera, and swap out the batteries as soon as it indicates a "low battery" condition.) An AC adapter is available as an optional accessory, and we highly recommend buying one for time-consuming tasks such as reviewing images and downloading them to a computer. The camera's status display panel reports the current level of battery power consumption, and the icon flashes when the battery power gets too low. Here's the power consumption figures we came up with in our standard testing:

Operating Mode
Power Drain
Capture Mode, w/LCD
550 mA
Capture Mode, no LCD
320 mA
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
490 mA
Half-pressed w/o LCD
250 mA
Memory Write (transient)
280/500 mA
Flash Recharge (transient)
790 mA
Image Playback
390 mA

Overall, the PhotoSmart 215's power consumption seems to be average to slightly lower than average among cameras we've tested. As usual, the LCD is a major contributing factor to shortened battery life, although the smaller LCD on the 215 doesn't tax the batteries as severely as the larger displays on higher-end cameras. You should be able to get three hours of operation out of a fully charged set of high-capacity NiMH AA cells. (But take heed of HP's caution against rechargeables and our own comments above.)

UPDATE, 7/30/01: Thanks to reader Eric Nicholson for writing in with this link, which reveals that HP's concern over rechargeables in the 215 revolves around possible overload conditions. It sounds like the issue is that the rechargeables can deliver *much* higher currents than alkalines in the event of a failure of some sort internally. If this happened, repair would either be much more costly or impossible. In normal operation, it seems that rechargeable batteries are fine, but it sounds like a risky proposition in the event of other failure in the camera.

Included Software

Packaged with the 215 is a USB cable and a software CD containing ArcSoft's PhotoMontage and PhotoImpression applications, in addition to a set of camera drivers. Unfortunately, the included software is for Windows systems only (98/2000/ME), so Macintosh users will have to purchase Mac-compatible software separately. The Hewlett-Packard website does not offer a camera driver for Macintosh cameras, but users can invest in a Macintosh compliant CompactFlash card reader for downloading images.

PhotoImpression 2000 automatically loads when the camera is connected to the computer, and provides image downloading, organization, printing, and minor editing utilities. Images can be organized into albums, cropped, rotated, or flipped before being printed. Tools are provided for adjusting contrast and brightness, color balance, removing red eye, and touching up your photos. (While we don't commonly review the software packages included with the digicams we test, we have to say that PhotoImpression 2000 is one of the "friendliest" we've seen to date.) PhotoMontage 2000 is a fun utility that allows you to create one large mosaic image out of hundreds or thousands of tiny images. You can use your own digital images to create the montage, or the software's library of images.

In the Box

The following hardware, accessories, and software are included in the box:


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 PhotoSmart 215'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 215 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Overall, the PhotoSmart 215's automatic white balance system did a pretty good job. When shooting outdoors, the 215 tended to produce a warm cast in response to bright sunlight. However, despite a slight magenta cast, the 215 did a good job with the usually difficult incandescent lighting of our indoor portrait. Overall color saturation seemed a little flat in most of our test shots, though color accuracy was reasonably good. We did notice that the blue flowers in the outdoor and indoor shots appeared violet instead of royal blue (these blues are difficult for many digicams to reproduce correctly). The camera just barely distinguished the difference between the red and magenta color blocks on the middle, horizontal color chart (which is a common problem area for many digicams), oversaturating them slightly and losing the black separator line. We also noticed splotchy color transitions, such as on the models' cheeks in the Musicians shot and in the close-up outdoor portrait.

We did find some geometric distortion on the 215 (very common among digicams with wide angle lenses we've tested), measuring a barrel distortion of 0.43 percent. Chromatic aberration is present but very low, we caught about a half of a pixel of coloration on each side of the corner elements in our resolution target, shot at wide angle. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

The PhotoSmart 215's resolution wasn't terribly impressive in the "natural" subjects we tested it on, but it didn't do nearly as badly as it's performance on our "laboratory" test target would indicate. The laboratory test results are hard to call, given the number of image artifacts, extending even to very low spatial resolutions. Discernible detail is visible out to perhaps 550-600 lines per picture height in both horizontal and vertical directions, but artifacts are quite evident beginning as early as 350 lines.

We found the 215's optical viewfinder to be surprisingly accurate in terms of scale, although the final image was shifted down and to the right relative to what we saw in the viewfinder. The image was almost dead-on the right size, as we measured coverage at 99.5% of the final frame area, at both 1280 x 960 and 640 x 480 image sizes. (A note though: These numbers are subject to a lot of interpretation: The edges of the viewfinder frame were quite indistinct, as we could see a lot more of the subject if we moved our eye around a bit. Normally, we determine framing by the maximum extent of the target we can see, regardless of eye position. In the case of the 215's finder though, we ended up having to move our eye around quite a bit to do this. We thus ended up using it as we'd assume most users would, more or less guessing where the edges of the frame were. Surprisingly, the end result was unusually accurate.) Images framed with the optical viewfinder are also slanted just slightly toward the lower left corner. The LCD monitor showed approximately 91.45 percent accuracy at both 1280 x 960 and 640 x 480 resolution sizes, but very well centered. We generally like to see LCD monitors as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, so the 215 does well in this respect, though the resulting images were again somewhat slanted toward the lower left corner.

The 215 does a pretty good job in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of just 3.22 x 2.41 inches (81.67 x 61.25mm). Detail and resolution look pretty good, though slightly soft. A little corner softness shows up on the left side of the image. Noise is low in the gray background, and we notice some moire patterns in the tiny details of the dollar bill. Color balance looks good throughout the image, though a touch magenta. The 215's built-in flash does a pretty good job of throttling down for the macro area, and actually appears to sharpen the details slightly.

The 215 had some trouble in the low-light category, as you might expect, given its sole automatic exposure control and maximum shutter speed of 1/3 of a second. We were only able to obtain a bright, clear image at a light level of eight foot-candles (88 lux). The camera produced a usable image at four foot-candles (44 lux). Images became progressively darker with the lower light levels, taking on a bluish color cast. We could still distinguish the target at the 1/16 of a foot-candle (0.67 lux) light level, though the image was completely dark. Noise level remained moderate with a reasonably tight grain pattern. (We direct readers to Mike Chaney's excellent Qimage Pro program, for a tool with an amazing ability to remove image noise without significantly affecting detail.) To put the 215's low-light performance into perspective, an average city night scene under modern street lighting corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, so night exposures will require the built-in flash. The table below shows the best exposure we were able to obtain for each of a range of illumination levels. Images in this table (like all of our sample photos) are untouched, exactly as they came from the camera.

Overall, in looking at the PhotoSmart 215's performance, it's important to keep in mind that it's intended as an inexpensive, entry-level camera. The image quality is quite a bit below what you'd find in cameras costing even $100 more, but for the price, it's probably fine. The colors are a bit undersaturated, but otherwise reasonably accurate, and its white balance system does a good job of producing usable image under a wide range of lighting conditions. It's not a camera for the dedicated photo enthusiast, but then wasn't intended to be: A very basic, inexpensive digital camera, it produces acceptable images for the casual snapshooter.

Compact, portable, lightweight, and very user-friendly, the HP PhotoSmart 215 definitely accomplishes Hewlett-Packard's goal of creating a low-cost, simple-to-operate digicam. While we personally don't like to see digicams with no exposure or white balance adjustments, we recognize that some users really do want just a "point-and-shoot" camera, and the PhotoSmart 215 clearly fits that bill. With complete automatic exposure control, the user doesn't have to make too many decisions. The only adjustable functions include flash mode, digital telephoto, self-timer, and a macro lens setting. If you're looking for an inexpensive digital camera that can deliver prints up to 4 x 6 inches, the PhotoSmart 215 certainly deserves consideration.

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