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A Kodak moment

Kodak's profits have suffered over the past decade as the photography business has shifted from film and chemistry-based to electronic imaging. Like other large companies such as Xerox (NYSE: XRX) and my first employer, Polaroid, Kodak (NYSE: EK) has been slow to recognize the inevitable and reinvent itself. It's no easy feat to compete with the new digital camera and color printer technologies after enjoying decades of success selling high-margin chemicals and film processing.

But Kodak, known for producing easy to use conventional cameras that appeal to the mass market, has recently come out with a line of digital cameras that play to their strengths. Called EasyShare, these cameras and accessories have some nifty innovations and are easier to use than most. They can even make prints without using a computer. They've been well received, more than doubling Kodak's digital camera sales this year and becoming the fourth best selling brand of digital cameras behind Sony, Canon and Olympus.

I have been testing the DX6490, Kodak's top of the line 4 megapixel camera, for the past few weeks, along with the optional EasyShare 6000 Printer Dock. It is apparent that the Kodak designers have put a high priority on making every step from taking the picture to printing and emailing as simple and easy as possible, from the large easy-to-read screen menus and messages to a clear and very well written instruction book -- yes printed, not a computer file -- that guides the user each step of the way. The software provided is basic, but very good and much easier to use than what's provided with most other cameras.

The DX6490 provides more than enough resolution in a small compact package that nearly fits within a 3-inch cube. It has a 10x optical zoom lens, the longest of its class, equivalent to a 38mm-380mm lens on a 35mm camera. Outdoor images taken at the 380mm setting were surprisingly sharp and devoid of camera motion. I took a test shot using the flash at the 380mm setting across the room of a dollar bill on a nightstand and could see every detail in the image. Close-up capability is also very good. Overall, the optical performance was excellent and the images were very good.

The image can be composed using the large 2 1/4 inch screen or using an adjustable electronic viewfinder. While this camera is appropriate for beginners, it's versatile enough to be used by advanced amateurs who may prefer to access manual settings as well as the aperture and shutter preferred modes, and even use an external flash. With its relatively large lens aperture (f/2.8 at wide angle and f/3.7 at telephoto) and better than average flash output, indoor shots can be taken at greater distances than most cameras, up to about 16 feet with no falloff of light at the corners. The wide aperture also allows faster shutter speeds, which reduces blur when using the telephoto setting outdoors. Automatic focusing was good, missing about 10 percent of the low light level scenes, but doing better with outside scenes, similar to most other cameras. Like nearly all cameras, the battery is proprietary; the EasyShare's lasts for a respectable 150-200 images.

One of the major features of this EasyShare camera line is a dock that connects to AC and a USB port on a computer. Docking the camera both charges it and allows images to be transferred to the computer, using the camera's screen to provide instructions and options for e-mailing and printing. For example, I can choose to e-mail certain pictures by checking them on the camera's display. Once these pictures move to the computer, e-mail is automatically created and the files of the pictures to be sent are reduced in size for e-mailing. (You store the names in the camera of those you frequently e-mail and associate them with the images you want to send them). A similar process can be used for designating which images to print.

One of the niftiest accessories is the EasyShare 6000 Printer Dock. It works like the standard dock, but it is also a compact dye-sublimation printer. Dye sublimation is a process in which dry ink is transferred from a wide ribbon to the photographic paper using heat and pressure. It is capable of higher resolution and better light-fastness than ink jet printers, but is more expensive. The printer produces 4" x 6" borderless prints that look as good as those from a commercial photo lab. To make a print, simply place the camera onto the dock. A menu appears on the camera's display and you select an image and the number of copies you would like. Each print takes about 90 seconds and comes out completely dry. You can use the camera and printer combo without a computer and can take the system anywhere to produce images on the spot, as long as you have AC power.

The camera sells for $499 and the printer for $199, both good values. Prints cost about 60 cents each. Kodak's aptly named EasyShare provides an excellent system that brings high-quality digital photography to a wide audience and provides a way to easily share the images through prints and e-mail. It's nice to see Kodak build on its roots while innovating its way back into the market they once dominated.


Baker is San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000 for successfully bringing to market Think Outside's folding keyboard for the Palm and other PDAs. He also has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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