Mark Harris

Fuji M603 Zoom The latest crop of digital cameras are muscling in on camcorders, with VGA quality movie recording, built-in mics and even editing functionality. Mark Harris tests six and discovers that convergence isn't a dirty word

Fujifilm FinePix A202
Price: 140
Key features: 2.0 megapixel CCD, 320x240 pixels movie mode, 36mm equivalent fixed focus lens, 16Mb xD-Picture Card, 1.5-inch LCD
While memory cards are nowhere near as bulky as tape or film, they're already starting to limit how small digicams can get. Fujifilm has developed the postage stamp-sized xD-Picture Card to stall the issue for another few years, by which time you'll need tweezers to find the zoom lever. The A202 is one of the first models to benefit from the new technology, arriving with a generous 16Mb xD card. Based around a 2.0MP sensor, the A202 feels light (190g) and cheap, an impression strengthened by the small, bright LCD and plasticky controls. It's utterly straightforward to use and its fixed focus lens means absolutely no shutter delay - often a problem on more expensive models. The two AA cells take a few moments to power up the flash but exposure is good and you can apply +/-1.5EV compensation or white balance presets. In movie mode, you can choose between 340x240 or 160x120 resolutions, both captured at a rather flickery 10fps. Exposure varies while shooting but clips are juddery and noisy, with poor colour reproduction. The A202 can also be used as a webcam, with PictureHello conferencing software included, making it a flexible intro to digital imaging - but no strong performer.

Canon PowerShot A200
Price: 150
Key features: 2.0 megapixel CCD, 320x240 pixels movie mode, 39mm equivalent autofocus lens, 8Mb CompactFlash card, 1.5-inch LCD
With only a 2MP CCD and stocky, functional styling, the A200 is firmly placed as entry-level camera. The fixed focal length lens will feel restrictive to anyone used to working with a zoom - and the 4x digital zoom is no substitute. But the PowerShot has plenty of manual photographic controls, including exposure compensation and white balance presets. The movie mode has two resolution settings - 320x240 or 160x120 pixels, each running at a very respectable 20fps. The A200 records the files as Motion JPEG files, and can manage up to about 20 seconds of footage on individual clips. The 8Mb card supplied can store a total of about 40 seconds, depending on the complexity of the scene. The A200's movie capabilities are limited - as with many budget models, the exposure, focus and white balance are fixed to the settings used for the first frame of the clip and you can't use any digital effects or manual settings, including the zoom. The A200 also sports a 2fps continuous shooting mode and stitch assist for creating panoramas. While the PowerShot will never replace your camcorder, its clips are OK for e-mail and web use, delivering movies that fuzzy and packed with colour noise, though very smooth.

Ricoh Caplio RR30
Price: 275
Key features:3.2 megapixel CCD, 320x240 pixels movie mode, 3x optical zoom, 8Mb internal and Secure Digital slot, 1.6-inch LCD
The Caplio represents a real step up from the entry-level 2MP cameras. As well as its larger 3.2MP CCD, it offers a 3x zoom lens, a slightly larger LCD and plenty of sophisticated camera features, including manual focus, auto-bracketing and time exposure. In fact, its control over sharpness and sensitivity levels and manual white balance are normally only found on more expensive models. The RR30 stores images on 8Mb of fast internal memory, although there's also a slot for a Secure Digital or MultiMedia card. Although it claims to have the fastest shutter response in its class, the slow flash recharge from its two AA cells will erode any time savings in the dark. As movie modes go, the Caplio offers little more than the cheaper cameras - 320x240 resolution Motion JPEGs with no zoom allowed, although it does vary exposure through the clip. Clips are pretty dire, with poor colour reproduction, jerky (15fps) motion and little detail. Maximum recording time is 30 seconds at 320x240 and two minutes at 160x120 pixels. It does have some good continuous shooting modes, though, grabbing 16 frames over two seconds with a single press of the shutter. The Caplio is a good digicam, and well worth the extra that separates it from budget models, although its movie skills leave a lot to be desired.

Canon Digital Ixus V3
Price: 350
Key features: 3.2 megapixel CCD, 640x480 movie mode with sound, 2x optical zoom, 16Mb CompactFlash card, movie editing
Looking at the diminutive Ixus (just 87x57x27mm and 180g), it's hard to believe that it's a 3.2MP zoom digicam rather than a frothy APS snapper. The matt metal casing conceals a host of high-end features, including a lithium ion rechargeable battery, good still photography features and VGA-quality movies with (monaural) sound. With logical menus and controls, the V3 is exceptionally easy to use, although the lens is a little small for a 3.2MP model. There's a wide range of photographic functions, including spot metering, long shutter speeds and even a neat orientation sensor that auto-rotates your portraits shots to replay properly. A 2fps continuous mode is available, though the LCD shuts off between frames. While the movie mode offers resolutions up to 640x480, it's only at 15fps and all exposure, focus, white balance and zoom settings are fixed from the first frame. High res clips can last a maximum of 30 seconds before writing to the card. Despite their jerkiness and the weak sound from the tiny built-in mic, movies are very sharp, with excellent colour fidelity. In playback, you can cut unwanted portions of the movie clips, but only from the start or end. Overall, the Ixus V3 is an impressively small, stylish and competent camera.

Ricoh RDC-i500
Price: 400
Key features: 3.2 megapixel CCD, 320x240 pixels movie mode with sound, 3x optical zoom, 8Mb internal memory & CF slot, e-mail capability, 2-inch LCD
If its four manuals don't convince you that the i500 is a serious bit of kit, its 300g+ weight and plethora of buttons, dials and slots will drum the message home. This is billed not as a camera but as an 'image capturing device', capable of processing and networking images on the move. You hold the i500 as you would a pair of binoculars, with or without folding up the large LCD - a top-mounted b&w LCD shows basic info. Photo features are as comprehensive as any on test, with manual focusing and a split-screen mode in addition to the usual exposure and white balance options. Although the Ricoh records monaural sound, its movie mode is very poor - limited to a frustrating 320x240 resolution and with all settings (including focus and zoom) set by the first frame. We couldn't even get its .AVI files to play on Windows Media Player. But the i500 comes into own after shooting, with extensive image management capabilities and - if you buy a Compact Flash communications card - the ability to dial up your ISP directly. It can compress and e-mail your pictures or movie clips, or even upload them directly to a website. The i500 is an interesting development, but is aimed more at the businessman than the creative consumer.

Fujifilm FinePix M603 Zoom
Price: 600
Key features: 3.1 megapixel CCD, 640x480 movie mode with sound, 2x optical zoom, 512Mb Microdrive, 2.5-inch LCD, movie editing
For a digicam to usurp your camcorder, it needs enough memory to capture not just dozens but thousands of high quality images. Standard cards just don't have the capacity, so Fujifilm bundles the M603 with a 512Mb IBM Microdrive, plus a 16Mb xD card for stills. The 210g M603 has the upright styling of a camcorder, although its features will be familiar to any digital photographer. The zoom and shutter controls are side-mounted, freeing up the back panel for a superb 2.5-inch LCD, speaker and navigation buttons. The FinePix has only the essential photographic functions - exposure compensation, white balance and sensitivity adjustment but no manual exposure or focus. It's stronger with moving images, with three continuous modes and a preview mode that combines a five-second clip with a high quality still. Movie quality is excellent, with little noise, vibrant colours, superb detail and acceptable sound. The Microdrive allows over 7 minutes of 640x480 footage at 30fps (or jerky 15fps with monaural sound), with focus, white balance and exposure adjusting automatically as you shoot. The M603 even has built-in edit features, letting you crop out segments or extract single frames, making it a true multimedia workstation. Although it's not designed to appeal to serious photographers, the rest of us will love the Fujifilm's sheer flexibility and power.

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