HP PhotoSmart 720 Review
The HP PhotoSmart 720 is a mid-level 3.3-Megapixel 3x zoom compact digicam. It is the middle brother to the more basic Photosmart 620 (2.1 Megapixel and 3x zoom) and the 4-megapixel Photosmart 812. The 720 offers a combination of good image quality with 'point-n-shoot' ease of use for about $329 (as of 08/2002). There are few advanced camera features, this is simply designed to be a snap shooter's no-fuss camera with some creative controls.
The 720 is equipped with a 3x Zoom, 7 - 21mm (equivalent to 34-102mm on 35mm camera) and a fast F2.6 maximum aperture which makes it a better than average performer in fairly low-light situations. It does fail to focus in VERY dim scenes as there is no focus-assist illumination that some makers are including. A continuous auto focus down to less than 8 inches (20cm) allows you to shoot impressive close-ups of small objects (see Sample Photos page.) The lens exhibits the usual amount of mild barrel distortion in full wide angle like most in its class. When you turn off the camera the zoom lens ratchets into the camera and the incorporated lens cover closes over the lens well recessed from the body offering protection. It does not accept accessory lenses or filters. It has a digital 4x zoom feature to quadruple the focal length of it's 3x optical zoom lens at the severe expense of image quality. Most digicam owners experience digital zoom once and realize it's shortcomings.
The start-up time from turning on the camera until the first picture can be snapped is a little above average at about 6 seconds. It's shot- to- shot time is a little over 4 seconds and add a second or two for flash. Where these times are a little higher than average, the total shutter lag (time from pressing shutter to actually capturing) is a little less than one second, which is very good. If you do the usual half- press of the shutter and wait for the green focus light, then shoot, the lag time is reduced to almost nothing which is very impressive. It does have a continuous mode and allows 8 frames in just over 5 seconds then taking about 35 seconds to write those images to the SD card. It did allow a subsequent frame to be shot as soon as it cleared enough buffer space in about 4 seconds but then continued writing to the card for 35 seconds (non- flash and in Best quality setting.)
The HP 720 has an upgraded LCD over the HP620. The 720 has a 1.6-inch, 110,000- pixel, low- temperature polysilicon TFT color LCD monitor for viewing and reviewing your images. The refresh rate when used as a viewfinder (requires manually turning it on at power up) is very close to real time, there is no smearing or herky-jerky motion when panning. It is somewhat bright but I wouldn't say it's any easier to use in the bright sun than most other LCD displays that still have a highly reflective surface. The optical viewfinder is the best choice for most picture- taking tasks other than 8" minimum close-ups. It saves your battery power and allows the camera to be put up to your eye which is the way most of us are used to holding a camera. The optical viewfinder shows about 85% of the captured image but offers no viewfinder information other than a set of brackets for focus area marks and close-up (parallax) viewing adjustment marks.
The HP 720 is powered by four AA size batteries. I used the camera with a pair of 1800mAH NiMh type rechargeable batteries and was more impressed with the runtime than with the HP 620 but the performance was well short of stellar even with the color LCD not turned on too often. The AA alkaline batteries that come with the camera serve well as emergency back-ups as the NiMh's have 3-5 times the power. The optional HP 8881 Digital Dock includes a set of NiMH batteries and charges them whenever the camera is docked. The buttons on the dock let you quickly download images to the computer, output directly to a HP photo printer or display a slide show on your TV set. You could easily fill a 128MB size SD memory card with an all-day visit to your favorite park using a couple sets of NiMh batteries but keep the alkalines in the camera bag as a backup set.
In THREE STAR (Best:2048 x 1536, low image compression) mode the max. file size is about 1200KB, in TWO STAR (Better:2048 x 1536, high compression) about 800KB and in ONE STAR (Good: 640x480) images are about 60KB. It also records up to thirty seconds of 320 x 240 movie clips at 20 frames per second with sound. No longer do you have to go into a menu and change the exposure mode to movie capture. One shutter release for stills and an adjacent button for start and stop of movies -- kudos to HP for adding this useful feature. An added feature over the HP 620 is the Audio Capture ability which allows up to 4:00 minutes of audio annotation that can be added to each still picture (limited by available memory.) ISO sensitivity is manually controllable from 100 to 400 plus Auto. The flash has a reasonable range of Approx. 0.5 - 3.5m in wide angle and approx. 0.5 - 2m in telephoto when the ISO is set to Auto. The HP 720 comes with an internal 16MB memory and accepts up to the 256MB Secure Digital cards. A 'must have' accessory would be to add a 64MB or 128MB card.
Overall the image quality of the HP720 was impressive. Outdoors a wide angle lens will "see" a lot of bright sky and the metering system tends to underexpose foreground objects. This was infrequently the case with this camera. The Auto White Balance (AWB) is accurate and comparable to other cameras in this price point. Beyond AWB, it also has five preset manual white balance selections for more creative control.
If you want a snapshooter's no fuss digicam that is capable of making very nice 4x6" up to 8x10" prints with 'point-n-shoot ease and $329 (08/2002) is in the budget, then the Photosmart 720 may be just what you are looking for. The image quality and ease of use are the attractions and should attract many 'snap shooters' this fall.
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