Product review: Digital video in small packages

Remember the home movie drill? You had to wait until dark, then drag out an awkward, heavy, two-armed machine. You tacked a white sheet up on the wall, or maybe you had a separate screen that sometimes you could set up without help. Everyone in the family gathered in that darkened room while your father carefully threaded and rethreaded film through a maze of gears and levers, cursing under his breath, until finally you were ready to show four minutes' worth of film, just back from the processor.

That was the 8mm home-movie camera of my youth, for decades the only practical way for nonprofessionals to record moving pictures. Today, things are radically different, and for far fewer real dollars than the cost of that earlier 8mm camera and projector, you can get digital camcorders that record still and motion pictures and sound and that offer instant playback.

The ability to view moving pictures is one of the technologies that changed our lives in this century. First, Hollywood's productions, then industrial and marketing films, then home movies. We're now at the beginning of a new era where we create and exchange full-motion videos over the Internet and use them daily for teaching, learning, marketing, planning and more to come. This new technology may be daunting to the gadget-challenged, but it offers a new outlet for creativity, innovation and recording daily life. For the videophile in all of us, Computerworld US checked out three new video devices - a true digital camcorder and two smaller cameras that can, within limits, record and play digital video.

High Quality, High Cost, High Times



Canon USA

If we computed a "gadget index" based on the number of features and functions, the Ultura digital camcorder would run away with the prize. Computer users accustomed to taking new gizmos out of the box without reading the manual are out of luck. There are so many different shooting modes, special effects and other options that you need to read the book.

The Ultura sports a 20x zoom lens, with digital magnification on top of that adding up to an overall 320x. I can fill the frame with an office clock nearly 100 feet away; its image is stabilised electronically and recorded onto a Mini-Digital Video tape cassette. You can compose your recording with an adjustable eye-level viewfinder or a color LCD panel that also plays back what you've recorded. This Canon is a powerful machine for beginning amateur filmmakers because there's a lot of powerful and relatively inexpensive editing software available to complement the high-quality video. In briefly reviewing this product, I couldn't begin to exercise all of its many features. Still, it did everything I asked of it without problems, and that's a rare occurrence. I've never owned a camcorder before, mainly because nothing I've seen has interested me. Now, I'm tempted.

- Russell Kay

It's a PDA; no, it's a camera!

Casio Digital Camera Card

JK-710DC for the Cassiopeia E-100 and E-105$299 (camera card only)Casiohttp://www.casio.comJust about the time Handspring introduces its Visor (essentially a Palm III with a slot for assorted add-on hardware), Casio announces a digital camera that fits into the top-mounted compact flash (CF) slot of the company's Windows-CE driven color-screen personal digital assistant (PDA), the $399 E-100 Cassiopeia. Though the Visor's slot has made a bigger splash in the news, the Cassiopeia's new camera card is just as significant in showing the capabilities of the CF format, which is built into most Windows CE computers as well as many digital cameras.

So the camera card is neat, but is it any good? Unfortunately, it's not. It will impress your friends, and it's certainly adequate for taking still pictures destined for the Web. But it's still much more a proof-of-concept demonstration than a practical device. With a full charge, Casio claims the Cassiopeia's lithium ion battery is good for recording 45 minutes of continuous MPEG-1 video. Sadly, that 45-min. spec is totally unreal. Installing the camera means you must remove any CF memory, so you're limited to the Cassiopeia's onboard memory. The E-100 I tested holds no more than 5 minutes of video, and that's assuming you've off-loaded your address book and calendar. No matter what I did, the camera invariably stopped recording after about 5 seconds. Many stand-alone digital cameras will also take such movies . . . and they do it better.

- Russell Kay

Sharp looking, not so sharp in PpracticeSharp Internet Viewcam VN-EZ1U$699Sharp Electronics 8-oz. camcorder was a real disappointment. I had visions of Computerworld reporters filming interviews at conferences and posting them to our Web site. With its 4x digital zoom and LCD display, the easy-to-use Internet Viewcam seemed perfect for the job. It captures sound and video remarkably well in MPEG-4 format. But 75 seconds of pretty-good video (320 by 240 pixels) uses every byte on the included 4M-byte SmartMedia memory card. A 32M-byte card held nearly 12 minutes' worth. File transfer is easy via the included floppy disk carrier. Four AA batteries deliver about 45 minutes of constant use.

Though the camera is neat, there's no good way to edit its video, and that makes it almost useless for real work. You can't name or edit videos in the camera, and the included software, PixLab Media Browser, can't improve image or sound quality (or do much else). The built-in microphone aims off to the left, and you can't use a separate directional microphone. I tried every tool I could find to convert Viewcam files to an editable format. Nothing worked, and Sharp didn't respond to questions. The Viewcam is fun to play with, a great gadget for making quick video clips. But it's an expensive toy of limited usefulness, and no bargain.

-- Cynthia Morgan

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