STATE OF THE ART; Card-Size Cameras That (Mostly) Measure Up
 
WHEN normal people see the movie ''Robocop,'' they immerse themselves in metaphysical contemplation: ''Oh, how can a man retain his soul when half of him is a machine?'' Gadget freaks like me, on the other hand, snuggle happily into our seats. ''So cool! This guy has all his personal electronics built right in!''

Robocop, for example, never had to agonize about which kind of digital camera to buy: a large, heavy, delicate one that offers all the bells and whistles of a 35-millimeter film camera, or a tiny, rugged, shirt-pocket model that has fewer features but is so convenient that you're more likely to have it on hand when a prize-winning scene presents itself.

Some of these minis are so small, your Visa card can cover them completely (visually, if not financially). Thanks to their built-in lens covers and rugged bodies -- Canon's and Kyocera's are chic-looking stainless steel -- the only carrying case you need is your pocket.

Like point-and-shoot film cameras, these Munchkin models don't offer as many manual controls as you find on fancier cameras. Still, you'd be surprised at how many features you do get, including a built-in flash, a retractable zoom lens and spot metering (which lets you pinpoint one part of the scene as the basis for the camera's shutter-speed and aperture calculations). Each camera can capture a few seconds' worth of poor-quality video with sound. And an included cable lets you show your photos on a television set.

On the other hand, you do make some sacrifices in the name of tininess. Battery life is the biggie; there's not enough room inside minicameras for long-life battery packs. Most go dead after only an hour of shooting.

The screen is another compromise: it's only 1.5 inches (measured diagonally). Using back-panel buttons, you can zoom in on a photo you've taken and even scroll the magnified image. Even so, reviewing your work on a screen this small is like looking at the Grand Canyon through a keyhole.

The smallest zoom digicam in the world, says Kyocera, is its $600 Finecam S3. With this baby, measuring 3.4 by 2.2 by 1.2 inches, your biggest worry isn't choosing the wrong f-stop; it's inhaling the camera by accident.

Surprisingly, the minuscule Finecam takes big 3.3-megapixel photos (2,048 by 1,536 pixels), more than enough resolution for 8-by-10 printouts. (If 2,048 multiplied by 1,536 doesn't seem to equal 3.3 million, there's nothing wrong with your calculator; all digital cameras lose some pixels around the edges.) And the controls are well designed, requiring only a single lever-push to switch between recording and playback modes.

The photos are clear, but the colors, alas, are slightly undersaturated -- nothing you can't fix in Photoshop, but still a disappointment.

So is the shutter lag. On any digital camera, holding down the shutter button halfway makes the camera auto-focus and compute the exposure; pressing down all the way takes the shot. But if you just mash the shutter button and hold it, the camera will do its computations as quickly as possible, then take the picture. Unfortunately, on the Finecam, ''as quickly as possible'' means almost two seconds. Don't count on this camera to capture pet tricks, soccer goals or belly flops. (The lag all but disappears if you use manual focus and exposure.)

The Finecam's biggest problem, though, is its battery, which dies after well under an hour of shooting. You -- and Kyocera -- can do better.

Fortunately, you don't have to sacrifice shininess and tininess to get better photos. Canon's new PowerShot S110 Digital Elph ($600) looks almost identical to the Finecam; it's just a fraction of an inch taller and thinner (3.5 by 2.3 by 1.0). It takes pictures of fabulous detail and color. Note, however, that these photos have the lowest resolution of the cameras reviewed here -- 2.1 megapixels (1,600 by 1,200 pixels). That's plenty for 5-by-7-inch prints, e-mailed photos and eBay-item snapshots, but it's hardly state of the art.

From a design standpoint, this camera is mostly a delight. The cool blue auto-focus assistance lamp ensures perfect focus even in dim light. A compact battery recharger plugs into the wall so you can keep using your camera (if you buy a second battery) in the meantime. Shutter lag is about a second. And a special L.C.D. mode helps you align as many as 26 sections of a panorama, edge to edge, which the included Mac or PC software later stitches together.

Before sending Canon home with this good report card, however, some scolding is in order: the included 8-megabyte Compact Flash memory card is a joke, filling up after only seven photos. (A 64-megabyte card costs about $40, which is about half the price of the tiny Secure Digital cards used by the Kyocera camera.) An AC adapter is a separate purchase. There's no built-in speaker, either, so without a TV, you can't experience the full thrill of your 30-second movies. And unlike the other minicams, the Elph requires you to install software on your Mac or PC before you can transfer the photos.

At 4.4 by 2.1 by 1.4 inches, Sony's new Cybershot P5 would stick out from behind a credit card like an elephant behind a bus stop. But it's much thinner than its popular predecessor, the P1, still easily pocketable and, because it's wider and less cubic than its rivals, more comfortable in the hand. The 3.2-megapixel photos (2,048 by 1,536 pixels) look terrific. (If you can live with 2.8 megapixels, the P3 model saves you $100.)

This plastic-body $600 camera offers a much better pixels-per-dollar value than the stainless-steel models. It also has a better zoom (3X instead of 2X) and a ''battery time remaining'' readout that's worth its weight in silicon. Unfortunately, shutter lag is about 1.5 seconds. Worse, the provided 8-megabyte Memory Stick fills up after only five photos. Budget at least $60 for a 64-megabyte extra Memory Stick.

Note, too, that this model shares one quirk of modern Cybershot models: as you call up each picture for review, an ugly, blurry version appears instantaneously; a crisp, high-resolution version takes two more seconds to appear. Sony must believe that this scheme is preferable to the half-second of darkness that appears between photos when you scroll through them on other cameras.

Most minicams are glorified point-and-shoot models, designed primarily for amateur shutterbugs. But not the new Olympus D40, which sneaks under the wire into this category at 3.4 by 2.7 by 1.7 inches.

The price is $800, but the D40 mops the floor with its rivals in almost every department, starting with resolution: 4 megapixels (2,272 by 1,704 pixels). That's enough to make 11-by-14-inch prints, or smaller prints created from shots you've cropped. A 10-position dial offers useful shooting modes for both experienced photographers (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority) and amateurs (Night Scene and Portrait), and the included remote control is handy.

In everyday operation, little things count. Simply opening the D40's sliding lens cover turns on the camera and extends the 2.8X zoom lens. Deleting an unwanted shot -- one of the primary advantages of digital cameras -- requires only three logical button presses. That's a better speed-to-safety balance than on the Sony (five button presses to delete a photo), Canon (six) or Kyocera (six).

The D40 can accept just about anything with a charge: two AA premium alkalines, one CV3 (a Duracell lithium battery just for cameras), or rechargeables. The point, of course, is that you'll never be stranded on the road with a dead battery pack; a quick drugstore stop is all you need.

The D40's chunky, silvery plastic body isn't nearly as cool-looking as stainless steel. And the provided 16-megabyte SmartMedia card holds only eight photos. But even though it's only four-tenths of an inch taller than its rivals, the Olympus D40 towers over them in resolution and flexibility. It's the one Robocop would surely ask to have implanted at his next hardware upgrade.


 
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