Pocket-Size Camera Packs A Punch

Minolta Dimage Xt digital camera, shown next to mouse, to illustrate small size (photo from Larry Magid)
Before the days of digital cameras, I had a wonderful, though heavy and bulky, 35-millimeter expensive camera that I brought out on special occasions. Most of the time, however, I'd grab my "point-and-shoot" camera, stuff it in a pocket and take some snap shots

I feel the same way now that we've entered the digital age. I've tried out numerous digital cameras, but the ones that I use the most often are the ones that are easiest to carry around.

Lately, I've been carrying a Minolta Dimage Xt digital camera. This diminutive camera weighs a mere 4.2 ounces and, less than an inch thick, is thin enough to fit in a shirt pocket or jeans pocket. The dimensions are 3.37 x 2.64 x 0.79 inches.

There is nothing unusual about tiny digital cameras, but what's relatively rare is that this model has a three to one optical zoom. Unlike a digital zoom (which is really software simulating a zoom), an optical zoom involves using a lens to truly get closer to the subject.

What's interesting about this camera is that there isn't a lens protruding from the body of the camera. Instead, the Xt uses a prism that "folds" the optical path of the light. I'm not exactly sure how it works, but it means the lens never extends from the camera.

Because the lens never has to move, the camera is also quick to start up. Some digital zoom cameras take a few seconds from the time you turn them on until they're ready to shoot. The Minolta is ready in just over a second.

The camera is rated at 3.2 megapixels, which means that it records up to 3.2 million pixels or dots. That's not as high as a number of other digital cameras on the market, which are sometimes rated at 4, 5 or even 6 megapixels, but before you dismiss this as a low-resolution camera, it's important to understand where megapixels fit in.

While having more than 3 megapixels can be helpful, it only comes into play if you plan to print images that are larger than 8 by 10 or if you crop your images a lot, and then print relatively large images so that you, effectively, have to use software to enlarge the portion of the picture that remains after the cropping.

Resolution becomes increasingly important when you enlarge the picture or part of the picture. If you don't do a lot of cropping and if you don't plan to print extra large pictures, you may never notice the difference between a 3.2 and even a 6 megapixel camera.

The camera has a list price of $399, but I've seen it for sale online for about $330.

The Xt is a point-and-shoot camera. While you can get some great pictures from it, it's not the most sophisticated camera on the market, even at its price range. Picture quality, while good, is not quite as sharp as pictures I've taken with some other 3 megapixel cameras, but it's better than others. In other words, I'd say that this camera is on par with what you can generally expect from a 3 megapixel camera costing under $400.

The big difference between this camera and many others is that you're far more likely to have it with you when you need it because it's so small. On balance, that's worth a great deal.

The camera has an automatic macro mode that lets you get within 5.7 inches of a subject without having to press any special buttons or select any menu options. Like many digital cameras, it also has the ability to record short video and audio clips. You can also create an audio annotation to your pictures.

The video clip function in digital still cameras is no substitute for a camcorder. These are short, usually choppy, videos that can be used for such things as having someone wave and say "Hi," but don't rely on them to capture your kids' school play or Little League heroics.

There are a few things that I don't like. Like all ultra-small cameras, the Xt uses a proprietary rechargeable battery. Personally, I prefer cameras that use rechargeable AA batteries, but that's not possible on a camera this small. The good news is that the rechargeable battery lasts a fairly long time. Minolta claims that you can get 130 shots on a charge, with half the shots using the flash. I didn't count, but that sounds about right to me.

On vacation when I used the camera a great deal, I was fine so long as I remembered to recharge the battery the night before. You can buy an extra battery from Minolta for about $35 or a third party clone of the battery for about $25. Still, if you're going on a trip, you'll have to remember to bring the charger with you or you could wind up with a lifeless camera.

You have to be careful about how you hold the camera. The lens is very close to the upper left edge of the camera, making it easy to cover with your thumb when using it. After a number of unwanted close-ups of my thumb, I've become accustomed to holding it correctly, but when I give it to others to take a picture of me, I have to give them a short course on the proper way to hold the camera.

Minolta and most of its competitors save money by supplying digital cameras with a paltry 16 megabytes of memory, about enough for 16 or 17 pictures in standard mode. For about $49 you can buy a 64 megabyte card or, for about $69 you can get 256 megabyte SD card from SanDisk, enough for hundreds of pictures.

Bottom line: I like this camera. In addition to being small and lightweight, it takes good quality photographs and is competitively priced.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid