When I got my hands on the HP Photosmart M417, I was anxious to try out some of HP's "technologies" that they've included on this camera. The camera features Adaptive Lighting technology from HP. The Adaptive Lighting feature, when enabled, captures two versions of an image, one exposed for the highlighted areas and one exposed to bring out details in the shadows. The camera then "merges" the two images together to achieve high detail in lowlights and keep the highlights from being overexposed. The other trick included on this camera is an in-camera red eye fix. Despite these features, the camera, while easy to use, was average when it came down to image quality.
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In the Box
In the box, you'll find the camera, two AA batteries, USB cable, warranty, manual, and software.
The M417 is a 5.2 megapixel camera with a 3x optical zoom and 7x digital zoom. The camera does have an optical viewfinder along with its 1.8 inch LCD. There is a brightness adjustment for the LCD. The image in the LCD is not very impressive, sluggish and grainy. The worst part about this is that it's hard to tell if you've captured a decent image until you transfer it to your computer.
The lens has a focal length of 36 -- 108 mm (35 mm equivalent). In normal shooting mode, the range starts at 20 inches and goes to infinity. In Macro mode, you can shoot at subjects between 4 inches to 32 inches away.
The M417 has several shooting modes: Auto, Macro, Fast Shot, Action, Portrait, Landscape, and Beach & Snow. For fun effects you can try play with the Color settings and toggle between Full Color, Sepia and Black & White. Images can be captured at 5 MP Best, 5 MP, 3 MP, 1MP, and VGA.
When you start talking about exposure control, HP does things a bit differently than a lot of other manufacturers. On Auto mode, you have the ability to modify the ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation, and white balance. Most other cameras require you to be in a manual mode to exercise control over these attributes. The ISO sensitivity can be adjusted while in Auto and Macro modes -- you can choose Auto, 100, 200, or 400. Exposure compensation (EV compensation) can be set in any mode from -2 to +2 at 1/2 stop increments. The white balance can also be set in any mode, choose from Auto, Sunlight, Shade, Tungsten, and Fluorescent.
The built-in flash has a range up to 12.5 feet when taking wide angle shots and 7.2 feet at full telephoto. The flash modes are Auto, Red-Eye Reducing, On, Off, and Night (longer exposure with flash). The recycle times for the flash between shots was longer than most recent cameras -- I had to wait at least 3-4 seconds for the flash to charge.
There are a couple "drive" options. You can shoot in Normal, Self Timer (10 sec), Self-Timer 2 shots (10 second countdown, then 2 shots), and Burst mode (lets you take multiple shots in quick succession).
The images and movies that you shoot with the M417 are stored on a SD/MMC card and the camera has 16MB of internal memory.
The lengths of movies are limited only by storage capacity. They can be captured at a resolution of 288 x 216 pixels (30 frames per second). Video quality was not that impressive.
The M417 uses two AA batteries for power. I wasn't able to fully run down a set of high-capacity (2400 mAh) rechargeable NiMH batteries after at least 100 shots, mostly with flash and the LCD on and a lot of menu tinkering.
The M417 packs some pretty decent software features as well. The Adaptive Lighting feature is very effective. I wasn't as impressed with the in-camera red eye fixing. If you start the process on an image, it takes a few seconds for the camera to find any red eyes and outline them. If you choose to fix, it just replaces the red regions with black dots.
Another nice software feature is that HP includes some in-camera help and tips. When changing modes (shooting modes, or flash modes), descriptive text is displayed.
For full specifications, click here.
Form & Design
The Photosmart M417 has a plastic body, thus keeping its weight down. Despite being plastic, the camera is fairly solid and definitely does not feel like a toy. It's a little too large to slide comfortably into a pocket, but you could get away with it, especially if you're wearing baggy pants. If you do decide to slip it in your pocket, there is a built-in lens cover that protects the lens while the camera is off. With the lens taken care of, all you have to worry about is making sure you don't crack the LCD.
The slight indentation on the front panel is just about perfect for holding the camera (with your right hand). The zoom control is at the edge of a round indentation in which you can rest your thumb.
On the back of the camera, below the zoom control, is the directional pad to activate and navigate through the camera menus. Above the LCD is a slider power switch and two buttons to switch between capture and playback modes. At the top left is the viewfinder and status LEDs. Below the viewfinder is a button to change Flash modes, a button to change shooting modes, a button to change the "drive" mode, and a button to access the HP Instant Share Menu.
On top of the camera is an oval shutter button and a smaller round button that is used to start and stop capturing video clips.
The right side of the camera has an access door to get to the SD card and battery compartment.
The left side of the camera has a rubber flap protecting the USB jack and a jack for DC power.
On the bottom of the camera, there is a tripod mount and the slot to rest the M417 in its optional dock.
Image quality with the M417 was only average. Outdoor shots (as with most digital cameras) came out fine, but not as sharp as they could be (the mid-summer Ohio humidity didn't help the clarity either). Indoors, the camera had some trouble with fluorescent lighting at times. Some of these trouble images has a yellow cast to them.
The noise level at ISO 400 was pretty high and acceptable at ISO 200 (and just fine at ISO 100).
The Macro was fair, but I think it would benefit from a multi-area auto-focus system.
Ease of Use
The camera is very easy to use. Ergonomically, the camera is comfortable and controls are easy to access. Even having the viewfinder on the top left corner of the camera helps since your nose won't touch the LCD when looking through it with your right eye.
The user interface is also very easy to use. You can use the Menu button in the middle of the round directional pad and the arrows to navigate, but you can also reach some pages of the menu from other buttons. For instance, by pressing the lowest button on the left side, you "shortcut" to the HP Instant Share menu, which you can also reach by using the Menu button and 2 clicks to the right with the directional pad.
It's very easy to change shooting modes, shot settings and flash settings, all handled by the camera software. There are no dials to switch between modes.
I'm a little up in the air about whether I like the additional button (next to the shutter button) to take video clips. It's nice that it can be done so quickly, but I worry about whether I would hit accidentally it when meaning to take a still shot.
One gripe that I had with the user interface is that it would often get sluggish. Not a major problem, but when you're trying to find the setting that you need for a rapidly closing window on a perfect shot, it could be frustrating.
The HP Photosmart M417 is a user-friendly, entry level digital camera. It's lightweight and easy to use, but image quality is average and the feature set doesn't really set it apart from others in its class. For just a bit more money, consider the Nikon Coolpix 5900. Or, if you want a bit more zoom, consider the Kodak EasyShare Z700.
Pros: Nice graphical user interface, built-in help and tips, comfortable to hold, easy to use
Cons: Some white balance difficulties, average image quality, too much competition in its price range
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