HP PhotoSmart 850 Review

Steve's Digicams

Steve's Conclusion

The 4-megapixel PhotoSmart 850 is the current flagship of the 2002 HP digital camera lineup. It's equipped with an 8x Fujinon 8x optical zoom lens that has a 37 to 300mm (35mm equivalent) focal length and a fast maximum aperture of f2.8. With a retail price of $499, the Photosmart 850 is the most reasonably priced, super-telephoto, four megapixel digital camera on the market at the time of this review.

The 850 captures either 4-megapixel (2272 x 1712) or 1-megapixel (1136x848) still images in one of three JPEG quality levels. It can also record up to sixty seconds of QVGA 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. Around the shutter release is a mode control that allows immediate switching from shooting stills to movies -- kudos to HP for adding this useful feature. The Audio Capture ability allows you to record up to 30 seconds of audio annotation that can be attached to still pictures.

The PhotoSmart 850 is a psuedo-SLR type camera, it has an eyelevel micro-LCD display that gives you a true "through the lens" view of your subject. It's a small, high-resolution color LCD monitor with a magnified eyepiece that has dioptric adjustment. It features an automatic Eye Start system that turns the display on when the camera is near your face. This goes a long way to extending the battery life as those small color displays seem to use as much power as the larger ones. Unlike other digicams with an EVF (electronic viewfinder), the micro-display on the HP 850 can not be used for image review, it is strictly a color viewfinder. The colors are very true but the display freezes when the shutter is half-pressed until auto focus lock is achieved. Depending on focal length and lighting conditions it can take up to a second and a half to get AF lock so this makes it nearly impossible to follow moving subjects. The coverage of the micro-display is very close to 100% which means that you always capture exactly what you see. In low-light conditions it "gains up" and gets brighter than the same view on the color LCD. The auto focus uses the selftimer lamp as an AF-assist lamp and it works even in total darkness.

The big 2-inch color LCD has a fast refresh rate, it's smooth and clean except in low light conditions where it gets a little jerky. The single-step zoomed playback mode(4x) allows for checking the focus, color or composition of the shot. The color LCD is covered by a non-glare coating and is visible in all but the brightest outdoor conditions.

I like the fact that HP's new PhotoSmart cameras use AA type batteries versus the proprietary and often "wimpy" battery packs that seem to be all too popular these days. For what it costs for one of those proprietary packs you can buy two (or three) packs of four high-capacity NiMH batteries and a rapid charger. We recommend using 1700-2100mAh NiMH rechargeables which are more environmentally friendly and pack 3-5x the power. The optional HP 8881 Digital Dock (street price $79.99.) includes a four NiMH batteries and charges them whenever the camera is docked. The buttons on the front of the dock let you quickly download images to the computer, output to a HP photo printer or display a slide show on your TV set.

The PhotoSmart 850 has no internal memory like the HP 620 and 720. It uses Secure Digital (SD) cards and is compatible with up to 256MB size cards. It is not compatible with MultiMedia cards although they are very similar. It comes with a 16MB SD card which is barely large enough to be called a "starter card." A recommended 'first purchase' would be a 64MB or 128MB size SD card if you plan on shooting any 4-megapixel size images, they're about 2 megabytes a piece.

The startup time from turning on the camera until the first picture can be taken is about 5 seconds, most of which is used to extend the lens. The shot-to-shot time is a little under 5 seconds before the viewfinder image is "live" again and another 5 to 6 seconds to completely process and store the image. During this additional time you can capture another image. The average shutter lag (time from pressing shutter to actually capturing) is from one to one and a half seconds.

Ergonomically the PhotoSmart 850 is well designed, with the exception of the lack of a top data LCD. It would be very handy to have an "at-a-glance" monochrome LCD display on the top to inform the user as to flash mode, quality setting and frames remaining like most digicams do. On the positive side -- with your hand wrapped around the fingergrip, your thumb falls naturally between the 4-way selector and the zoom controls. You can easily operate the zoom with your thumb and the two buttons next to it while the index finger rests on the shutter release. It too is well designed with a nice "half-pressed" and "fully-pressed" point that gives the user plenty of tactile feedback. The index finger can easily control the mode switch which is around the shutter release to switch from still image, to self timer or to movie mode.

Overall the image quality of the HP850 is good for its $499 price point. The 4MP image size gives you a lot of room for cropping and still be able to make 8x10" photo quality prints. Without cropping these images are sufficient for up to 13x19" sized prints on home inkjet printers and even larger if printed by a commercial service. There is some chromatic abberation visible in a few of our sample photos but this is something that we have seen in all the "super zoom" cameras. It seems to be a tradeoff when dealing with long focal length zooms. I don't hear too many people complaining about it on the Olympus C-700 and C-720, they're too busy having fun taking pictures. Personally I love super zooms as they let you get close to things without being physically close to them. There's no doubt that the majority of the people buying the 850 are doing so because of the powerful zoom lens, in this respect you won't be dissapointed.

HP 850 Firmware Update

Release Date: 2002-12-07 Version 1.01.04 firmware includes the following fixes:
  • Fixed issue where some HP printers with SD card slots were not recognizing the Digital Print Order Format (DPOF) file.
  • Fix for missing icons in the Live View screen when taking consecutive pictures.
  • Fix for battery level fluctuations.
  • Fixed problem playing a slideshow with a locked SD memory card.
  • Fix for layout of Camera Dock unload screen in German.

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our Sample Pictures

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