image: M1back
The backs of Casio's new Exilim EX-S1 camera, an amazingly thin portable digital camera.
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msnbc.com

Three new digital camera designs have little in common — other than that they were made to take pictures. But, each one of them, in their own way, pushes the barrier toward better snapshots for all — and more.

InsertArt(1591742)SAY THE NAME LEICA and professional photographers smile. Amateur photographers drool. And for good reason: Leica makes great cameras. This summer, Leica released two new cameras: the M7, a film camera that continues the evolution of high-quality rangefinders; and the Digilux 1, a totally reworked digital offering.

As I wrote in my coverage of PC Expo at TechXNY, the Digilux 1 is striking in appearance, the antithesis of the other two cameras in this column. At 5” by 2.25” by 5.68”, this isn’t a camera to fit in your pocket. But even though it weighs one pound, the Digilux 1 actually feels a lot lighter than it looks. As for looks, think of cameras from 50 years ago or more. Many people looked strangely at the camera when I was using it, one person even called it ugly. Then they zeroed in on the red Leica emblem and smiled, recognizing they were in the presence of greatness.

The camera itself is made for Leica by Panasonic. We’re talking about 4-megapixels, with resolutions up to 2,240 by 1,680 pixels, a 2.5-inch TFT LCD, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and AC adapter, aperture and shutter-speed priority, automatic to manual (and everything in between) exposure control, shutter speeds from 8 to 1/1,000th sec., a terrific automatic flash, a 64MB SD (Secure Digital) memory card and much, much more.

image: Digilux
Leica's Digilux 1 is old-fashioned only in its looks.
But the big draw here is the glass. The lens on the Digilux 1 is pure Leica. It’s a Vario-Summicron 7-21mm, f2-2.5 ASPH lens, equivalent to a 33-100 zoom lens on a 35mm camera. Add to that a 2x digital zoom capability and you have an interesting package. You can also use the Digilux 1 in the ‘continuous shoot’ mode: 3.8 images per second maximum.

The Leica oozes with quality. From the removable sun shade for the LCD screen to the little string for the lens cap, everything about the Digilux 1 is made for real photographers. When in use, the Leica was a dream. Even the waiting time between pictures is quick. Every control seemed to be in the right place and the pictures that I took were the best I’ve ever taken with a digital. Of course, when the camera wasn’t in use, I wished for something a little smaller and less bulky to hang around my neck.

At a suggested retail price of $899 I can’t call the Digilux 1 a bargain, but I can call it a superior piece of digital equipment.

LOOK MA, NO BUTTONS!I’ve also been playing with a Toshiba PDR-T10 camera for the past few weeks. At first glance, it looks a little like many other digital cameras on the market. It’s a little rectangle of a box, 3.36” by 2.83” by 1.1”, weighs 4.2 ounces, and comes with 2.0 megapixels, 4x digital zoom, 1.6 inch TFT LCD monitor, automatic and manual focusing, an auto flash with red-eye reduction, interchangeable faceplates and no buttons.

image: T10
Toshiba's PDR-T10 is the first digital camera to remove nearly all of the buttons and move all the functions to a touch-screen LCD.
Did I say no buttons? Actually, there is a shutter button to take the picture. But that’s it. All other settings are made via the touch-screen LCD monitor. You can argue the point, but in my testing I found that as with most snapshot cameras once you make your settings you tend not to change them for every shot. That makes the T10 easy to set up and easy to use.

The T10 comes with an 8 MB SD memory card and is capable of resolutions up to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels. It connects (like all the cameras mentioned in this column) to your computer through a USB cable. The camera can run on two AA batteries, but the instruction book warns that a pair of alkaline batteries will last nowhere as long as AA lithium or nickel-metal hydride cells or a CR-V3 battery. The latter should provide you with up to 200 shots. An AC adapter is optional.

I found the Toshiba camera to be a great companion on trips, its size makes it easy to take along (more on that subject in a minute). The PDR-T10 has a retail price of $299 and sells for $325 on Toshiba’s Web site with a 16MB memory card, a face-plate selection kit and a Case Logic photo cover CD wallet.

LITTLE CAMERA NO TOYLast but not least, Casio’s Exilim. I can’t begin to tell you just how incredible this little camera is, emphasis on little. Go into your wallet. Take out 3 credit cards. Stack them one on top of the other. Now you know what you’re dealing with when I write about the Exilim.

Officially, the metal-clad EX-S1 is 3.3” by 2.2” by 0.4” in size and a mere 3.4 ounces. A second Exilim camera, the EX-M1, is the S1 with a MP3 player/voice recorder built-in and it’s only one silly, little millimeter (0.04 in.) thicker. It also permits short films with sound. I tested the S1 still camera-only device.

Amazingly, despite its size this is a real digital camera. It is not a toy. The Exilim is officially a 1.24 megapixel device, but it’s capable of snapshots of up to 2.0 megapixels (1,600 by 1,200 pixels) with a little bit of digital manipulation (called Pixel Generation). There’s a movie mode that allows you to records moving images up to 30 seconds in length.

The S1 comes with 12 MB of memory built-in (more than those 8 MB cards in some digital cameras) and the ability to slide-in optional SD memory cards in the slide slot. There’s also a removable, rechargeable lithium-ion battery module that slides in the other side. Computer synchronization is via a cute little matching USB docking cradle, which also handles battery recharging with the supplied AC adapter. There’s even a wrist strap to complete the package.

The Exilim is amazingly fast. It takes less than one second for the camera to be ready to shoot after you switch it on. Waiting time between shots is almost non-existent. What you do give up with the Exilim is an optical zoom for the lens. It has a fixed focal-length of 5.6 mm, equivalent to 37 mm for a 35 mm film camera, and the zoom is 4x digital-only. All in all, pretty good for what it was designed to be: an extremely portable snapshot camera.

image: S1
The S1's front. The M1 comes with a wired remote control for audio control.
What’s so remarkable about the Exilim, and separates it from other credit-card sized devices, is that Casio has figured out a way to include a color LCD on the back, just like bigger digital cameras. Casio says they’ve figured out a way to use a new digital interface for LCD screens, eliminating the need for a converter and thereby reducing the size of the circuit board. They’ve done their homework on all the other circuits too; it adds up to a 70 percent decrease in total circuit board area, a reduction in power consumption by nearly one-third-plus less noise.

The most amazing thing about the Exilim is the reaction I got from people when I was using the camera. To a person, everyone wanted to know what it was. “My gawd! (I am based in New York.) What is that? A camera? For real? Where can I get one?” It was as if it had a big blinking sign on it with the words “LOOK AT ME”. It even caused a stir in a neighborhood bar in Queens when I took it out of my pocket to take pictures at my friend Mark’s birthday dinner.

Casio is asking $299 for the S1 and $349 for the M1. The snapshots I’ve taken with it are great. I intend to buy the test unit for myself.

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