Digital cameras Companies making digital cameras seem anxious to repeat the mistakes of the folks selling personal computers. Where PC vendors trumpet...

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Digital cameras


Companies making digital cameras seem anxious to repeat the mistakes of the folks selling personal computers. Where PC vendors trumpet clock-speed measurements, camera manufacturers push megapixels, the millions of tiny dots that make up the resolution of the photo.


Years ago, when the 2-megapixel images created by mid-range models couldn’t always yield a good 5-by-7 print, it made sense to focus on this number. But times have changed. Even today’s cheapo models capture 3 megapixels of detail, and 4- and 5-megapixel resolutions — good enough for 8-by-10 prints — are commonplace.


The industry would now like to sell you more, but unless you want poster-size blowups or you crop your shots with a chain saw, those higher-resolution photos will not look any better on a screen or a wall. They’ll just take up more space in your camera and on your hard drive.


For somebody looking to take mostly candids and snapshots, 3 to 4 megapixels are fine. Those who spend more time composing shots and who might like big prints of the results will need 5 to 6 megapixels.


The other number cited in most camera ads is its zoom factor, or how close its software and lens can get you to a distant subject. Ignore the number for software, or digital zoom — it’s no different than cropping a photo to enlarge the subject. The optical zoom generated by the workings of a camera’s lens is what matters. A 3x optical zoom is routine; cameras with more than a 5x optical zoom won’t fit in the average pocket.


Then consider the type of memory card a camera uses. Of the four major formats — Compact Flash, Memory Stick, SD Card, xD-Picture Card — SD Card is the most popular. Compact Flash is second-best; although these cards are larger, they tend to hold the most data, making them widely used in high-end models.


The last data point to ponder is the hardest to find. It’s the “shutter lag” between the click of the button and the capture of the photo. Although this delay has been reduced greatly in most cameras, it can still bother people who are used to film cameras and unfamiliar with tricks to minimize it, such as focusing on a photo’s subject ahead of time.


You’ll have to look up this number at the camera manufacturers’ Web sites, assuming they list it at all. Kodak provides three different lag measurements, but Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Sony only report how many pictures per second their cameras take in continuous-shooting modes. (Reviews at camera-enthusiast Web sites — for instance, www.dcresource.com and www.imaging-resource.com — do report these figures.)


When you’ve narrowed the choice to a handful of models, two factors can break a tie. Cameras that take standard-sized AA or AAA rechargeable batteries will be cheaper to operate than those requiring proprietary batteries. And bigger displays for inspecting shots are also better, provided the camera also includes a traditional optical viewfinder.


Personal computers


Shopping for a computer would be easy, if it weren’t for that whole Windows versus Mac thing.


Fortunately, that may be a simpler choice than you think — and making that call first can greatly simplify the rest of your home-computer shopping.


Apple Computer is making a strong pitch these days. The price to switch can be little more than $500, the cost of the Mac mini. That and other Macs ship with an outstanding set of multimedia programs — iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD — and continue to be free of viruses, spyware, browser hijackings and many other Windows diseases.


Meanwhile, Windows XP, despite a stream of patches from Microsoft, remains a shaky structure that many users struggle to maintain. But XP’s replacement, Windows Vista, won’t arrive until next fall and possibly later.


The choice between these systems is often phrased as “why get a Mac instead of a PC?” But given Windows’ painful history of insecurity and dysfunctionality, it’s worth flipping that around: Why not use the safer, more reliable system?


“Because everybody uses Windows” is neither relevant nor true. There are other possible reasons, but you need to decide if they matter.


One is software: While you can find at least one Mac application in pretty much any category of software, the selection of Windows programs is dramatically superior in a few categories (most obviously, games).


The Windows market also offers a far wider variety of computers. Apple’s lineup skips categories you might like. For example, it doesn’t offer ultralight or big-but-cheap “desktop replacement” laptops, and its cheapest desktop runs about $100 to $200 more than other starter PCs.


Whether you shop for a Windows or a Mac machine, it’s hard to find one unfit for garden-variety home computing. Just avoid low-end PCs with just 256 megabytes of memory — 512 is more realistic — and cheap Windows laptops without Wi-Fi wireless networking. If the laptop will leave home with any regularity, you should make sure it doesn’t weigh more than 6 pounds.


Uses beyond basic Internet access, however, carry more demanding requirements. A large collection of digital music and photos will require 80 or more gigabytes of hard drive space; a DVD-recorder drive, preferably “dual-layer,” can help back up those files. (Hewlett-Packard’s “Lightscribe” technology, which lets a CD or DVD burner print a disc’s label, is a useful extra that other companies ought to look into.)


Digital photographers will appreciate machines with slots for cameras’ memory cards, although many printers also include these adapters.


Video editing needs still more disk space — figure on 160 gigabytes as a minimum — as well as a faster processor. (Little else on a home computer is likely to stress any chip.)


Anybody likely to accumulate such gadgets as MP3 players and handheld organizers will appreciate a computer with more USB 2.0 (and, to a lesser extent, FireWire) ports. Bluetooth wireless can also link some of these devices.


Game players require one other feature: a non-integrated graphics card with 256 megabytes of memory. (That alone rules out most affordable desktops and laptops; an Xbox or PlayStation can look awfully cheap next to a gaming PC.)


A possible upgrade to Windows Vista is the last thing to consider. This new system might need a full gigabyte of memory, plus an upgraded graphics card capable of displaying a slick new interface. Microsoft hasn’t released official requirements yet, but it suggests getting a card with 64 megabytes of memory and support for its DirectX 9 software.


Digital music players


IPod or not? Faced with that decision, people tend to flock to what’s most popular.


And there are good reasons to do so. Apple’s tiny iPod Shuffle, barely-larger iPod Nano and the full-sized, video-capable iPod combine utility, elegance and style as few electronic items ever have. The iPod also works with the best music-jukebox program available, Apple’s iTunes.


So why buy any other player?


The first reason is the most important feature of a digital music player: which kinds of music files it accepts in addition to MP3s, by far the most widely used type. (Only some older Sony models balk at that format.)


Beyond MP3s, Apple’s iPods support the AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) formats used by the iTunes program and music store, but not Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio, or WMA. Windows Media-compatible players by such firms as Creative and iRiver, however, can’t play Apple’s formats. Sony’s hardware accommodates Sony’s proprietary ATRAC format, but not Windows Media or AAC.


Although the big music-download stores carry about the same inventory, Windows Media-based sites such as Napster, Rhapsody and Yahoo! offer one thing iTunes doesn’t: the option to pay $10 to $15 a month to download unlimited songs. These downloads can’t be burned to audio CDs and expire when the subscription does — but for those who want to acquire a lot of music in a hurry, this rental option might work. If so, look for a player marked with a blue “Plays For Sure” logo that has a checkmark next to “Subscription.”


The other reason to buy a non-iPod player is to get things that Apple won’t offer — for instance, FM tuners and user-replaceable batteries. (Those inside the iPods are sealed inside their shiny cases; Apple’s mail-in replacement service costs $60.)


Last, since the Windows version of iTunes only runs on Windows 2000 and XP, users of older Microsoft systems who don’t want to pay for third-party iPod-management programs will have to stick to Windows Media-based players.


How to choose among the many different Windows Media models?


Most are compact devices that use flash memory to store from 64 megabytes to two gigabytes of music. If you go this route, pick up one with at least 256 megabytes of storage. One useful bonus feature to look for is the ability to store a computer’s address book and calendars, which may eliminate the need for a handheld organizer.


If you’d prefer to join the iPod-purchasing hordes, the next step is to choose between the iPod Shuffle, the iPod Nano and the iPod.


For most people, the iPod Nano makes sense, which comes in 2- and 4-gigabyte sizes ($199 and $249). The iPod, $299 for a 30-gigabyte model and $399 for a 60-gigabyte version, can also play videos bought at iTunes or converted from other sources. The iPod Shuffle starts at $99 for a 512-megabyte version. But with little storage and no screen, it’s best as somebody’s first player — especially if the recipient may subject it to some abuse — or as a secondary player used during exercise.