HP PhotoSmart 945 Review
HP has taken all of the best features of their
Photosmart 850 and updated it with a higher resolution 5-megapixel imager, an all-black
body and incorporated their new Adaptive Lighting Technology to enhance the digital images
that it produces. They also gave the new Photosmart 945 a full-feature Mode Dial on top
that allows the user to quickly select the desired exposure mode without the need to access
the menu system. And the big draw of this camera is likely to be its powerful 8x Fujinon
optical zoom lens with a 35mm focal length coverage of 37 - 300mm.
The Photosmart 945 is an SLR-like camera as are all digicams with 6x or longer zoom lenses. It uses a micro-color LCD display as the eyelevel viewfinder and gives you a true TTL (through the lens) view of the subject. The camera settings, focus, flash and exposure information is overlayed on top of the live viewfinder image. The EVF (electronic viewfinder) features an automatic Eye Start system that turns the display on when the camera is put up to your face. This helps to extend the battery life as the EVF uses almost as much power as the large LCD monitor. The EVF can't be used for image review (playback) but it can display the record menu. The color rendition is good but the display freezes whenever the shutter release is pressed until 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 which makes it challenging to follow fast-moving subjects. The coverage of the EVF is close to 100% which means that you always capture exactly what you see. In low-light conditions it "gains up" and shows a brighter view than what can be seen on the color LCD. I found the EVF to be somewhat difficult to use when wearing glasses, you really need to have it pressed up tight to your eye to see it properly.
The large two-inch color LCD monitor can be used for preview, review or menu functions and is useable in all but the brightest of outdoor environments. Like 98% of the digicam color LCDs out there, you need to shield it with your hand when used outdoors. It has separate brightness settings for indoor and outdoor conditions. When used as the live viewfinder the refresh rate is real time except in low-light conditions where the display slows down and gets a little jerky. The surface of the color LCD has an anti-glare coating which also helps resist fingerprints. The PS945 now has a many-step enlarged playback mode which is a major improvement over the PS850's single-step 4x zoom mode.
From power on to first image capture is about five seconds -- most of that time is required to extend the lens. In normal (single-frame) shooting mode there is a 5 second processing delay before you can shoot the next frame. During this time you can press the OK button to delete the image. To fully process the image takes about 10 seconds. Burst mode is good for six frames at a rate of about one frame per second. Burst mode speeds are always very dependant on the shutter speed. After a six-frame burst it's about 25 seconds before the display returns and you can shoot another frame. To process the entire buffer took about one minute. The PS945 has a 64MB internal buffer. We had the camera set to 5MP/Best and used a fast Transcend 512MB SD card with a 32x write speed. Pressing the Review button brought up the last image captured in less than a second. Scrolling either forward or backward through the images was almost instantaneous. Displaying an image enlarged took about six seconds to load the image, after that zooming in or out was accomplished in real time.
The PS945's 8x optical zoom is a sharp lens with minimal chromatic distortion (purple fringing of highlights) and is reasonably fast with a maximum aperture of F/2.8 - F/3.1. It takes about four seconds to go from full wide angle to telephoto or vice-versa. If you like to take pictures of things at a distance you'll love the 300mm (35mm equivalent) telephoto power of this lens. It also does well at the wide angle end with an equivalent coverage of 37mm and very little barrel distortion. The auto focus in normal lighting and wide angle to mid-telephoto focal lengths is about average at around a second. As the lighting dims or the focal length increases the auto focus times will get longer. If the AF fails and the the shutter release is pressed, the lens is set at the hyperfocal position for maximum depth of field to capture the best picture.
Perhaps one of the PS945's most interesting features is the Digital Flash which uses HP's new Adaptive Lighting Technology. This is a process whereby the light and dark areas of the image are balanced out to produce a picture that looks more like what the human eye sees. It works well in contrasty outdoor shots where there are areas of both brightly lit subjects and dark shadow areas. It also works with indoor flash pictures, especially those where the main subject is well-lit and the rest of the frame is dimly lit. It functions somewhat like the Levels adjustment in Photoshop but has the benefit of using the unprocessed image data directly from the imager. The results are pretty spectacular as can be seen in our sample photos, especially the one of the front of the restaurant. This enhancing is not without its negative side effects, often the very dark or contrasty areas will display more image noise after being lightened. When making 4x6" size prints this increased noise is negligible but when printing larger prints it becomes more obvious. The Digital Flash has settings for "low" and "high" as well as "off" to disable the image enhancement process altogether. The amount of image enhancement varies depending on the scene content and contrast. Whenever the Digital Flash option is used the image processing time is extended.
Another unique imaging feature is Preferred Photographic Reproduction (PPR) - an adaptive photo enhancing algorithm that turns digital images into more pleasing or "preferred" photographs ready to be printed or shared. This image enhancement is always active and has no user-selectable settings or an option to disable it. PPR works automatically and each image is individually adjusted to produce an optimal picture. PPR measures each scene for overall brightness and dynamic range. From that information, PPR calculates an optimal tone map for processing. If a scene is generally dark (or low key), the tone map will brighten the photo without losing highlight details. A generally too light scene will be darkened. A scene with wide dynamic range will be "softened" with a lower contrast. A scene with short dynamic range will be given greater contrast. PPR also performs adaptive color processing that enhances the sense of vibrancy and clarity. It adapts to changes in the color of scene illumination, from blue shade to yellow tungsten light, and adjusts color processing so that colors keep a natural appearance. PPR adapts for the brightness of light on a scene, from full sun to nighttime, and keeps night photos from looking like they were taken at noon.
In addition to all the automatic image enhancements the user still has a great deal of control over the finished image too. You can manually select the desired amount of color saturation, contrast and sharpening. For special situations you can shoot in B&W or sepia rather than full color. Getting the color temperature (white balance) right is paramount to achieve the best possible image. Auto white balance does a great job in most cases but we often have to shoot in mixed lighting and that's where the manual white balance option works wonders. You just shoot a known gray or white object and the camera measures it and locks it into memory. Most cameras allow you to override the metering and so does the PS945 with a wide range of +/-3.0EV in 0.3EV steps. And let's not forget the various exposure modes that are easily selected via the top-mounted Mode Dial. Anybody can get great pictures with point-n-shoot simplicity when using the AUTO exposure mode. When you want to get creative or expand your photographic abilities just turn the Mode Dial to Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Action, Landscape or Portrait mode.
The final item involving image quality is noise filtering. HP has integrated automatic noise filtering into the PS945's image processing algorithms that works on every single pixel. Image noise appears as an undesired bumpy or granular look in what should be a clear blue sky or a smooth skin tone. The darker the image, such as an indoor picture taken under dim lighting, the more noise there will be. Increasing the ISO speed setting allows a digital camera to photograph subjects in low-lighting conditions or to capture high-speed motion. However, the higher the ISO setting, the more noise there will be in the recorded image data. HP recognized this fact and designed the noise filter to increase in strength when the ISO sensitivity increases. The result is a consistent quality of image at all ISO settings and more flexibility for the photographer. We were quite pleased with the lack of noise in normal pictures as well as longer shutter exposures (see our 14-second sample photo) and those taken at ISO 400 were also very acceptable. Hot and random pixels common in long shutter exposures are greatly minimized by the use of a dark frame subtraction process.
The PS945 is powered by four AA type batteries and as always we highly recommend the use of high-capacity NiMH rechargeables. Alkalines can be used in a pinch but don't expect them to go very far, this is a high drain device. If you purchase the optional HP 8881 camera dock, it comes with a set of NiMH rechargeable batteries and they're charged whenever the camera is placed on the dock. The HP 8881 dock also lets you easily transfer images and movies to the computer by pressing just one button. Another good power source are the photo lithium batteries which can provide 50-100% more service life than NiMH type. They also have a terrific shelf life so they're perfect for the occasional camera user as NiMH type batteries lose 1-2% of their charge per day when sitting idle. The problem with photo lithium is they're expensive and they're not reusable - but they do last MUCH longer than alkalines. HP supplies a set of photo lihtium cells with the camera.
With a street price of $500 or less (as of Nov. 2003), the Photosmart 945 is a good buy for a 5-megapixel 8x zoom camera. It can be used as a point-n-shoot in Auto mode and for the more advanced user it offers an array of exposure modes and image controls. The builtin image processing technology yields very good pictures with vibrant colors that look great when printed on photo inkjets. The Digital Flash feature is more than marketing hype, it really works and can make a very noticeable difference in your pictures. If you've never used a camera with a powerful zoom then maybe it's time to see why so many people love them -- a 3x zoom is nice but a 8x zoom is awesome.
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