Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Kodak's EasyShare V603


The good: Sleek attractive design; decent selection of scene modes; speedy burst mode.

The bad: Few manual controls; no manual white balance; no image stabilization; no dock.

The bottom line: Snapshooters looking for a small, stylish camera without any fancy controls will likely be pleased with Kodak's EasyShare V603.

Essentially a 6-megapixel version of the EasyShare V550, Kodak's EasyShare V603 shares the same black-and-silver styling; the same 3X optical, 36mm-to-108mm, f/2.8-to-f/4.8 zoom lens; and the same 2.5-inch LCD as its sibling. Fans of tiny tunnel-vision viewfinders will note that the V603 has no such framing device, so you'll have to use the LCD to line up your shots, just like the rest of the digital snapshooting world. It also lacks manual exposure controls; 22 scene presets help you tackle a variety of conditions, while exposure compensation lets you tweak the camera's automatic choices.

Unlike a lot of EasyShare cameras, the V603 doesn't come with a dock, though you can buy one separately. To connect the camera to your computer, it comes with a USB cable and an ImageLink-to-USB converter, so the ImageLink dock connector is still the camera's interface with your PC. The 600mAh lithium-ion battery charges inside the camera, which plugs directly into the wall using a small plug that resembles a cell phone's travel charger.

Atop the V603, you'll find no fewer than six buttons recessed into the V-shape silver band that wraps around the camera's middle. The buttons include the shutter, flash, on/off, auto/scene mode, and video mode, as well as the Favorites mode, which lets you access scaled-down versions of your favorite photos that have been loaded into the camera's 32MB of built-in flash memory. Other than the wide shutter button, the rest are very difficult to tell apart by touch. Even the power button, which has tiny concentric circular ridges etched into it, was difficult to discern without looking.

One-handed shooting seems possible with the V603, given the ample room below the zoom rocker on the right side of the camera back, but since the delete, menu, review, and share buttons line up to the left of the LCD screen on the camera back, you'll have to use two hands to get into the menu. Again, these buttons are all the same shape and size, making them difficult to distinguish without looking. As a rule, two-handed shooting is always a steadier option, so maybe this will force all you one-handers to do the right thing.

Another example of Kodak pushing the design envelope is the SD card slot on the right side of the V603. Instead of a door, the slot is covered by what resembles two pieces of a white tissuelike material that keep dust and other contaminates out and through which an SD card can easily pass. The location is unfortunate, as it seems likely that the card will be accidentally ejected at some point, though it remained locked in the camera while we shot. It's nice to note that even if the card releases, the slot still holds it so that it won't just fall to the floor. We held the camera upside down with the card half-ejected and were unable to shake it loose. That's a plus, but if you accidentally eject the card while an image is being recorded, you'll probably lose your image and be quite unhappy.

Menus were intuitive and well labeled, and the scene mode menu even includes suggestions of when and why to use each mode. Metering options include multipattern, center weighted, and center spot, and you can choose between multizone or center-zone autofocus. White-balance choices include auto, daylight, tungsten, fluorescent, and open shade for shooting in the shade outdoors. ISO ranges from ISO 80 up to ISO 400, or you can boost it to ISO 800, though this is only available when shooting in the low-res 1.8-megapixel mode.

Video mode lets you capture MPEG-4 clips at as much as 640x480 resolution and 30fps with mono sound. The length of the videos is limited only by the size of your memory card. Unlike with some still cameras, you can zoom the lens while recording video with the V603, though an almost inaudible motor noise can be heard in the background when you do. There's also digital image stabilization which helped--just a little--to keep our video steadier than it could have been. After you capture video, the V603 lets you pull still images from the clip, though the resolution remains the same as in video mode--that is, 640x480 or smaller--so it's not quite print quality. It's not bad for e-mail, though.

Once it starts up, the Kodak EasyShare V603 is fast. It took a lengthy 4.5 seconds to power up and capture its first image, but after that, it required just 1.2 seconds between shots without flash and 1.7 seconds with flash enabled. Shutter lag was a speedy 0.25 second in high-contrast situations and 0.3 second under low-contrast lighting. Burst mode captured four 6.1-megapixel frames (the maximum) in 1.5 seconds for an average of 2.7fps.

The versatile LCD screen handled various lighting situations well, remaining visible in bright light and gaining up in low light so that you can frame your shot. In low light, colors washed out to a near-sepia tone, though this affected only the preview. Many cameras in this class simply leave you in the dark, so this is still preferable.

The built-in flash is rated by Kodak to provide even coverage out to 8.5 feet at telephoto or 5.9 feet at its widest angle, with ISO set to auto. Based on our field-test images, this seems accurate, though it's a little weak compared to that of a lot of cameras, which provide flash coverage out to 10 or 11 feet at telephoto with auto ISO.

Images from the Kodak EasyShare V603 were generally pleasing, with only a few problems under certain circumstances. For example, while purple fringing was kept under control in most circumstances, it reared its head in very high-contrast situations, such as harshly backlit subjects, and it was very noticeable when it did show up. Under more normal conditions, colors were plenty vivid and convincingly natural. Exposures were mostly accurate, though the camera tends to either blow out highlights or sacrifice some detail in the shadows. Automatic white balance yielded a slightly warm image with the tungsten lights in our test lab, while the Tungsten white-balance setting was a touch too cool.

At lower ISOs, noise was generally kept under control, though there are minor traces--even at ISO 80--and little off-color speckles were present at ISO 100. At ISO 200, noise became noticeable, and by ISO 400, it was obvious, though the images were definitely usable. In fact, at ISO 400, the image noise mostly resembled film grain, though there was mottling in darker colors.

All told, Kodak's EasyShare V603 is a solid snapshooter at a decent price that should please anyone who just wants to catch quick photos of family and friends without any hassles. It's not the camera for persnickety shooters who want lots of controls, but casual shooters will enjoy its simplicity.

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