Just click the button-- the computer does the rest

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, April 1996

Epson's PhotoPC and Connectix's QuickCam

Epson Canada

2655 Campus Drive
San Mateo, CA
944003 USA
Fax: 1-415-571-5195
$149 CDN

Who needs film? Why bother buying and loading film, shooting your shots, then paying for processing?

Sure, it makes sense if you want pictures of the new baby to send to Grandma, but if you're just going to use that photo in a document that you're writing on your computer, maybe you'd be better off if the photo, as well as the text, was digital.

Newspapers like the Vancouver Sun are starting use digital cameras, but the $20,000 or so that they pay for one of their Nikons is probably more than you can even dream about. But for much less, you can still get surprising usable results.

We took a look at two very different digital cameras. Epson's new PhotoPC, costs $899, and gives you quite full-screen, full-colour  shots. Connectix's QuickCam is more limited-grey-scale (i.e. black and white) photos only, but at an affordable $149 or so.

Full Colour from Epson

With their Stylus inkjet printers, Epson produces one of the best ways to output colour pictures... now, with the PhotoPC cameras, they join a half dozen other companies (including photo-traditionalist, Kodak) in giving computer users a simple way to input colour pictures.

Their $899 PhotoPC looks like a slightly oversized standard rangefinder camera-similar to the many popular autofocus 35 mm models. Like them, it has a built-in flash, and a simple, one-button operation. However, if you look closely, you'll see that while there is a picture counter, there's no way to open the back to put in film.

Instead, your pictures are stored on ram, in the camera-it comes standard with 1 meg, which is enough to store 16 full-screen, 640x480 pictures or 32 smaller 320x240 pictures. You can mix and match the picture sizes. In all cases, pictures are stored in 24-bit, full-colour form. The ram can be upgraded, with an additional 2 megs for $299.

Wide angle or telephoto lens and filters can also be added-the camera can use standard 37mm camcorder add-ons. Note however, that since (like many other popular cameras) it uses a rangefinder viewer, what you see is not quite what the camera is actually viewing-on close-ups in particular, it can be off by quite a bit.

When you're ready, you connect the camera to your computer's serial port, using the included cable, and send your shots to the computer... Epson's Easy Photo software creates a page resembling a traditional developer's contact sheet; from there it's simple to either choose selected shots or the whole bunch and retrieve the larger versions-it'll take anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute per shot, depending on the speed of your serial port.

The included software lets you make simple crops, brightness, contrast, or colour adjustments, though I found the colour balance quite good without any touching up. Sending a bunch of photos to your computer will put a strain on the camera's batteries-Epson offers an AC adapter, but for a steep additional $199. They recommend against using any other AC adapter-in that case, rechargeable batteries might be a wise investment.

I found the picture quality quite good-and once you've got a picture on your hard drive, it can be easily added to any of the standard software-photo editing software like PhotoShop, desktop publishing software, word processors, or more. Pictures, by default, are stored as compressed JPEG files, so even the full-screen shots tend to take up a modest 40-55 kb of disk space.

Since Grandma probably doesn't want digital photos, this camera is too expensive for most home photographers. It could be well-used, however, by anyone producing a newsletter, to get pictures for Internet home pages, for real estate agents looking to produce quick handouts on new listings, for documenting insurance claims, and more. Currently, it's PC-only... Epson expects Mac software and cabling around June.

Black and White on the cheap

For about 1/6 the price of Epson's colour camera, you can get Connectix's QuickCam.

It's a light-grey gadget, about the size and shape of a billiard ball, with a little eye on the front, resting on a pyramid-shaped pedestal-- or if you prefer, it can screw into a standard camera tripod. Because that's what it is-- an affordable, easy to use still and video camera for your computer.

It's available in both Mac and PC/Windows versions (sorry, you can't use the same version on both platforms). The PC version, which I'm using, plugs into your parallel (printer) port, while drawing power from the keyboard jack. That means no opening the case-- easy connections. A single QuickCam can be easily used with any number of computers-- just install the single disk worth of software on each machine. (You can plug your keyboard into the QuickCam's jack, but there's no pass-through connection for your printer... but if you have two printer ports, or a simple A/B switchbox, you can keep both the QuickCam and a printer plugged into a single port. Or just switch cables when you want to print!)

So what does it do? Easy to use software let you take either a 320x240 still photo, or a 160x120 video clip... saving either to your computer.

Why so cheap? How can this be a $149 (or so) unit offering both still pictures and video, while other digital cameras (including Epson's PhotoPC, but including competitive models from Apple, Logitech, Canon and more) are still hovering on either side of the $1000 mark for still pictures only?

Connectix is able to produce such an affordable unit for two reasons-- first, it's black and white only (although there are rumours of a colour version later this year). Still, the 64-grey scale b&w pictures are quite attractive, and print out well. As well, because it's attached to your computer at all times, it can leave off a number of features needed in a stand-alone camera-- a battery and ram, in particular. Stand-alone digital cameras need to be able to store your photos until you can download them to your computer-- here, the shots go directly to the Windows or Mac Clipboard, or right to a file.

And because it's saving immediately to your computer, video is possible. While a single b&w picture results in a modest 80k file-size, a minute of video can take as much as 5 megs, uncompressed. The QuickCam software, which supports standard Video for Windows AVI format (on the PC) or Apple QuickTime (on the Mac), can compress this as low as 1 meg per minute-- but it still adds up quickly. By the way-- you'll need a sound card and microphone if you want sound in your movies... the QuickCam is a video device only.

The uses of a cheap and easy digital camera are limited only by your imagination... it's easy to think of lots of business or just fun uses. Because the pictures print out well on a standard 300 or 600 dpi laser printer, it can easily be used as a source of photos for school or business newsletters. Or to include employee photos in a personnel database. Or to keep records of valuables in case of theft. Or to attach pictures to e-mail. Or... I think every elementary school classroom with a computer should have one of these!

But that's not all-- Connectix has also released cheap video conferencing software-- VideoPhone. While that's not included in the standard QuickCam package, a couple of QuickCam's and this software gives you a quick and dirty computer-based equivalent of that '50s sci-fi cliché, the picture phone. The current version of the software only supports connections over a network, or via high-speed ISDN links, but Connectix is promising a modem-to-modem version soon.

Even without the extra video-conferencing software, the QuickCam is a neat computer gadget -- Connectix has pretty much gotten everything right-- it's easy to set up, fun to use, produces good quality results, and is cheap.

However, be aware of it's limitations-it has to remain attached to your computer, the pictures are small, and they're black and white only-once you've had a chance to use a more full-featured, colour camera like Epson's PhotoPC, you'll chafe at the QuickCam's limitations.

With, on the one hand, affordable and fun gadgets like Quick Cam, and on the other, more expensive but also, perhaps more satisfying units like the PhotoPC, this could be the time to think about adding a digital camera to your setup.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan