COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

When less is more

Sometimes spending more for a product doesn't guarantee better performance.

A case in point is two pairs of digital cameras I've been trying out for the past several weeks: two full-featured, top-of-the-line models, and two high-resolution pocket-sized cameras.

The first pair is the Leica Digilux 2 that sells for $1,800 and the Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom at $1,000.

The Leica (www.leica-camera.com) looks like and is designed to operate like a conventional Leica film camera. It's a sturdy, beautifully crafted camera that will not overwhelm you with tiny buttons and unnecessary features. It features a fast f/2 to f/2.4 Leica Summicron lens with a 3-to-1 zoom spanning an ideal range of 28mm-90mm (35mm camera equivalent), which covers wide angle to portraiture. It uses a 5-megapixel sensor. Zooming, setting the aperture and overriding the auto focus are done manually using analog controls on the lens. It has a fairly ordinary electronic viewfinder, but an excellent 2.5-inch LCD display for composing and reviewing images. There's a built-in flash that can be tilted to bounce light off the ceiling, although it works over a limited range.

Fit and finish is what you'd expect from Leica, even though it's made by Panasonic. The downside is that it requires a couple of seconds to write the image to the memory card and had a less than intuitive menu system. But its image quality shines, producing crisp, high contrast photos over the entire zoom range, worthy of the Leica name.

The Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom is an 8-megapixel camera built around an excellent, but slower, lens than the Leica, a 5X optical zoom from 28mm-140mm with an aperture of f/2.4-f/3.5. The camera is robust and solidly constructed of magnesium. Taking a different approach from Leica's more minimalist design, it is chock full of buttons and adjustments. It starts up and focuses quickly and writes to the card rapidly. It used two memory card slots, a compact flash and an xD card.

The images taken with the Olympus (www.olympusamerica.com) were excellent. Even though it uses a higher resolution sensor than the Leica, the image quality from the cameras was similar. Sharpness differences were barely noticeable, much less so than other image characteristics, such as the color balance and exposure. While both were acceptable, the Olympus produced slightly warmer images with slightly more exposure. Choosing one or the other comes down to more on which design approach you prefer and which your pocketbook can afford. Both produce some of the best images of any fixed-lens digital cameras.

While it's a tough call, I would choose the Olympus for its longer zoom range and lower cost.

The other pair of cameras I evaluated is the Sony DSC-T1 at $549 and the HP Photosmart 707 at $349, both pocket-size cameras. While they each have 5-megapixel sensors, their results are far inferior to the Leica, also with 5 mp, as one would expect for the price. Obviously, much more than the sensor resolution affects image quality, such as the lens, sensor characteristics, flash strength, in-camera processing, etc.

The Sony DSC-T1 is solidly constructed of aluminum and is one of the thinnest cameras in its class. Much of its back is a large 2 1/2" LCD for viewing and reviewing images. I found the LCD image to be washed out when used outdoors in bright light. Under low lighting it was often hard to see the image. This can be a problem since it has no other viewfinder. The T1 has a folded lens system with internal 3-to-1 zoom so the lens never protrudes out the camera, helping to keep it thin. It's easy to place your finger over it without realizing. This could be a problem when you hand it to someone to take your picture. The images were generally good outdoors, but a weak flash and proneness to redeye hurt its indoor performance. It also uses another new memory card format, the memory stick Pro Duo. It comes with an adapter to allow it fit into a memory stick slot.

The HP Photosmart R707 is a surprisingly strong offering from a company not known for producing more than average cameras. Its design is well thought out and simpler to use than most cameras, even though it's loaded with features. It has an easy to use menu system and even built-in help screens. Most importantly, it takes excellent pictures. I liked best of all HP's Adaptive Lighting Technology (ALT) feature, which automatically adjusts each element of the image, bringing out the details in both underexposed and overexposed areas. The result is that more details are visible as if the scene was more uniformly illuminated, while the images still maintain excellent contrast.

The camera construction was good, but not up to the Sony. It's made of rubberized painted plastic with a stainless steel front panel that scratches easily. While the LCD is small, it works well both indoors and out. There are 10 shooting modes including a clever panorama mode that helps you align the images.

While I much prefer the form factor, construction and size of the Sony, I prefer the HP because it takes better pictures over a wider range of conditions and is $200 less than the Sony. Beauty is more than skin deep.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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