HP PhotoSmart 812 Review

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The HP PhotoSmart 812 is a compact digicam with 4 Megapixel resolution and a Pentax 3x zoom lens and is the flagship of the new HP PhotroSmart digital cameras. It is the big brother to the most basic Photosmart 620 (2.1 Megapixel and 3x zoom) and the mid-line Photosmart 720 (3.3 Megapixel and 3x zoom.) The 812 offers a combination of good image quality with 'point -N- shoot' ease of use. Currently (August, 2002), the PhotoSmart 812 is one of the better deals on the market for a 4-megapixel camera with it's street price of about $429. There are few advanced camera features, this is simply designed to be a snap shooter's no-fuss camera that uploads and prints images easily.

The 812 is equipped with a Pentax branded 3x optical zoom lens, 7.6 - 22.8mm (equivalent to 37-111mm on 35mm camera). Its maximum aperture is f2.6 which helps with low light photography. It does fail to focus in VERY dim scenes as there is no focus assist illumination that some makers are including. An auto focus Macro mode focuses to less than 6 inches (14cm) allowing you to shoot impressive close- ups of small objects. Non-flash works a little better as the flash doesn't power down enough for 6" close-ups (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 offering protection. It does not accept accessory lenses or filters. It has a digital 7x zoom that multiplies the focal length of its 3x optical zoom lens to give you a 21x image at the severe expense of image quality. Most digicam owners experience digital zoom once and realize its shortcomings.

In FOUR STAR (2272 x 1712, low image compression) mode the average file size is about 2.5MB, in THREE STAR (2272 x 1712, high compression) about 1 MB, in TWO STAR (1136 x 848, low compression) about 500 KB and in ONE STAR (1136x848, high compression) images are about 250KB. It also records up to sixty seconds of 288 x 208 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. Another feature is the Audio Capture ability which allows up to 30 seconds of audio annotation that can be captured with each still picture. ISO sensitivity has no manual control and is auto set from 100 to 400. The flash has a reasonable range of approx. 0.5 - 2.8m in Wide angle and approx. 0.5 - 2m in telephoto.

The PhotoSmart 812 is a rangefinder camera, it has an eyelevel coupled viewfinder that zooms in and out with the lens. The optical viewfinder has a fairly narrow viewing angle and lacks any kind of dioptric adjustment. Its only info is the focus area brackets in the center. The coverage of the optical finder is about 78% which means that you always capture quite a bit more than you see. The 1.5 inch LCD, when used as the viewfinder, is much more accurate at about 97% coverage and has a fast refresh rate, it's smooth and clean except in low light conditions. 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 shiny, clear plastic protector and could benefit from a non-glare coating. When Macro mode is selected the color LCD comes on automatically to prevent parallax errors of the optical viewfinder at close range. Use the LCD sparingly as it is a huge consumer of power.

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. This camera needs all the power it can get. We recommend using 1700-1800mAh NiMH rechargeables which are more environmentally friendly and pack 3-5x the power. Use the AA alkaline batteries that come with the HP812 in your kid's Walkman. The optional HP 8881 Digital Dock (street price $79.99.) includes a four (two sets for the HP812) 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 812 has no internal memory like the HP 620 and 720. It is equipped with a Secure Digital (SD) card slot and you can use up to a 256MB card. It is not compatible with MultiMedia cards though they are the same size or the new 512MB sized SD cards that are just now (08/2002) coming on the market. A 'must have' accessory would be to add a 128MB or 256MB SD card due to the file size of the 4-megapixel imager.

The startup time from turning on the camera until the first picture can be snapped is above average at about 7 seconds. It's shot-to-shot time is a little under 6 seconds and add a second or two for flash. The total shutter lag (time from pressing shutter to actually capturing) is a little less than three seconds. Where these times are higher than average, 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 well under one second which is impressive(non-flash and in Best quality setting.) The total time to process and record one image (processing/card writing light is red) is about 17 seconds which indicates a less than robust image processor and card writing speed. It does not have a continuous mode.

Ergonomically the PhotoSmart 812 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 HP812 is impressive for its price point. Once in an image manipulation program, the large image size allows for a lot of cropping to get closer to a subject without giving up photo quality prints. Though the HP812 does not have the manual preset white balance of the HP720 the Auto White Balance (AWB) is accurate and comparable to other cameras in this price point.

As I stated at the beginning, the PhotoSmart 812 is currently a good deal at $429. Most of the competing 4-megapixel cameras are at least a hundred dollars more. This is an excellent choice for the beginner that wants the ability to make photo-quality prints from 4 x 6" right up to 11 x 14" size prints - easily.

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