The Fuji FinePix A210
Trevor Attwell reviews the latest from Photodesk LTD
The FinePix A210.
This compact digital camera is very light to carry at about 200g, measuring only 64.5mm H x 98.5W x 40.5 D. It will appeal particularly to those who want a light, unobtrusive camera which will fit easily in most pockets or handbags. Normally it has a wrist loop, but this was not in the review kit. Such a loop minimises the risk of accidentally dropping the camera, but both camera and loop are best held together.
Only two AA batteries are required in this camera, and Fuji recommend the disposable alkaline type from Panasonic. When new these provide 3 volts total, and in this camera are likely to offer some advantage over the nickel-hydride type. The reason is that although the latter can supply larger currents, in this application their lower voltage is a disadvantage. On test the camera stopped work when the Ni-MH voltage dropped from 1.3V to 1.1V per battery, after about three hours of continuous use. The manual doesn"t mention rechargables, but I normally use them for any power supplies that require low voltage batteries.
Battery failure can come sharply, the indicator signal switching from full to empty in less than a minute. However, users would be well advised to carry spares without fail, because that well-known law ensures that you will run out of power precisely when you want them most. You should avoid lithium, manganese or nickel-manganese batteries for this application, and even the recommended type will have a reduced capacity at temperatures of 10 deg. C or below. If you are likely to work indoors, a mains power adapter could cut down the bill.
The pictures are stored on "SmartMedia" cards, available in capacities from 4 to 128 Mb, in the usual doubling series (4, 8, 16 and 128 Mb). The review camera came with a 16Mb card. This will be enough for many users, but you can be caught out, and a backup card is a wise precaution.
When pictures are to be transferred to your computer the SmartMedia card must be removed from the camera to be read, and subsequently replaced in the camera. The card is surprisingly robust, but it has its limits, and there is scope for damaging it in various ways during use, including picking up dust. It is best to avoid removing and replacing it unnecessarily. There are extensive notes about the card in the manual.
The camera can produce pictures of various formats and qualities. Assuming a 16Mb card, the best quality ("Fine") gives 1600x1200 pixels, and requires 770k of storage for each of 20 pictures. "Normal" gives slightly lower quality, with 39 pictures. This will probably be good enough for most users who do not need big enlargements. In this mode the pixel count is 1280 x 960. The lowest "Basic" quality allows 75 pictures, with a pixel count of 640 x 490. This will suit those many photos which are unlikely to be enlarged at a later date.
For the smallest 4M card, about 30 pictures measuring 640x480 can be taken, reducing to just 4 shots at the highest resolution. The number of pictures available for the current mode is displayed on the LCD, and is updated if a change is made to another format.
In use, the picture being taken can be viewed on the LCD screen behind the camera, and those shots already stored on the card can also be viewed on it. The screen is always on when the camera is being used, but turns itself off if no shot is taken within 30 seconds. This short time is desirable to save the battery life. The real advantage of this screen is that it shows exactly the area that will be stored. Unfortunately, it has to be held some distance in front of the users head, so that it can be seen, and this can lead to camera shake. Also, with sunlight from behind or to the side, it can be very difficult to see the LCD picture. The LCD brightness can be adjusted to suit individual preferences.
The alternative is a tiny optical viewfinder, maddening for anyone wearing spectacles, and not much better for those who aren"t. A small, bright ring appears in the middle of the viewfinder if the user"s eye is in the correct viewing spot. If you are concentrating on the composition it is easy to lose sight of the ring, and the frame contents may not be set as accurately as you might have hoped. Undoubtedly the LCD is the better bet by far.
Sometimes you may want to place people or objects in particular areas in the picture so that they are correctly vertical, or perhaps to ensure that the horizon is set accurately. Lines can be displayed on the LCD, forming nine rectangular areas, and these act as useful guides.
The A210 copes well with back light. Both brightly lit areas and shadow retain detail.
Handling the pictures
When it comes to downloading pictures, you"ll find things have changed - digital cameras now interface with PC USB ports, which RISC OS users do not have. Photodesk supply a simple system which will do the job. To use it, the SmartCard is removed from the camera, and slotted into a Microtech card-reader. Cables are supplied to allow the reader to talk to the RISC PC via the printer port, with the addition of a simple modification to one of the keyboard connections. Setting up is very easy, and takes only a few minutes.
Picture taken with sunlight behind the camera.
The system used is supplied by the firm Surftec. This supersedes an arrangement previously used by Photodesk which, in its simplest mode, pictures were treated as single, standard JPEG files, stored under sequential numbers.
Surftec"s system is more sophisticated. It handles all the pictures taken, and includes various devices to exclude copyright infringement. This requires a different password for every individual owner, without which the software won"t work. At the time of writing they are considering changing the password on a 6-monthly basis. While I have no more love for thieves than they have, this does seem a bit draconian - and I wonder whether it could become something of a nuisance. I was unable to try the Surftec system, but this had absolutely nothing to do with Surftec or their product, but was due to gremlins in my computer, which took some time to sort out.
How does the Fuji A201 compare with the others?
Starting from the 84 page manual, this is in the usual A6 format. It is simply not practicable to describe and comment on its contents in full. The following list covers most of its contents.
1. Bilingual? You can have French or English text.
2. The date and time will be maintained unless you fail to notice that the batteries have been flat (or taken out) for at least 12 hours.
3. When a picture is being taken a small light appears close to the viewfinder. When this shows a steady green the camera is ready to go. If it is orange, but steady, the camera is dumping pictures to the SmartCard, if orange but flashing it is busily charging the flash. If it is flashing red, either the SmartCard is not formatted (or is, but is full up), or there is a write-protect sticker on it. More in the manual.
4. It is possible to photograph objects at distances in the range 80 to 130mm (macro). Flash can also be used, but the manual warns that this is not always satisfactory. The normal range is from 180mm to infinity, so I suggest that if you need to ensure the best sharpness in pictures taken between 130 and 180mm, try to use lots of light if possible, thereby forcing the camera to stop down, which may give a sharper result.
5. Zooming in and out is available, but only with one of two high resolutions in use. This ensures that the expanded picture will retain a reasonable amount of detail.
6. When playing back your pictures, you can enlarge any of them. The amount depends on the number of pixels in the result, and you can have x5 for 1600 x1200 images, x4 for 1280 x 960, and x2 for 640 x 480. These alternatives ensure that good resolution can be maintained. You can also zoom around the full picture.
7. You can "grab" up to 9 pictures and display them in a single frame. These are useful as reminders of what you have taken, and for spotting differences between similar frames. The pics are very small, and of little use if small detail must be checked.
8. One or more frames can be erased easily if you no longer want them. In fact it is almost too easy, and an "Are you sure" warning would not come amiss.
More advanced features
9. The camera can be used in Auto or Manual modes. Auto is clearly the simpler, and would be most used for social functions, holiday snaps and the like. Selecting Manual displays menu items with a number of choices, which can be changed as the user requires.
10. Flash There are five modes that can be selected, namely Auto, red-eye reduction, forced flash, suppressed flash and slow sync. The explanations of some of these functions could be improved for newcomers. The usual auto flash requirements are fine. The red-eye reduction did have some effect, but not as much as I should have liked. However, this is not an easy trick in a small camera with lens and flash only 28mm apart at their centres.
11. Self-timer This is the standard 10-second timer which allows the photographer to appear in the picture.
12. EV (Exposure compensation) An overall exposure measurement is frequently unsuitable for best reproduction of areas that are either very dark, or light, or both. Sometimes the full range of luminance within the whole subject can be rendered, sometimes not. The camera can only do what it is told, and some photographers may prefer to change to manual at this stage, if practical.
13. White balance Mixed light sources (incandescent, fluorescent etc) result in colour shifts in a colour photograph, this is generally quite unpleasant. The camera will try to find a reasonable colour compromise.
14. Movies Making colour movies occupies six pages of the manual - here are the basics. You can shoot movies for a time depending on how much storage you have available. A table in the manual shows that, for example, you can fill an empty 4Mb card in 23 seconds, or 94 seconds with a 16Mb store, or 774 seconds with 126Mb.
The format is Motion JPEG, each frame taking up 320 x 240 pixels, at the rate of 10 frames/second, and you can zoom in and out. Naturally, sound cannot be included. If you have other material stored in the SmartCard, this will reduce the maximum length of your movie accordingly.
The LCD is necessarily locked "ON" while movies are being made. There is no guarantee that the result can be played back on other cameras, even if they are of similar type.
Playback is straightforward. It can be paused and resumed, has fast forward and rewind, and can skip. The movie can be repeated as often as required.
Movie frames can be erased, either singly or all together, unless the frames involved are protected. If a SmartMedia card is subsequently formatted, any movies on it are erased, as would be expected.
15. The LCD brightness can be adjusted. I found little use for this control in practice, but other users may.
16. A "power save" is in use when no shot is being taken, unless the user deliberately turns it off. The "save" minimises waste of battery power by switching off the LCD if the camera is not used for 30 seconds. If it remains on for a further 90 seconds the camera will be turned off. If the power saving device is not in use, and the camera is left on for more than about two minutes, it will automatically be shut down. In all cases, recovery to working state is quick, simply by pushing any button.
The Fuji A201, with 2 million pixels, offers a good all-round performance at a modest price, and is capable of producing prints of ample size while maintaining good visual quality. If you thought that earlier digital cameras reviewed in this magazine could do anything that any one could ever want, you may be surprised by the A201. In fact it can do anything that they could, and more. Its small size and correspondingly low weight makes it easy to carry on the person, and this will encourage owners to use it.
A collection of sample photos taken with the FinePix A210 can be found in the Software directory on this issue of RISC World.