Katherine Boehret

Better Digital Photos at Your Fingertips

If you ever need a tangible example of evolving technology, look no further than the advancements of digital cameras over the past few years. Today’s cameras have faster response times, produce fewer occurrences of red-eye in shots and boast greater zoom lenses with more megapixels — all for prices that look like bargains compared with even last summer.

One of the most visually defining features of the digicam is its LCD viewing screen, and camera makers have steadily increased the sizes of these screens; those that once measured about an inch diagonally now measure over three inches. The results are breathtaking: Crisp, bright displays offer a beautiful way to view photos.

Some of these screens are so large that they take over the entire back side of the camera, edging out useful features like optical viewfinders. Buttons, too, are seen as hogging precious real estate on these pocket-size devices. The solution? Replacing regular LCD screens with touch screens that work as viewing screens, viewfinders and buttons rolled into one.

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Removing glare from pets’ eyes is possible on the HP Photosmart R937.

This week, I tested two $300 digital cameras from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Pentax Imaging Co. that use large touch screens: the HP Photosmart R937 and the Optio T30. Both took gorgeous photographs, but I focused on how touch screens changed the way I used each camera, and found it took me far less time to become acquainted with functions thanks to the more direct nature of on-screen buttons. For example, left and right arrows that appeared on-screen beside an image could be touched to move from one photo to the next, while a tiny on-screen trash bin icon deleted pics once pressed. In-camera editing was also made simpler with these screens.

But because these camera screens are multifunctional, they must be clearly visible at all times — even in bright light or sunshine — and I found myself squinting to see both screens in the sunlight. In situations like this, an optical viewfinder would at least let you clearly see the subject of photos. On both cameras, the review or playback buttons remained as physical buttons, rather than touch-screen buttons.

The touch technology in these camera screens isn’t as advanced as “multi-touch,” which is used in Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Microsoft Corp.’s Surface Computing. But it is incredibly useful and will change the way you use your digital camera.

While the HP Photosmart R937 turns heads with its giant 3.6-inch screen, this device is too big and heavy to be categorized as a pocket camera. The Pentax Optio T30′s generous three-inch screen is smaller than that of the HP, helping this camera retain the fashionably thin look sought after in the pocket camera category.

The technical specifications of the H-P and Pentax cameras are quite comparable. They offer 8 and 7.1 megapixels, respectively, with 3x optical zoom lenses and digital image stabilization technology to aid shaky hands. Pentax says its Optio T30 will last for 200 shots on a full battery, while H-P claims 190 shots.

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A touch-screen menu on the Pentax Optio T30

The $300 (after a $50 rebate) Pentax Optio T30 shipped in April as a follow-up to its two touch-screen predecessors: the Optio T10 (brought out a little over a year ago) and the Optio T20 (last fall).

A series of menus appear when you tap the center of the Optio T30 screen. In capturing mode, for example, a screen tap pulls up four menus: Capture Palette, Flash Mode, Drive Mode and Focus Mode.

The Capture Palette menu displays 16 different icons, one for each mode in which the camera can be set prior to taking a photo. It was a relief to see these large, colorful icons rather than trying to decipher confusing text descriptions or unrelated icons representing each mode. Tapping on an icon brought up a one-line, large-print explanation of it and tapping the on-screen “OK” button set the camera in that mode. Portrait mode, for example, brightens skin tones, while Sport keeps the camera in focus until the shutter is released — ideal for fast-moving subjects.

Most people will likely opt to keep their Optio T30 in default automatic mode, and this requires no touch button adjustments whatsoever. But I was more inclined than usual to switch into different modes using this camera. Knowing that I could tap the screen a couple times to adjust for various situations was a lot more appealing than digging through a list of options in a hidden menu, then finding the right button to select that option.

The Pentax Optio T30′s touch screen also allows for on-screen editing, such as drawing on a photo with an included stylus (my fingernail worked, too). You can also use what Pentax calls “stamps” — little cartoon icons that can be added to a photo. I made my own stamp by drawing an on-screen circle around flowers in one of my photos, copying the flowers and using them as a stamp in other images. This could come in handy if you need to superimpose someone’s head into a photo for which he or she wasn’t present.

The HP Photosmart R937 will ship the first week in August, marking H-P’s foray into the touch-screen digital camera scene. It measures over twice the cubic volume of the Pentax, but strangely, its zoom lens doesn’t protrude when in use — a feature often found in slim fashion cameras that doesn’t make much sense on this bulky model.

The R937′s stunningly large screen makes room for instructional icons that appear around the perimeter of the screen, and each can be tapped for direct access to a menu. For example, a box in the top right of the screen tells you how many megapixels the next photo will capture, and tapping on this box drops you into an image quality screen where you can adjust megapixels. Another on-screen icon for the flash works similarly — one tap and you’re in the correct adjustment menu.

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Like the Pentax, the R937 works in default automatic mode without any adjusting. But again, different shooting modes (12 to be exact) were easy to change using touch menus. I found the H-P’s in-camera editing to be the most interesting aspect of this gadget. While reviewing photos, I opened an on-screen Design Gallery menu and found options for removing red eyes, enhancing photos like making the people in my photos look slimmer, and applying any of 13 artistic effects, like turning an image into a cartoon or a kaleidoscope-like view. I tweaked many of my photos using only touch-screen buttons, then saved the edited versions in addition to my old versions.

Time and time again while using both of these cameras, I realized that when commands were right on the screen where I could touch them to select what I wanted to do, the camera’s overall usability was improved and once-buried menus were demystified.

Touch screens and digital cameras make a good pair. I only wish that the screen quality on these cameras was high enough to stand up to bright sunlight. The HP Photosmart R937 is a bit too bulky, though it feels sturdy in your hand and its 3.6-inch screen is a boon. The Pentax Optio T30′s size and simplified touch user interface make it a good buy.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg


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