Survey: 11 ultra flat cameras - BeHardware
>> Miscellaneous >> Digital Cameras & Webcams
Written by Vincent Alzieu
Published on July 6, 2005
Itís finally summer, and the more fortunate are on their way to popular beach spots or the relaxing country side. There will be unforgettable moments that you will want to capture on film or your hard drive to preserve forever.
And this is what we are testing here. We are not looking for professional photos, (if so, choose bridge or reflex cameras), but for a camera capable of good image quality in capturing that special moment, mood, or memory. For this the camera will always be in your pocket, be resistant, and fast to switch on and take a picture. This is the goal of this new category of ultra flat cameras. The most popular of them, which contributed to the success of this family of products, is the Canon Ixus. Since its arrival all manufacturers have released their own version to make this category the most popular today.
If we look at all of these cameras, we can see some kind of family resemblance. Except for the Acer CR-8530, all are 2 cm thick, have 5 a megapixel 1/2,5íí sensor, 3X zoom, most have a 6.4 cm diagonal monitor, and they donít offer the option of manually adjusting shutter speed or aperture. Also, very often the viewfinder has disappeared. These cameras are sometimes so much alike that it can be disturbing. For example, here side by side are the Kodak and Panasonic models. Both have a metal body and come in different colors. All elements on the front of the cameras are in the exact same place, even the mini grip located under the right hand. The back is also very similar.
The tests and their justification
All cameras are used in a normal way, for family portraits or in the street with friends. But in order to compare we take them through the same tests.
The first test is a scene, always the same, indoors, by artificial light, reproducible and similar to daylight. Itís photographed with a tripod, at least twice, once using the flash and once without. We use this scene with the intention of observing if use of the flash distorts or saturates colors. Also, we want to see if the digital camera is able to display more accurate colors without the flash, and if pictures are exposed correctly.
If the option is available (not on fully automatic versions), this scene is also shot with all the cameraís available sensitivities.
Still indoors, we evaluate the macro mode in low light mode (by candlelight), contrast, pictures taken against the light, zoom efficiency with a test pattern, and, last but not least, the video mode.
The video mode is no longer a just a toy! Many cameras work in 640 x 480 pixel resolution and a 30 images per second framerate. Without attaining digital camcorder quality, results are already pleasant on a big screen. Another advantage is that these cameras are much simpler to use than camcorder tapes. You may spend hours in shooting and processing videos (often leading to stocks of useless tapes), but here you just copy and paste. You can also edit your movies or even add a soundtrack with Studio 9, etc
Cameras speedThis is often a neglected factor, but is quite essential. Those who bought cameras in the past may have realised this each time they took pictures. It may take excellent pictures, but if itís too slow this can be frustrating. You may even stop using your camera because of this.
Four speed criteria are measured:
-Switching on the camera.
-Time between pictures. The fastest required one second, three times less than one competitor
-Time to auto focus in a daylight
-Focusing in a poorly lit scene
Each test resulted in a score, and there is a page dedicated to each camera where we gave it a quality / price ratio. This grade isnít universal, of course, but is estimated by comparing cameras in the same category. Donít think that an Ixus 50 / SD400is better than a 350DÖ
The stabilising deviceThis is a recent phenomenon, but in our opinion essential. More and more compact cameras feature them and we used to find them with big zooms, mainly to stabilize the maximum zoom range. Here the zoom only magnifies by x3 and of course their use is completely different.
10 of the 11 cameras tested are 5 megapixels with the same 1/2,5" sensor and with 3X zooms. Even if some of them claim an F2.7 aperture, the brightness for all cameras is low. Indoors, the use of the flash is almost obligatory if you want to have a sharp picture even if lighting seems to be sufficient.
The flash is handy but with these small cameras have several downsides. The closer areas are strongly illuminated and most of the time not homogeneously. For portraits results are tragic; overexposed faces, red eyes, flattened volumes, darker edges, and dark backgrounds.
Therefore, itís best to work without the flash. If itís turned off without changing other parameters, the camera will often use approximately a 1/8 shutter speed. Generally, this is the setting used by these compact cameras. You should also know that for sharp pictures without a stabilizing device, you need to have a shutter speed of 1/25 or above. (This is the bare minimum, because with the absence of a viewfinder you have to take pictures without wedging it next to your nose, complicating the situation). To compensate you might be tempted to change the sensitivity. If increased to 400 ISO, speed goes back to a more reasonable level. But as you will see below in the section devoted to sensitivity, the mode considerably reduces the image in all the compacts tested here. Only reflex cameras give you the option of adjusting this setting without ruining pictures.
So itís best to choose a lower sensitivity and find a solution to have a sharp picture. There is a tripod, but also, and more importantly, the stabilizing device. Two cameras have one of these in this survey, the Casio with a numerical stabilizing device and the Panasonic with an optical one.
In fact, the first isnít a real stabilizing device. When activated the camera chooses very high resolutions (from 400 to 1600 ISO) when the speed is too low for the camera in normal conditions. The end result is ďsharpĒ but with a lot of noise.
Only the FX8 has a real optical stabilizing device. Of course it only compensates for the photographerís movements and not the subjectís.
Here is the result (the extracts below come from full size pictures and arenít resized):
|Auto, flash, 1/60s ||Auto, without flash, without stabilizing device, 1/8s |
|Auto, without flash, 400 ISO, 1/25s||Auto, without flash, stabilizing device, 1/8s|
Even if the Panasonic camera donít stand out in the following test, the presence of this function is an enormous advantage to us. This camera still isnít perfect to use, because the optic would still need a bigger aperture, and a good quantity of light in the room is still necessary to have a nice image. Also, the increase in noise level in images should be lower with higher sensitivities. So, there is still some room for improvement! At least many pictures are nice enough to be printed. Sometimes, this function will make the difference between your photos and the others in marriages, birthdays, births (no flash!), etc.
SpeedThis point is never stressed in a productís characteristics and still for us itís essential. In the beginning, you may be quite forgiving as we are with our latest purchases. The problem of speed comes with long term use, when you start to get tired of missing pictures because of the time to switch on or too long to wait between pictures.
Initially, there were two groups; those under 1.6 seconds to switch on and those above 2 seconds. The Olympus FE-5500 / D-630 was very problematic. We donít know if it was slow from the beginning or if itís because the objective spins while going out. This movement looks great but is completely useless.
The time between two pictures is how long the wait is to take a picture after a previous one, except in burst mode or high definition JPEG. The first picture is recorded in memory. None of the compacts have the buffer memory available in reflex cameras, which is quite unfortunate. Unless you activate the burst mode, you canít quickly take one picture after another. It is best to have a small amount of time between pictures.
Here again, there are those under 2 seconds and those above. Results are even less homogenous than in the previous test, but there is an overall classification. First, there is Fujifilm followed by Canon and Sony. The last ones, as before, are the two Acers and the Olympus. This trio is completed this time by the Casio S500 and the Konica Minolta X60. The S500 seems to be fast, because you can focus one second after the first picture but it isnít possible to start the second picture as long as the green LED flashes. The user has to wait 4 seconds at best and sometimes even more!
Autofocus is one area where cameras have made some serious progress. This improvement followed shutter release latency. Still problematic two years ago, this latency is now very short. Itís not equal to zero, but is also too short to be measured accurately. Some cameras still have problems here but none of the ones tested here.
Focus speed has improved considerably and numerous compact cameras are now under 1 second. Of course this time must be reduced as much as possible. Adding the time to turn on to this and you get an idea of how much you have to wait before taking your first picture. It ranges from 1.6 s (well done FujiFilm Z1!) to 4,5 seconds for the Olympus FE-5500 / D-630. For one picture taken with the Olympus, three are taken with the Fuji.
This last test is focusing in a poorly lighted scene (by candlelight). We only give this as additional information and the result is not included in the speed calculation grade.
Only one camera is really fast, the Fujifilm Z1. Two other cameras provide honourable results, the Canon Ixus 50 /SD400 and Sony T7. The others are slow to very slow (the Olympus FE-5500 D-630).
Scene full size
Detail real size: insideThis scene had three light sources similar to daylight. Cameras were used in automatic mode (except for the Acer CR-8530 no camera has a manual mode anyway) with the lowest sensitivity. The image included here is a full size crop coming from the original picture available in a link behind the extracts. We remind you that all are 5 megapixels except for the CR-8530, which we included to see if 8 megapixels adds more precision.
It isnít simple to make a choice between so many images and itís best to start by eliminating the worst. The less satisfactory result is obvious, the Acer CS-5530. Compression is too strong, there is a lack of sharpness and contrast, and itís too red. The camera has multiple imperfections. The CR-8530 extract is a lot better even if it lacks sharpness.
Overcompression (or at least poor processing) also concerns the Casio, Nikon and also to some extent the Fujifilm Z1. This is surprising, because there is no relation to the real file size:
The figures in the right column are only there for your information. The picture size changes significantly from one scene to another. We see in this table that the Kodakís level of compression is very high. This is actually good as the picture is good. This photo is the lightest of all pictures made in high definition. Usually, the weight is around 1 MB.
On the other hand, the Fujiís compression is the highest and the result isnít really up to par.
We have to emphasize that none of these cameras are here to make professional pictures. All have temperature color defects indoors (even if the Fujifilm and Kodak cameras provide better results) and tend to overexpose when one part of the scene has lighter colors. All burn the area to white. More specifically, the Casio S500 has difficulty when lighting is strong, the Sony T7 has a predominance in red, and the Olympus FE-5500 / D-630 leans toward producing rather yellow pictures. (This is a problem with white balance and disappears outdoors).
Overall, all produce nice images with a satisfactory quality (with exception for the Acer 5 megapixel). Those who have doubts can take a look at the results of cameras tested in 2001 (The article is in French but not the pictures ;). See bottom of page as the progress is obvious). All produces good quality photos for everyday use. There is still some progress to be made for in light captured, the noise level, even for the lowest sensitivity, and automatic white balance.
4Ē x 6Ē and 8Ē x 12Ē pints
4Ēx6Ē and 8Ēx12Ē prints
By 4Ēx6Ē extract we actually mean that the original picture was resized to 300 ppp under Photoshop to 6Ē. The same process was used for the 8Ē x 12Ē, which shows a cameras defects even more and helps to evaluate the capacity to use photos in wide format.
|Extract of 4Ēx 6Ē print|| Extract of 8Ē x 12Ē print |
|Acer CR-8530||Acer CR-8530|
|Acer CS-5530||Acer CS-5530|
|Canon Ixus 50||Canon Ixus 50|
|Casio EX-S500||Casio EX-S500|
|Fujifilm Finepix Z1||Fujifilm Finepix 1|
|Kodak ES-V550||Kodak ES-V550|
|Konica Minolta Dimage X60||Konica Minolta Dimage 60|
|Nikon Coolpix S1||Nikon Coolpix 1|
|Olympus FE-5500||Olympus E-5500|
|Panasonic DMC-FX8||Panasonic MC-FX8|
|Sony DSC-T7||Sony DSC-T7|
Once again the least satisfactory picture is the Acer (CS-5330) followed by the Nikon S1. All others provide better results, with honourable mention for Kodak and Fuji, which have particularly well balanced colors. Except for the Acer, all are capable of producing 8Ē x 12Ē photos. Especially if you have a good printer.
There is no table as itís the same as the previous page.
Macro modeWe changed our Macro test. The subject is no longer a flower but a electronic component board. The photo is made without flash and as close as possible depending on the cameraís capabilities. We include the extract below without resizing.
|Acer CR-8530||Acer CS-5530|
|Canon Ixus 50||Casio EX-S500|
|Fujifilm Finepix Z1||Kodak ES-V550|
|Konica Minolta Dimage X60||Nikon Coolpix S1|
|Olympus FE-5500||Panasonic DMC-FX8|
Canon already provided great results for speed, but the macro mode is even more impressive. The image is extremely precise and an exceptional result. This is followed by the Acer 8 megapixel, proof of the manufacturerís fast progress between the release of the cheap but not very interesting CS-5530 and CR-8530,
once again Ė the Fujifilm Z1,
the Olympus FE-5500,
the Panasonic DMC-FX8.
One step behind are three cameras; the Konica Minolta X60, Sony T7 and Kodak V550. Those left behind are the Casio EX-S500, the Nikon S1 (again) and the Acer CS-5530 (even if it is a little better than the previous two).
Video modeOK, we are testing cameras, and photos capabilities must be evaluated first. The video mode, however, is becoming more and more important. The better cameras in this category can even be used as part-time camcorders. The quality of sequences isnít at the same level as a mini-DV standard camcorder, but they are already much better than photophones. Flowing 640 x 480 videos can be displayed on a big monitor to be enjoyed by all the entire family. Itís a real plus and a threat to camcorders.
We asked Panasonic, a photo sensor manufacturer, about the restrictions of 640 x 480 in video mode. The answer was quite clear. They are indeed one of the largest sensor manufacturers and also sell camcorders. They want to continue producing the latter and donít want to make them obsolete. Just like Sony, the number one producer in sensors and camcorders.
The images below are video extracts resized in 1024 x 768 pixels. Itís a simulation of full screen quality and therefore an interpolated (bicubic) version of our videos. You can download short videos under the images.
Look for two imposters. Nine cameras work in 640 x 480 and two in 320 x240. Can you recognise them? Forget about the Konica Minolta and Olympus for video.
The Sony sequence is also disappointing. The camera is sold with a standard Memory Stick and it isnít possible to record sequences in maximum quality. You have to buy the Memory Stick Pro to activate this option.
Itís not really great for Nikon either. Image definition is one step below average.
Four of the two left provide better results than the others for us: The Panasonic cameras (even if numeric sound is inactive during videos), the Canon and Casio (these two have numeric zoom activated) and the Kodak V550, the only one to have an optic zoom during sequences. These four are good!
Increase in noise level
Increase in noise levelIn automatic mode, cameras often work in 100 ISO. But even if the available options with these cameras are few, you do have the possibility to manually adjust this parameter to 50 ISO, for example. The image under this setting will always have better definition and be nicer. With all cameras (except for the Panasonic) though, you may be tempted to increase the sensitivity to avoid flash use to have more natural colors and images that better represent the mood. But in increasing sensitivity there are consequences on quality:
Canon Ixus 50
Fujifilm Finepix Z1
Konica Minolta Dimage X60
Nikon Coolpix S1
Below 100 ISO results are always very good. There are a couple of differences, which are quite odd if we consider that all cameras have 5 megapixel 1/2.5íí sensors. Here you may see the key role of the processor, which lies behind the sensor.
It is even more obvious at 200 ISO. Itís best not to increase sensitivity with some cameras as image quality is so reduced that printing isnít even possible.
We didnít evaluate the 400 ISO or greater as all cameras arenít capable of reaching this level. Weíll let you analyse the noise level.
Acer CR8530, CS5530
Acer is one of the latest manufacturers to come onto the scene. They started in this market with their usual ambition of getting a maximum of market shares in a minimum amount of time. If you donít have any history or reputation behind you there is only one way to achieve this goal; slash prices. And this is what they do with the CR-8530. This 8 megapixel is a lot cheaper than the other 5 megapixels tested here.
On paper the CR-8530 price/specificationís are impressive: wide monitor, 64 MB of memory, VGA mode 30 fps, manual modesÖ The 8 megapixels doesnít give it more accurate pictures, but uses them to keep up with other cameras in accuracy (see the CS-5530 below) and allows even easier reframing. Even if pictures in the previous pages donít show it, this camera produces much more precise pictures that the other 5 megapixels of this survey. More precise, but not more accurate!
All these characteristics canít hide the problem of the choice in processors and it seems that Acer saved a few bucks here. Itís slow and comes in last place in terms of reaction time. It considerably reduces the cameraís ease in use, which is otherwise quite good even if it is slightly bigger than its competitors.
Acer came onto the photo market with the CS-5530. The cameraís advantage was that it was very affordable. It is the least expensive (and by far) of all ultra thin 5 megapixels with a metal body. It is also one of the slower and less accurate of all. Noise is present from 50 ISO and so strong at 200 ISO that this mode is useless. Acer could have removed this mode. If the camera estimates that the flash is required donít think that by not moving the picture will be nicer. Choose the 50 ISO sensitivity and let it use the flash.
Unless you have a great deal, we donít advise buying this camera despite its low price. It is best to choose a more modest bigger camera with a plastic body. For example the Canon PowerShot A520 is sometimes at the same price and provides much better results even if it is ďonlyĒ a four megapixel.
Canon Ixus 50 / SD 400, Casio EX-S500
Canon Ixus 50
From the beginning, the Ixus series was the most popular of the numeric world. It constantly adds to its rewards and testers recommendations. But here, and Canon has been challenged, the competition is here and it even surpasses the champion.
Letís start with the positive aspects. The Ixus 50 is fast and has improved compared to the last generation. This one goes fast, very fast and the monitor located on the back is wide and good. Menu access is quick and intuitive and all in all this is a very pleasant camera to use.
However, it isnít the best in all categories.
For example, noise level rises quickly by sensitivity. Four cameras (Fujifilm, Kodak, Panasonic and Sony) are better and more efficient for corrections.
It isnít the fastest. Fujifilm and Sony are as good or even better.
The Ixusí success was due to (amongst other things) the fact that it could easily fit into your pocket. In terms of bulkiness, the Ixus 50 is average, but is a heavy weight compared to the Casio and Sony cameras.
The white balance is not as good as the Kodakís and Fujifilmís,
With a 5.1 cm diagonal, the Ixus 50 monitor is the smallest of all. 8 cameras have 6.4 cm monitors.
Finally and most of all, the Ixus 50 doesnít have a stabilizing device. The presence of this function for Panasonic is a real plus. This camera seems to be one generation ahead of the Ixus, which has to work with a flash indoors. The FX8 takes sharp pictures at up to 1/8 second and this changes everything. If their price were equivalent, choose without any hesitation the FX8. Unfortunately, for Panasonic and fortunately for Canon, there is a $60 (100Ä) price difference and itís up to you to make your choice according to your budget.
Lovely! This camera doesnít pass unnoticed. Its extreme thinness is already impressive, but nothing is like the reaction youíll get when you turn it on and the zoom expands to twice the width of the camera. Of course an internal zoom like the Sony T7ís would have been preferable because itís better protected, but here it is more a visual treat.
The S500 is also introduced as one of the few cameras with a stabilizing device. Be careful here as itís a ďnumerical stabilizing deviceĒ. Generally (with camcorders and a few cameras) numerical stabilizing devices use a part of the sensor for the photo and the rest to compensate for movements. This is the reason for the noticeable reduction in photo resolution.
Here is another problem. If the camera sees that the shutter speed is too slow to take a picture without a tripod, it automatically changes to a higher resolution. The activation of this stabilizing device even resorts to sensitivities unavailable manually. Pictures are taken in 400, 800 or 1600 ISO (the last two are commonly used indoors). The problem is that the noise level is already quite strong from 200 ISO and at 800 and 1600 ISO results are quite mediocre. It is possible to print small formats with a few defects and a significant reduction in detail. This is totally different from the capabilities of the Panasonic FX8, equipped with an optical stabilizing device.
| Stabilizer OFF, 50 ISO|| Stabilizer ON, 1600 ISO|
With this explained, the camera loses this supposed advantage. It is, however, still elegant and thin and we canít blame you for wanting to buy. You will also have to know two more disadvantages. Like other compact cameras of this type this one ďburnsĒ brighter areas, a little more than the average. We often noticed white spots in pictures taken outdoors, nothing too serious but itís best to know. Finally and most of all, this camera is slow between two pictures. In normal mode, you will have to wait 4 to 5 seconds. In principle, the burst mode helps to get around this problem but not with this camera. The result is a slow one picture every 3 seconds.
We have to point out that as usual with ultra flat cameras, accuracy is a bit lower than the bulkier models such as the Canon Ixus 50 or Kodak V550. Sharpness and level of detail correspond more to a very good 4 rather than a 5 megapixel. This is already a great result compared to the low bulkiness.
Fujifilm Z1, Kodak ES-V550
Fujifilm Finepix Z1
This year we witness a real rebirth of Fujifilm. In 2001, this brand was already one of the leaders with the 1400 Zoom, the first affordable quality compact. Then came the heavy weights in this area, Canon, Nikon, and Sony which progressively overshadowed this manufacturer.
Cameras looked very much alike or at least had difficulties distinguishing themselves. The super CCD sensor didnít help the situation either. The F710ís, for example tested last September, featured 3 million photosites and Fuji (and all dealers selling the product) touted it as 6 megapixel. After using it, however, we realised that it was indeed a three megapixel with an interpolation to boost it to 6 megapixel. Not great and all the more so that this camera has a couple positives; itís fast, efficient for the white balance, and precise Ö for a 3 megapixel.
First with the F10 and then the Z1, Fujifilm was back in the game. There is no more ambiguity in terms of sensors as what is specified is what is found the pictures. We found the same appreciated characteristics of the F710 in terms of speed, sharpness and nice colors outside and inside.
The Z1 is thin, one of the cameras under 2 cm, and the end product is nice. You need to like straight lines as it differs from the design of the Ixus 50, which is now rounder. Also like the Konica Minolta and Sony, the zoom doesnít go out. All mechanical parts remain inside, and so the optic is protected, which for family use is a plus. The best part of the Z1, is that Fujifilm seems to have found the best size / quality ratio. Itís a little bulkier than the ultra thin Casio and Sony, but image quality is one step above. We particularly liked the color quality, a little warm and very bright, but in the end very accurate. Indoors it always reproduced the correct color, whereas with others such as the Canon it was sometimes wrong.
There is no stabilizing device. For the same amount of money, the FX8 takes really nice pictures indoors without a flash. Second drawback: the Fujifilm really need to improve video quality with zoom activation, for example.
If the Fujifilm camera surprised us, what can we say about this excellent Kodak? This brandís reputation in the numeric world was quite bad and their compact rarely won the favours of testers (ours in particular). We systematically criticized them for the low quality of their plastic body, too much noise even with the lowest sensitivity, and most of all a bothersome lack of speed.
The EasyShare V550 brushes away all of the above criticism. It turns on and records pictures in 1.5 seconds. The noise level at 80 and 200 ISO is one of the lowest and the metal bodyís finishing touches are really nice. It is also, with the Fuji Z1, the only camera to accurately resituate colors indoors with any type of lighting. The automatic white balance is one step better than the market leaders Canon, Sony and Nikon. It also is better for video and this camera is the only one to have the optic zoom activated! If you intend to make videos with your camera, this point should carry a lot of weight.
Unfortunately, the improvements have a price. The V550 is one of the most expensive cameras of this survey. Itís as expensive as the Panasonic FX8, which has a stabilizing device. In our opinion we feel that itís best to slightly increase your budget and choose the FX8.
Konica Minolta X60, Nikon S1, Olympus FE-5500 (D-630)
Konica Minolta Dimage X60
Before merging with Konica, Minolta was the first to release ultra flat digital cameras with fully integrated optic zooms in the camera body. This series was somehow the leading product of the manufacturer, which progressively changed its strategy to the big zoom family (Dimage Z3, Z5, etc.). For a year now, no flat cameras were released until this unique X60, the only substitute for the previous line.
The X60ís design is directly inspired by the X50. Both are very much alike. The monitor, however, is bigger for the X60 and the color correction is much more accurate and less red with the new camera. There is proof that this camera is no longer the focus of all efforts in that we havenít noticed any improvements in speed or video (it is even slower to switch on and between two pictures). Also, the X60 is one of the last dinosaurs to work in 320 x 240 pixels. This function is completely useless so you can forget about it right away.
Ok, the camera is affordable, but the X60 lacks advantages compared to the Canon Ixus 50 (just a little more expensive), or even the Acer CR-8530. To become really competitive the price will have to be reduced once again.
We still have hopes to one day see a stronger version of this line with a bigger sensor, or more importantly, be faster and with a better video mode. Finally, we donít like deceiving names. To call a 5 megapixel the X60 might lead to mistakes. X51 would have been a better choice. Also, considering the improvements from one version to the new one, the camera does not really deserve such a name modification.
Nikon Coolpix S1
In the beginning of this test we planed to include the latest Nikon, the S2. The manufacturer, however, sent us the camera too late and we had to choose the S1. Nikon reassured us both cameras are identical expect for one detail. The S2 body is all weather and the S1 isnít. In shops, the price gap between the two cameras is $70 and in our opinion a little to much just for protection against the rain. All weather doesnít mean waterproof so donít dive with it.
Like the other cameras, the design is sober and thin and the zoom is internal. The optic device is permanently protected in the camera body. Also like many others, it doesnít have an viewfinder but a wide LCD monitor in the back. The price is also in the middle of the range so how will this camera stand out from others with a metal body, identical sensors, 3X zoom. It does in the tests, but not in a good way. Itís actually quite disappointing with a lack of sharpness even with lower sensitivities, images are blurred from 200 ISO, lack of accuracy for video, lack of flash homogeneity, and a focus from further away in macro mode than competitors. Not great!
The FE-5500 doesnít resemble any other Olympus cameras. Except for the IR-300, also currently released, flat cameras werenít this manufacturerís speciality, which was better known for its Mju series. Our conclusion after the tests is that itís better to stick with the Mju rather than this new quite disappointing model.
To begin with, the camera is one of the most expensive, one of the biggest (24 mm thick, the average is 21 mm) and it has the smallest monitor (5.1 cm diagonal). Could we have higher expectations with such a price?
From the beginning we realised something was wrong. The FE-5500 is twice as slow as the average to switch on (3.4s) Then you need to wait 2.7 seconds between two pictures. For sharpness, and color accuracy indoors this camera was systematically one of the last. We are far from the Kodak V500 and Fujifilm Z1ís accuracy. It uses like the Olympus xD format memory. This format is of interest, but it is also more expensive for performances similar to SD. Finally, the zoom appeared to be the least accurate of all. Lower level of detail, colors inaccurately reproduced and to top this off the video mode is only in 320 x 240.
It isnít a total failure, but it does provides slightly poorer results than others for the same price or even lower. Also, there arenít any special functions to make up for lack of performance. If it was 100Ä less expensive, it would be of more interest and our criticism would have been less harsh.
Panasonic FX8, Sony DSC-T7
Itís our new favourite camera! It isnít the fastest or the most accurate for pictures or videos, however. The reason for this choice is that the FX8 has, like the FX7 (the previous version), an optical stabilizing device. Indoors, everything changes. Where all the others use the flash or the picture is blurred this camera continues to work without it until 1/8 seconds shutter speed. Also, we have tested other stabilizing devices and this one is particularly efficient. The FX8 is a light camera without a handle, real grip, or viewfinder and still pictures taken at 1/8 s are effortlessly sharp. With bridge cameras like the Canon S2-IS or Konica Minolta Z5, it is best to stay at 1/13s with handles and viewfinders.
Between the FX7 and the FX8, the video mode has improved (the new one is very good, even if no numeric zoom or optic are activated) and the autonomy is better.
The camera is not perfect. There is still a lack of sharpness compared to the best cameras of this category, a lack of flash homogeneity, and less precise macro and video modes than the Canon. Despite all these problems, the $60 price gap with the Ixus is justified.
Those who want to have more details on the functioning of stabilizing devices based on perception of movement by the cameraís two gyrosensors can take a look at the short movie made by Panasonic. Of course, itís made to promote this function, but itís nice and demonstrates very well the efficiency of this technology: here and here.
After a disappointing attempt with the T33, Sony is back in the ultra flat market with this surprising T7. This 15 mm thick camera is fast and more accurate than the Casio S500. Like in many others the viewfinder has disappeared and is replaced by an extra wide LCD monitor. It is particularly impressive with this camera. The downsides are that the colors reproduced arenít the most accurate. This camera has a warm predominance (red), but if you are looking for an ultra thin camera to print satisfactory pictures in A4, the T7 would be a very good choice.
The mediocre results of the video test deserve some explanation. The camera is sold with standard Memory Stick Duo memory. With this configuration, the T7 will not activate its best video mode, only available if you buy a Memory Stick Pro Duo, the most expensive type of memory. Sony did not sent us any and we did not buy one either. This problem leads us to ask why Sony continues to use this type of memory for these cameras. With the release of SD they could have progressively changed the memory format. The manufacturer, however, chose to stop using the usual Memory Stick and released a new format, the Duo, which isnít compatible with many memory card players (including those used in printers to print directly from memory). Adaptors were created to transform the Duo into normal memory. We donít see the purpose of all this.
Also, the fact that standard memory doesnít give the possibility of using the camera at its full potential comes from, according to Sony, a low transfer rate of standard Duo, which is solved with the Pro version. The competition, however, systematically uses SD memory cards, that are cheaper and always work for all video modes. The quality of sequences shot with Canon and Kodak cameras with standard SD shows our point perfectly well. From this we are led to believe that itís another technology that Sony missed like MP3 or LCD monitors (though for these two Sony has recently changed strategy). For Memory Stick after reassuring us years ago with the promise of a multitude of products based on this memory, we are still at the same early stage. Only Sony uses them.
This price difference for memory has an impact on the overall price of the camera, which was already one of the most expensive. If we add the difference of price between the SD and MS Pro Duo memory of $50, the T7 will cost you more than $400 (more than the Panasonic FX8). Despite its unusually small size, this is quite a lot of money for a camera and we prefer without any hesitation the one with the stabilizing device, better videos, colors etc.
ConclusionTo begin with, despite what might have been some harsh criticism in previous pages, no camera is really bad or should be outright avoided. Each have their qualities and weaknesses and in the end all produce pictures that are possible to print.
Amongst the eleven products tested here, unfortunately our choice goes to the most expensive, the Panasonic FX8. It is the only one to have an optical stabilizing device introduced with the previous FX7. Itís great when shooting pictures indoors with no flash for more natural colors and is an enormous advantage.
Three cameras without stabilizing devices provide excellent results, the Canon Ixus 50 / SD400 ($360 approx.), the Fujifilm Finepix Z1 ($400 approx.) and the EasyShare V550 ($400 approx). In short, the Canon is an excellent product suited for all uses and capable of the nicest pictures in macro mode. The Z1 and V550,a little more expensive, provided better results than the Ixus 50 for indoor color quality (the automatic white balance is more efficient). The Z1 is also the fastest of all and the V550 the best in video mode (the only one to have optic zoom active).
If we now look ahead
As these cameras are very trendy, product life is quite limited in the way that the life cycle of a film camera is approximately 10 years. Iím about to put forth a hypothesis that some of you might find quite strange. (If you are overly sensitive, donít read on.) Photophones are going to kill ultra flat cameras. The target market is the same; immediate availability, quick to take pictures, video sequences, resistance, design etc. For now the only inconvenience is the low photo quality in cell phones. Some products, however, already stand out. For example, the Sony Ericsson K750i takes satisfactory 2 megapixel pictures comparable to entry level products available two years ago. The video mode is still dismal, but a new way is here and will continue to capture images.
|Sony Ericsson K750i||Kodak ES-V550|
OK I have to admit that there is still a margin of progression, before cell phones to take over cameras but one dayÖ
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