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The Writers Workbench: Say "Cheese" Digitally

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Photography has gone through a twisted path. The earliest days, it was a difficult and convoluted process, loading the film (film, remember that?), lugging the bulky camera around, and manually configuring all the settings f-stop and aperture opening. Then Kodak and Polaroid (remember them?) simplified the process, either with instant photos and a drop-in film cartridge.

Digital cameras have simplified and confused the process. Cameras can be pocket-sized with wonderful resolution, no issue of loading film and the ability to manipulate pictures in countless ways imaginable. At the same time, you have to learn much more than the classic "point and shoot." The simplest digital camera these days with have half-a-dozen buttons on the surface, with further menu options to set your preferences. Now add the reality that many snap-shot camera can also take limited movies.

For people with high-end needs, the landscape is even wider. For our purposes here, however, the simplicity of home use will be the priority, balanced with quality.


To see this column complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," visit the WGA website.


CASIO EXILIM EX-S10

Once upon a time, Casio was known for making pocket calculator and low-end piano keyboards. Then, a few years back, the company introduced a revolutionary digital camera, the Exilim, well-regarded for its tiny, slim size and respectable images. That Exilim line has since expanded and includes such high-end efforts as the EX-F1, which retails for $1,000.

The EX-S10 follows in the path of the tiny, slim league, but far expanded from the first of its predecessors.

About the size of a deck of cards, though slightly thinner (just over a mere half-inch) and shorter, it weighs 4 ounces. It charges with a lithium ion battery, which has its advantages and disadvantages - no batteries are needed, which also keeps the camera slim, but if you run out of charge on the road you're out of luck - unless you carry around extra charged packs with you, which most people don't. With a camera that uses standard batteries, they're available worldwide. It's a personal preference. The charger for the EX-S10 is quite small, and charges the included battery in only 90 minutes. Battery life is good, rated at about 280 images on one charge, or 2 hours of video recording. (A graphic on the back monitor screen roughly displays how much power is left.

What's initially noteworthy about the camera is that it comes with a massive 10.1 megapixels. While people today tend to go gaga over megapixels, the truth is that for most people, you can get by with 2. And 4 is generally plenty, just on the good side of overkill. Unless you're planning to use your camera professionally, make posters, or regularly blow your pictures up really large, you'll be covered with far fewer than 10.1 megapixels - most especially considering that people tend to look at their pictures online or sent through email. But to have a camera that provides the option of such high resolution certainly doesn't hurt, as long as it stays in a reasonable budget, which the EX-S10 does - especially considering all else it does - retailing for $250.

Use of the camera is quite easy, which isn't always the case with so many options. The buttons are a bit small, as needs be on such a small camera, but they're well-laid out. And the menu options are presented extremely clearly. A click-wheel maneuvers you through right-left-up-down directions, and a "Set" button in its center confirms your choices.

(One example of its clear options. For its "Best Shot" feature - providing 37 pre-settings for various conditions - you just push its dedicated button, and examples of those conditions appear on the LCD monitor screen. In fact, a text explanation clarifies the settings even further. No guessing what a type of shot is from a confusing icon. These include settings for people who upload images to eBay or videos to YouTube.)

Perhaps the Exilim EX-S10's best attribute is that LCD "Super Clear" screen. It's a large 2.7 inches, and the image is tremendously crisp and bright, even in bright sunlight, even if you're not looking at it directly head-on. It's stand-out great, and lives up to its "Super Clear" name. I personally prefer to also have an eyepiece viewer, but that's pretty much limited to models, not ones for the pocket. With its impressive screen, though, that need is lessened.

To take a picture, hold the snap button half-way down to set the focus. There's a good, tactile feel, so you'll know when to stop. The display changes when everything is ready. The use of the zoom/wide angle lens is equally simple. No changing modes to access the digital/optical zoom - just adjust the level with a control lever. There is a 3X optical zoom, followed by a 4X digital zoo, which is basically magnification. This gives you somewhat of the equivalent of a grainy 12X

The camera is designed for Auto use, which is how most of the world tends to point and shoot. But if you're higher up on the food chain and prefer manual control with aperture and shutter speed, you're basically out of luck. It's theoretically possible, using the afore-mentioned Best Shot feature or adjusting the ISO sensitivity, though they're workarounds at best.

Several Best Shot settings are interesting, particularly "Portrait," which allows you to take a picture of yourself - the shutter won't snap until it recognizes a full face in the frame.

There are also a few nice settings for automatic shooting, configurable either through the Menu or some directly off the monitor screen. I'm not a big fan of Auto Shots (like smile recognition); it's a fascinating technology, but I preferring to choose for myself when the picture is to be taken. Occasionally, however, some instances can be helpful, particularly in low light when you need a steady hand. An Auto Shutter setting will snap the picture when it detects no movement. (A different, but similar setting is "Anti-Shake," which lets you take your own picture, but can minimize blur if you have a shaky hand, or the image is moving.)

Picture quality is respectably crisp and clear, though without the sharpness and depth of a camera with a higher-end lens. (For professional-grade pictures, of course, you'd have to pay significantly more for.) To a degree, improving pictures can be addressed by choosing the highest quality setting, which will cut down on the number of photos you can save on a memory card. But 1 GB cards are so reasonable in cost these days, that shouldn't be much of an issue.

Taking videos is utterly simple. Push the "Movies" button to start and stop. (In truth, you're of course shooting video, not a movie.) No setting to change - literally point-and-shoot video. Sound can be recorded, as well, though it's fairly thin. On screen, you'll see a running time of the footage being shot, and how much time you have left (according to the space on your memory card. The Casio takes SD cards.) On a 1 GB card, you can shoot approximately one hour in normal mode. For "ultra high quality mode," video you'd likely want to play back on your LCD television, it's about 20 minutes. Even in normal mode (standard for most file sharing sites), the image was quite watchable, albeit a bit grainy. Make no mistake, this doesn't replace a video camera. But it fits in your shirt pocket.

(By the way, not only can you record audio along with your video, but you can also record audio only, sort of like a digital voice recorder, using a Best Shot setting.)

There are a couple of particularly nice multimedia features with the EX-S10 if you have need for them (and useless if not, though that number is dwindling). The first is that any videos you shoot are compatible with iTunes, meaning that you can transfer them over to your iPod with simple drag-and-drop into iTunes (or using the Import option) and no converting necessary. It worked easily, and was nice to be able to watch one's own videos on one's own iPod

Also, YouTube Capture Mode, combined with the YouTube Uploader software on the included disk, make transferring your videos to YouTube extremely easy. Videos will be formatted in the camera for YouTube's recommendations of file size, running time, compression and file format. The software will launch itself when the camera is connected to your computer - just click on the file, enter the information you want, and select "upload."

Among other features include Face Recognition (ensuring that faces will be in focus), and Auto Shutter (which will determine when movement has stopped and snap the picture).

Perhaps the most fascinating feature, though, is Prerecord Video Mode. This records video into memory before you begin shooting. Once you do click "Start," the previous 5 seconds will be added to your footage. That means you won't miss the start of some specific event by being a few seconds too late. (Of course, if you screw up and are really late, 6 seconds or more, well...hey, that's on you, the camera can't do everything...)

There are a few oddities, though nothing major.

After taking a picture, a image quickly appears on the LED monitor showing what you just shot. It displayed the pictures I took just fine -- however, when checking images in Playback mode, it appeared that the tops of the picture were cut off. But when transferring these pictures to my hard disk, everything was fine, as in their original "quick" display.

Though the pictures just-taken looked proper in the LED monitor, after transferring them to the hard disk, they tended to look dark. This is easily-adjusted of course with all photography software. (In fact, when using the basic Microsoft Office Picture Manager program, simply clicking Auto Correct tended to set things right.

The Exilim line comes in a variety of colors, though my personal preference is to stick with chrome. I tested a red camera, and noticed some slight "chips" to the paint through normal usage sticking the camera in my pants pocket. These were admittedly tiny, but it was also only after just a couple weeks of use.

The world of digital photography is a growing solar system. There are so many options to choose from, even within a single manufacturer. The Casio Exilim EX-S10 retails at the time of writing at $230 - so it's not a budget camera (but of course it will be available for less). If you're just looking for straight, simple snapshots, other models in the $150-175 range might be preferable. Or if you want the ability for better manual control, or a high-quality lens, you might go higher. But what extra features the EX-S10 does offer are noteworthy, particularly its exceedingly-tiny size and the big, incredibly-clear 2.7" screen which eases the photo-taking process significantly. If you want the ability to take simple videos, the 1-button record and (especially) Prerecorded Video features are invaluable. Further, for those who have need of them, 10.1 megapixels, iTunes compatibility and YouTube Capture Mode are unique features to the EX-S10 of great merit. For what the EX-S10 offers, along with good-quality pictures, it's fairly priced. Your mileage will vary on what you want from a pocket digital camera, but the EX-S10 at least is a very strong benchmark on which to start your search.


PANDIGITAL PANTOUCH PHOTO FRAME

If you're going to take digital photos, eventually you've going to want to show them. The options are wide - whether printing them out, just displaying them in an online album, sending them around by email or in a digital photo frame. The latter perhaps offer the most options, so it's a good place to start.

While there are a mountain of digital frames popping up around the universe, one will suffice here. What's worth addressing about the Pandigital is that it adds to basic frame options by using a sort of touch-screen.

Pandigital may not be the most recognizable name, but it has long made well-regarded frames. The unit tested was an 8-inch frame with an 800x600 resolution. That's quite good, though not the highest-end resolution for the most demanding photophiles, but those units are more expensive. The image was very clear and crisp - just a bit light, but you can adjust things somewhat with a brightness switch.

There are three ways to operate the Pandigital, which provides flexibility. Normal buttons, a good remote control, and the touch screen.

To be fair, it's not a traditional touch screen, where you press images anywhere on a monitor. There is a matte that surrounds the viewing area here, and what you do is press the upper-right corner to bring up the Home screen and on-screen options. You then touch the area of the matte that corresponds to those options. It takes a little getting used to, but "little" means about 10-15 minutes, at most.

The options are wide-ranging - some traditional, some unique to the PanTouch. Setting up a slideshow of all photos or selected ones, playing music with your show, setting up a timer for when slideshows will run - or even selecting a particular date when an image will appear. You can chose if pictures will be optimized (basically shrunk, so that more can be installed on the internal memory) or run in the original format, if larger. And select how pictures will change on screen.

This unit comes with 512 MB of internal memory, meaning that at the optimized setting you can likely get a bit over 3,000 photos installed. If you want to use more, the device accepts several different formats (notably SD and CompactFlash), with a 6-in-1 memory card reader. You can therefore transfer files to the internal memory using any one of these cards, or directly connecting to your computer with the included USB cable.

The Pandigital PanTouch also lets you run music files and videos of several formats (.avi by default). You configure these off of the Home screen. You also set the clock here, and can display the time along with your photos - however, I found the clock graphic to be pretty thin and uninteresting. On the plus side, it's not very intrusive. On the negative, if you have decided to display a clock...it's because you want to see the time.

By the way, the built-in stereo speakers not only allow you to play music with your slideshows or standalone, but this means you can hear sound with your video, as well, something that would seem obvious, but not always available with frames. It's worth noting there is also an outlet to add external speakers.

As for operating the unit, it will be a little convoluted at the start, as would any device with a lot of options. But things are fairly intuitive, so it's mainly a case of trial-and-error. The buttons at the top give you good control, though a bit more limited than the other two ways. The remote control is very good and encompassing - and of course let's you adjust things away from the frame. But it requires (like all remotes) remembering where you put the thing. And the range isn't very long.

Oddly, the Setup options using the touch screen are slightly different than when hitting the Setup button on either the remote or unit. Not a big deal at all - just odd. Describing the touch screen will make it sound more confusing that it is. It's quite intuitive. The only real negative is having to repeatedly hit the back button a lot, hardly a challenge.

(There also an error in the Quick start guide, when giving directions how to set up a slideshow with selected photos. You can't use the touch screen alone, as it says, but must either use the remote, or the touch screen in conjunction with the remote or on-unit buttons.)

A few issues do crop up.

When you set the timer, for when to turn the unit on and off - that setting will disappear whenever you touch any key or button. The manual describes this as "set and forget," and apparently considers it a positive. It's not.

When you turn the unit off, there's no memory to keep whatever selection you've made of pictures for a screenshot. You have to re-select everything again, which could be bothersome if your slideshow is large. (The workaround, of course, is not to turn the unit off.)

Conversely, if you've made a large selection (or even a small one over several thousand photos), it would be nice to have an Unselect All option, rather than search for each choice individually.

Speaking of the stand, it isn't the sturdiest in the world, surprising for a unit that otherwise is rock solid.

While you can display vertical photos easily by rotating photos and turning the stand on end (and then swiveling the stand), this is only of value if you're showing one vertical photo at a time. It would be nice to have an option that lets you re-format any photo individually, allowing a vertical photo to fit in a horizontal frame.

The unit runs off of AC power, but an added battery option would help, in case you want to place your frame where there's no electrical outlet available.

These are all issues worth noting, but none are critical. Overall, the Pandigital PanTouch is an extremely good digital frame, solidly made and a very nice image, along with some good features. The touch ability adds a unique ability that could be of great interest to some. The PanTouch frame comes in three sizes, the two others being 10.2" and 7", with a few other differences between units than just size. (Resolution and internal memory also vary, for example.) The 8" version reviewed here retails for $170.


"The Writers Workbench" appears in full monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here to visit the WGA website