Formerly Bulky Features Fit Nicely in Two New Cameras
Digital cameras come in two basic sizes: thin enough to stash in a pocket, or so thick that you have to tote them in their own bag. Everybody likes the skinny kind -- you can take them pretty much everywhere -- but only the chunkier sorts have offered the flexibility of powerful telephoto or wide-angle lenses.
That's finally changing. Two new models from Kodak and Nikon combine those big-camera capabilities and small-camera dimensions. Kodak's EasyShare v570 manages to cram a separate wide-angle lens into an enclosure little bigger than a deck of cards, while Nikon's Coolpix S4 uses a clever swiveling design to incorporate a 10x optical zoom.
The Kodak v570 might look more normal at first. But a press of this $400, five-ounce model's on/off button will expose a pair of lenses, lined up vertically like the eyes of a flounder. The lower one, like the hardware on most consumer digicams, is a 3x optical zoom, while the wide-angle lens above it has no counterpart on any pocket-size camera.
Each lens has its own image sensor, but from the perspective of the camera's 2.5-inch-wide color LCD (no optical viewfinder is included), they act as one. The standard zoom in/out controls work like on any other camera, except when you need to give them an extra tap to switch from one lens to another.
Their benefit in the field is immediate and obvious: You spend much less time walking backward to try to fit everything in the shot. Instead of straining to capture both the chairlift and the top of the mountain behind it, the full perspective falls neatly into the frame. (And if you still can't get the entire vista in one picture, a nifty panorama mode can stitch together two or three shots.)
Like a lot of digicams these days, the v570 captures 5 million pixels (megapixels) of detail in each shot, enough to yield a sharp-looking 8-by-10-inch print even after extensive cropping and editing. Unlike many older models, however, the v570 does some of that editing for you. It detects when you held the camera sideways and rotates the picture appropriately, and it also fixes red-eye effects automatically.
Its full-auto mode worked fine in most cases. A button on top of the v570 also brings up a menu of 21 different scene modes ("Snow," "Beach," "Night Portrait," "Night Landscape" and so on), but you can't adjust exposure or aperture settings manually.
Kodak includes a desktop dock with the v570; this circular base recharges the camera's proprietary battery and connects it to a computer. You do need to keep the dock plugged into a wall outlet to transfer pictures this way -- a possible nuisance on the road -- but Kodak's use of industry-standard SD Card storage means you can also just eject the camera's memory card and pop it into the slots on most new computers and printers.
Kodak also bundles its EasyShare software (Win 98 or newer or Mac OS X 10.3 or newer). This program is a little weak in terms of picture-editing features but does make it painless to share pictures online through -- no surprise -- Kodak's EasyShare Gallery site.
Nikon's Coolpix S4 shares a $400 price tag with the v570 but not much else. It's close to twice as heavy and is more than twice as thick, thanks to the two-inch-thick barrel of its lens. Tucking it into the breast pocket of a suit may lead people to think you're packing heat. But it's still improbably compact next to any other "ultrazoom" digicam -- much less a 35-milimeter film camera, where a comparable telephoto lens might resemble a small cannon.
Instead of poking out or telescoping from the middle of the camera body, this lens swivels 270 degrees at one end. To take a picture, you just twist the lens to point toward the subject. This design also lets you hold the camera above or below your head, or even aim it at your face, and still get a good look at its 2.5-inch LCD. (There's no optical viewfinder.)
A bit like the Kodak, the Nikon provides a choice of a full-automatic mode or 15 scene-specific modes, plus such crafty computerized guidance as "Face-Priority AF," which detects faces and focuses on them, and the "Best Shot Selector" option, which automatically picks the sharpest shot in a series.
The S4 delivered sharp, clear six-megapixel photos except when close to a subject -- there, the S4 had trouble locking in on a subject in the farther reaches of its zoom lens. Yet the S4's optional macro mode worked better than the Kodak's equivalent, cleanly focusing as close as two inches away while the v570 stopped working at about twice that distance.
This Nikon provides no more manual controls than the Kodak, but their absence feels a little more bothersome here -- in particular, the way you can't adjust the S4's aperture to manage how much of its enormous depth of field will be in the sharpest focus.
Also glaring in its absence: image-stabilization hardware to counteract the way the lens magnifies every jitter of your hands at maximum zoom.
The S4 fixes red-eye effects automatically and lets you try to cure some exposure glitches by selecting a "D-Lighting" command off its on-screen menus. For off-camera editing, Nikon includes its pleasant but unremarkable PictureProject software (Win 98 SE or newer, Mac OS X 10.1 or newer).
Nikon wisely stuck with cheap, widely adopted technology for the S4's removable storage and batteries -- it takes SD Cards and runs on a pair of AAs. Unfortunately, its screen doesn't display any indication of the state of those batteries until they're nearly exhausted, a puzzling oversight that makes it almost mandatory to carry a spare set.
Both cameras could benefit from further work, but they also stand out next to all the increasingly look-alike, work-alike point-and-shoot cameras in the market. Can we have more where these came from?
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro email@example.com.