The HP Photosmart R927 is a compact, 8 megapixel camera that manages to combine impressive specs--3" display, 3x optical zoom, and 8x digital zoom--with an easy to use interface and solid design.
Design & Construction
The exterior casing is built of stainless steel, with the majority of the rear taken up by the three inch LCD. It's so large, in fact, that it precludes having an optical viewfinder. Not surprising, since the entire camera interface relies on the main LCD, but it can make it difficult in direct sunlight, where the LCD is washed out, to tell what you're aiming at. The main controls are a 5-way directional pad and a 2-way rocker button. These take on different functions according to the various parts of the interface, but the main uses are to choose between shooting modes and to zoom in and out.
When the camera is off, the lens assembly automatically retracts itself into the body of the camera, maintaining its slim profile. It also has an automated lens cover to prevent scratching and dirt on the lens. It also retracts soon after you put the camera into playback mode, so you can hand around your latest photo without fear of someone getting fingerprints on the lens.
Standard equipment for the R927 is a basic docking station: drop the camera into it, and you can both offload photos to a PC, and charge the internal Lithium Ion battery. It doesn't offer the option to charge a spare battery--that requires an additional charger, sold seperately. That costs $70, and you also need to buy the additional battery, which is $50. The dock also doesn't let you output your pics to a TV--that requires a more advanced dock which retails seperately, another $70. One good piece of advice about this camera: either buy it knowing that you'll have to pay through the nostrils for add-ons, or buy it planning not to need any add-ons.
Speaking of the battery, the battery compartment on the underside of the camera is where the R927 stashes its SD memory card slot. Unfortunately, whenever you open the little door, the battery has a tendancy to pop off of its very poorly designed latch. This can be somewhat trying if you prefer to transfer photos directly from the memory card, as I do. The battery can take several attempts to be reseated, and the next time you open the compartment it's as likely as not to pop out again. After awhile, the battery catch started to chew up the rubbery coating on the underside of the battery.
HP has done a superb job with the interface. It's simple enough that pretty much anybody can pick up the camera and start shooting, while providing enough advanced features that a hobbyist or semi-pro won't feel like they're sitting at the kids table. There have been a number of times that I've wished my existing camera had just a little more adjustability, say for selecting a specific white balance, or manually focusing, or whatever. This camera delivers that sort of option, then goes back to being almost idiot proof. It's the hallmark of a well-built technology product, to be both simple and powerful.
Not that you have to have a working knowledge of focal lengths in order to take advantage of the advanced features. The camera comes with a wide variety of preset modes for various types of pictures, everthing from long-exposure night photography to reproducing printed text. Plus, of course, an array of options for portraits, landscapes, and panoramic shots which entail stitching several ordinary size photos together. For those in need of serious help, it even includes a built-in advice program which tells you what might be wrong with a picture you just took, and what you can do to correct it while it's still on the camera. If you told people ten years ago that one day you'd get photography advice from a camera which needed no film, you'd probably have ended up taking some high-end anti-psychotic medications.
One of the first things to get used to when using the camera is that what you see is not neccessarily what you get. What I mean is that the contents of the preview window don't exactly match up to the photograph itself. This is a good thing, since the preview is lower quality than the result--it just takes getting used to, and a willingness to push the button even if you're not entirely satisfied with what's on the screen. Just ignore the static and color shifts, and you should get a fine picture most of the time. The preview looks more like a low-quality CMOS camera, but the results are far from low quality.
Eight megapixels lets you capture amazing detail. Some of my preferred targets for photography are my cats, and at eight megapixels you can individually number their hairs. The 3x optical zoom provides a considerable boost, letting you get right in close to the action. The R927 also features an 8x digital zoom, which combined with the 3x optical zoom provides for a maximum 24x magnification. Of course, with a digital zoom all that is really happening is that you're taking smaller pictures, and viewing them at the same size. But even so, you can still zoom down to a fairly low level with decent resolution. A photo taken at just 1 megapixel gives you a lot of zoom, while retaining more than enough detail to view--or print, for that matter, if you're not squeaming about perfect detail.
Only real point of complaint is about the camera's flash. The Photosmart's flash is extremely powerful, which can be a mixed blessing. It enables you to take good pictures even from total darkness, and eliminates the shadowy, uneven quality sometimes seen when taking photographs of an object using the flash.
Unfortunately, there are points when the flash can be more powerful than is good for the shot. This was the biggest problem when photographing animals. The flash has a tendancy to reflect strongly off the tapetum lucidum, the reflective layer in an animal's eye that enhances their night vision, particularly in cats and dogs. This is a known effect of all cameras, but when you punch up the brightness of the flash, it magnifies the result.
This brings us to what I've come to call the "demon cat" effect. Behold the beast, an ell and a half high, with a large head and knobbed feelers. Don't worry, he won't eat your soul. At least, not much.
Of course, that image is practically flattering compared to this one. I considered printing it and attaching it to my front door along with a notice reading "Beware of Vampire Cats."
In most situations, though, the flash is invaluable. I just wish that there were an option to reduce its power at some points. Particularly because the red-eye processing is designed for humans, and doesn't really work on animals. I'd hate to have any photo of a pet taken in moderate light or below end up looking like the cover of a Stephen King novel.
One of the interesting little features of the 927 is that it can actually sense the orientation you're holding it on. If you turn the camera on end to take a portrait-style photo, the camera will automatically rotate the resulting image 90 degrees, so that when you download it to the computer, you don't have to manually rotate it yourself.
If you choose to take photos at the full 8 megapixel resolution of the camera, it takes some serious storage. The 32 MB of memory inside the camera only holds about 20 photos on the default setting, and a 256 MB SD card holds about 160. While adequate for most purposes, this would neccessitate some more serious capacity if you don't intend to unload the card on a regular basis. If you choose to crank it up to the best setting, you get about 6 photos on internal memory, and 65 on a 256 MB card.
Due to the size of the photos, you're also going to want a reasonably fast SD card. Using a standard speed card with the camera resulted in having to wait a good three to eight seconds between pictures for the photo to transfer. Fortunately, large fast cards are reasonably cheap, and you can get a speedy 1 GB card which can hold 600+ images for under $50. An ultra-high-speed card doesn't seem neccessary.
The R927 supports SD cards up to 2 GB, making for a maximum of ~1200 medium quality photos or 500 high quality photos that you can take at one time. More than enough, I think, for even the most dedicated hobbyist.
Additional Sample Images
The HP Photosmart R927 provides a vast array of options and capabilities neatly packaged into an easy to use device. It's solid enough for advanced use, and easy enough that someone with no prior experience can pick it up and go. All in all, I'd call it a very worthwhile camera for the money, whether you're looking for a simple and effective means of snapping a few casual pictures, or you're an hobbyist wanting more powerful equipment without sacrificing usability.
A solid camera for basic or prosumer use.
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