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Take Your Best Shot

Larry Magid, PC Answer
CBS
Many years ago I dated someone who carried a big 35 millimeter camera
around almost everywhere she went. It was usually strapped around her
neck, telling the world that she was a "serious" photographer. Indeed,
she did take some very nice pictures.

No one would mistake me for a serious photographer. Not only are my
pictures pretty much limited to snapshots of family and friends, but
also you'll never see a camera strapped around my neck. That doesn't
mean, however, that I'm not carrying one. Fact is, I often carry a
digital camera in my pocket. And therein lies my first criterion for
picking a camera. It has to be small enough to fit into a pocket.

Another criterion is that it has to be capable of using off-the-shelf
batteries. The Canon PowerShot S230 is a wonderful pocket-sized digital
camera, measuring only 3.4-by-2.2-by-1.1 inches. The proprietary
rechargeable battery works great as long as you have a charger handy,
but a couple of years ago I brought the predecessor of the current model on a trip and forgot the charger. Once the battery died, I was out of luck. If the camera had used AA or standard lithium photo batteries, I could have easily been back in business.

There are, of course, lots of other criteria to consider when buying a
digital camera. An optical zoom lens, for example, is important if you
want to get in closer to your subject. A digital zoom -- which uses
software built into the camera to simulate an optical zoom -- is pretty
useless.

Finally, there is that oft quoted specification called "megapixels." Every digital camera maker rates its cameras on the number of pixels it can store: the higher the number, the greater the resolution. These days, cameras priced in the $199 to $500 range start at about 2 megapixels and go up to 5 megapixels. More megapixels mean that you can make larger prints without having to give up resolution. Or, you can blow up a portion of the image that you've cropped without it being grainy. If you never plan to print greater than 8-by-10, you'll
do fine with 3 megapixels.

Another specification to consider is the buffer memory that stores
information temporarily while the camera writes to its memory card. The
larger the buffer, the faster the camera will let you take a subsequent
picture.

Minolta's new DiMAGE F300 meets all my criteria for a digital camera. It is small, it has a good (3x) zoom lens, it's fast (with 32 megabytes of buffer memory) and it's able to use standard AA batteries, rechargeable AA batteries or an off-the-shelf CR-V3 lithium battery that you can buy wherever camera supplies are sold. And by the way, it also takes very good pictures.

The 5 megapixel F300 is the successor to Minolta's 4 megapixel DiMAGE
F100, which the company says will soon be discontinued. Like the
previous model, it has a very sleek brush metal body that measures about 4.2-by-2.2-by-1.3 inches and weighs 6.5 ounces.

I've been using the camera for several weeks and I'm very impressed.
It's easy to use in its fully automatic mode, but it can also be put
into manual mode, giving you a great deal of control over exposure
settings, focus and even the intensity of the flash. Personally, I
usually leave it in auto mode and, most of the time, I'm happy with the
results. If things don't work quite well, then I put it into manual mode to tweak the settings. Even in auto mode, you can quickly put the camera into portrait mode to optimize skin tones, or select sports (designed for stop action), landscape (better color saturation), night portrait and even a mode designed to capture the colors of the sunset. How romantic.

The camera is quite rugged and when you turn it off, the zoom lens
retracts into the body and a cover automatically protects the lens.

The camera comes with a CR-V3 lithium battery but, like all non-
rechargeable batteries, it soon dies. You can go out and buy another
one, but the most economical method is to use two rechargeable AA nickel metal hydride batteries that last for 100 or more pictures. When I travel, I carry a couple of extra batteries with me as well as a small charger. You can buy a charger with four batteries for as little as $15. Unlike some cameras, you can't recharge the batteries while they are in the camera. You have to take them out.

The F300 comes with a 32 megabyte SD-RAM (secure digital) memory card,
but you might consider replacing it with a higher-capacity card. At
Froogle.com I was able to find 64 megabyte cards (sufficient to store 48 pictures in standard mode) for under $30, 128 megabyte cards for under $60 and 256 megabyte cards for about $100.

Five megapixels may be overkill for most users, but the industry seems
to be moving in the direction of more and more megapixels for higher-end consumer cameras. Still, at prices starting at about $440, you're not paying an enormous premium for the extra resolution.



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