DCRP Review: HP Photosmart 945
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: November 28, 2003
Last Updated: February 27, 2004

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The Photosmart 945 ($549) is the 5 Megapixel version of HP's popular Photosmart 850, which was introduced about a year ago (see our review). Both cameras have an 8X zoom lens, manual controls, and the HP Instant Share system, which allows you to easily share your photos. HP added a few extra nice features as well, and I'll mention them throughout this review.

I should mention that the first camera I received was defective. It took many photos with horizontal lines in the pictures. I returned my camera to HP, who was able to reproduce the problem. My replacement camera has worked fine so far. It's not just me who had this issue, either. I'll see if I can find out from HP exactly what the problem is, and will update this section.

Update 3/1/04: This rare problem has been resolved by HP. If you do get a camera with this problem, HP will replace it. New models coming off the assembly line do not have this problem.

I liked the Photosmart 850 quite a bit -- is the higher resolution 945 also a top pick? Find out now!

What's in the Box?

The Photosmart 945 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.08 (effective) Mpixel Photosmart 945 camera
  • 32MB Secure Digital card
  • Four AA lithium batteries (non-rechargeable)
  • Neck strap
  • Lens cap w/strap
  • Dock insert
  • USB cables (one for computers, one for printers)
  • CD-ROM featuring HP Photo & Imaging and ArcSoft software (see below)
  • 150 page camera manual (printed)

The Photosmart includes a 32MB Secure Digital (SD) memory card, which is a good starting point, but you'll absolutely need a larger card right away. The camera can use MultiMediaCards (MMC) as well, though you'll probably want to stick to the faster SD cards. You can find them in capacities of up to 512MB as of this writing.

Something else you'll need to buy right away are batteries. You'll find four throwaway lithium batteries in the camera box, which will quickly find their way into your trash (or preferably, your recycling bin). You'll want to buy two sets of NiMH rechargeables (and a charger) as soon as possible. HP did not publish any data about battery life on the Photosmart 945, but it seemed about average during my time with the camera.

For some unexplainable reason, HP does not include a video out cable with the 945, even though the camera supports one. They did this same thing on the 850. You can buy it separately, but I had a heck of a time finding it (you can just buy a standard video cable and the right adapter at someplace like Radio Shack). One easy way to get it is to just buy the camera dock.

Optional camera dock

The camera dock in question is the Photosmart 8881, an $80 option. The dock includes 4 NiMH rechargeable batteries (which are charged in the camera while it's on the dock), an AC adapter, another USB cable, and the fabled A/V cable. This dock isn't quite as nice as the other HP model (8886) which includes a remote control. Is the dock a requirement? No, but it's a nice addition that makes it a little easier to charge batteries and transfer photos to your PC.


Camera with Tiffen wide converter

There are a bunch of accessories for the Photosmart 945. If you want to take some wide-angle shots, pick up the Tiffen 0.75X wide converter (a steal at $75). To use it, you'll first need to buy the Tiffen TIF-HP850AD conversion lens adapter ($20). The adapter also allows you to use 43mm filters and macro lenses (of which Tiffen sells two).

Another accessory you may want to consider is one of the two HP accessory kits available. The regular kit (model Y1789B, $50) includes four NiMH rechargeable batteries, a quick charger, and a padded camera case. The deluxe kit (model C8889A, $80) includes all that, plus a car power adapter and 32MB SD card.

Other á la carte items include an AC adapter ($50), SD-to-CompactFlash adapter ($50), and padded camera case ($30). One thing you cannot add to the 945 is an external flash.

The 945 includes two USB cables. One is for connecting to a Mac or PC, and the other is for hooking into any recent USB-enabled HP printer.

The Photosmart 945 includes a lens cap with retaining strap. As you can see above, it's also quite a handful.

The area where HP's Photosmart cameras really shine is in the software department. HP's Photo & Imaging Software is for Mac OS 8/9, Mac OS X, and Windows. The Mac version is 5.5.6, while the Windows version is 2.0. Combined with the Instant Share system on the camera (more on that later), HP has created a system that lets you easily share photos in a number of ways.

Above is the main part of the software, known as HP Gallery, where you can view and edit photos. The software can do basic photo editing like adjusting contrast, sharpening/blurring, and removing redeye. You can crop and rotate photos as well.

The most impressive parts of the software package are the photo sharing tools. You can share photos via prints, websites, e-mail, or even CDs, all using the HP software.

Selecting a few photos are clicking on the E-Mail button brings up this screen. The software will downsize the photos for you and send them to your e-mail program.

Printing photos is very easy as well, and there are all kinds of prints to choose from, ranging from albums to greeting cards.

If you've got a CD-R/RW drive, one of the coolest features it he ability to create a CD with your photos.

Using the HP Memories Disc Creator Software, you can make a Video CD containing your photos. They are presented as a slide show, and you can even pick a song from your MP3 collection to use as background music. The whole process takes just a few minutes, and then you've got a CD you can share with friends and family. The catch is that you need a fairly modern DVD player to read these discs (most computers can see them), and the Video CD quality isn't the greatest. Still, it's a nice product to include with the camera.

Another one of those "weird HP things" is that there are actually two versions of the camera -- the 945 and 945xi. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is the ArcSoft software that's also tossed in with the camera. The regular 945 includes ArcSoft FunHouse, while the 945xi includes ArcSoft Panorama Maker.

All of this software is Mac OS X native, by the way. You will need to change the USB mode to "Disk Drive" using the setup menu, in order for your Mac to see the camera.

The Photosmart 945's manual should stand as an example to some of the other manufacturers who think a digital camera is a VCR (it's not). There are good explanations for the cameras features, without a lot of fine print. If you're gathering that this camera is aimed toward beginners, you're right.

Look and Feel

The Photosmart 945 is a fairly large camera, made mostly of plastic (just like its predecessor). Don't expect to put this one in your pocket. Controls are well laid out, and it's easy to hold. In terms of build quality, it seems pretty solid for a plastic camera.

Here's a look at how the 945 compares in size and weight when compared with the competition:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
HP Photosmart 945 4.8 x 3.4 x 3.4 in. 55.5 cu in. 389 g
Fuji FinePix S5000 4.4 x 3.2 x 3.1 in. 43.6 cu in. 337 g
Kodak EasyShare DX6490 3.9 x 3.2 x 3.2 in. 39.9 cu in. 310 g
Minolta DiMAGE Z1 4.3 x 3.1 x 3.2 in. 42.7 cu in. 305 g
Olympus C-750 Ultra Zoom 4.2 x 2.6 x 2.7 in. 29.5 cu in. 305 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10 5.5 x 3.4 x 4.2 in. 78.5 cu in. 518 g
Toshiba PDR-M700 4.3 x 2.7 x 2.6 in. 30.2 cu in. 298 g

As you can see, it's one of the larger cameras in the group.

Let's start our tour of the Photosmart 945 now, beginning with the front.

The Photosmart 945 has the same 8X optical zoom lens (made by Fuji, apparently) as its predecessor. This F2.8-F3.1 lens has a focal range of 7.6 - 61 mm, which is equivalent to 37 - 300 mm. The lens barrel is threaded, though you'll need the conversion lens adapter to do anything with it (see previous section).

Above the lens is the pop-up flash. The working range of the flash is 0.5 - 3.4 m at wide-angle, and 0.5 - 3.1 m at telephoto (both at auto ISO). As I mentioned, the 945 does not support an external flash via hot shoe or flash sync cable (as some other ultra zooms do).

To the upper-left of the lens is the camera's microphone. On the opposite side of the lens is the AF-assist lamp, which is always appreciated it. If you shoot in dim lighting, you want one of these.

HP is still being a little misleading with their labels on the camera. While the 5.3 MP number is true, that's the total number of pixels on the CCD, rather than those actually used (which is what everyone else puts on their cameras). Secondly, the 56X zoom number includes the useless digital zoom. I hate when I see this on cameras and in advertisements.

The Photosmart 945 has a large, high resolution LCD display. At 2 inches, it's larger than average (though there are several other ultra zooms with large LCDs now). Images on the LCD are bright and fluid in most cases. The exception is when light levels are low -- the camera brightens up the image at the expense of refresh rate. The screen brightness is adjustable in the setup menu.

Like other big zoom cameras, the 945 uses an electronic viewfinder, or EVF. The EVF is a little LCD screen that you view as you would a regular optical viewfinder. Like the main LCD, the EVF is high resolution, bright and usually fluid. Also like the LCD, expect things to get choppy in low light. I think people will still prefer this over an EVF that is unusable in the dark.

The EVF has a diopter correction knob cleverly integrated with the rubber eyecup. You just rotate the eyepiece to bring things into focus. There's also an "eye start" sensor, which turns the EVF on automatically when you put your eye against the viewfinder.

The EVF cannot be used in playback mode -- you must use the main LCD. That's not a problem here!

One other problem that both the LCD and EVF share is that the screen pauses when you halfway press the shutter release button. This is quite frustrating when you're following a moving subject.

To the right of the LCD are four buttons. The top one turns the LCD on and off, the middle one enters playback mode, while the bottom two are for the Instant Share system. The little button with the printer on it lets you tag photos for printing, while the share (envelope) button lets you mark photos for later e-mailing.

Pressing the print button when viewing an image lets you choose how many copies of the photo to print. The next time you connect to your computer or directly to select HP printers, the marked photos will print.


Share menu

The e-mail feature lets you choose the recipient of your photos -- just by pressing the share button. First, though, you must set up your e-mail list on your computer. Just enter the name and e-mail address for each recipient, and you're set. You can also choose to automatically e-mail your marked pictures each time your camera is connected to your computer. Four image sizes are available, so you can downsize those huge 5 Megapixel photos to something more reasonable. Once you've done that, you can tag your photos just like you see above!

In addition to tagging photos for e-mail, you can do it for automatic delivery to online photo albums, such as hpphoto.com

Back to our tour now. To the right of those buttons is the four-way switch, with the "ok" button in the middle (which is also used for activating the menu). The four-way switch is used for menu navigation as well as adjusting the exposure compensation (-3.0EV to +3.0EV in 1/3EV increments). Just below that is the power switch. Above the LCD are three buttons:

  • Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash on w/redeye reduction, slow sync, slow sync w/redeye reduction)
  • Timer/Burst (Self-timer, self-timer [two shots], burst) - see below
  • Focus (Auto, macro, infinity, manual)

The 945 has a rather unique two shot self-timer mode, which takes, well, two shots instead of just one. The burst mode will take between 4-6 photos at a rate of around 1.5 frames/second. One annoying thing is that the LCD/EVF does not show the photos you take in burst mode until after you're finished, which makes it awfully hard to track a moving subject. Another annoyance is the lengthy write times, which I'll discuss later in the review.


Manual focus

The manual focus feature is a new addition to the 945. You can use the up/down buttons on the four-way controller to focus the lens. A guide is shown on the LCD showing the focus, though it only references the macro and infinite positions -- not terribly useful. There's no "focus check" feature either, a useful feature which enlarges the center of the image so you make sure you're in focus.

Another focus-related feature on the 945 is "focus search priority". This lets you tell the camera to either start focusing from either the nearest or farthest position. This feature is used while in autofocus or macro mode.

The final item on the back of the Photosmart 945 is the zoom controller. You can move from wide-angle to telephoto in 2.5 seconds. The lens movements seem to be a little more precise than they were on the 850.

On the top of the camera, you can see the flash release button, mode dial, speaker, and shutter release button.

The mode dial has been expanded since the Photosmart 850, and has the following options:

  • Action - has a "2 second release priority" feature which will use the same focus and exposure as the previous shot, if you take another within 2 seconds.
  • Landscape
  • Portrait
  • Movie mode
  • Auto record
  • Shutter priority mode (Tv) - you select the shutter speed, camera chooses appropriate aperture; select from range of 16 - 1/2000 sec
  • Aperture priority mode (Av)- you select aperture, camera chooses appropriate shutter speed; select from range of F2.8 - F13.4

Those items were buried in the menu before -- it's nice to see them in a more accessible place.

On this side of the 945, you'll find the I/O ports, which are kept under a rubber cover. Let's take a closer look:

The ports are USB, A/V, and DC-in (for optional AC adapter). Again, the A/V cable is not included with the camera. Another thing is that when you attach the A/V cable, the camera starts a slide show. You cannot take pictures with the A/V cable attached.

The only thing on this side is the SD/MMC card slot, which is located behind a plastic door.

Finally, here's the bottom of the Photosmart 945. The battery compartment is on the left, and it holds four AA batteries. Just to the right of that is where the dock connector is. A rubber cover protects it from dirt and dust. To the right of that is the metal tripod mount, which is inline with the lens.

Using the HP Photosmart 945

Record Mode

It takes just under 5 seconds for the 945 to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start shooting.

Once you're there, expect average autofocus speeds. It took about 1/2 second to focus on "easy" subjects, and more like a second on difficult subjects. Low light focusing was good, thanks to the 945's AF-assist lamp. As I mentioned before, the image on the LCD/EVF freezes while the camera is focusing -- which is annoying.

Shutter lag was not an issue at faster shutter speeds, but it was quite noticeable at slower speeds, though you should probably be using a tripod or the flash in those situations.


No histogram in record mode

Shot-to-shot speed is a mixed bag. In regular, single-shot mode, it's quite good (about two seconds). In burst mode, the camera will be locked up for over 20 seconds after you take your shots -- very slow. Even worse is the total write time for the images. It took the camera 13 seconds to write a single image to the memory card, and over a minute to write a burst sequence! This was also a problem on the Photosmart 850.

After you take a shot, you can press the OK button to delete it, before it's written to the memory card. Another post-shot option is recording a voice clip; just keep holding down the shutter release after you take the picture, and you can add up to 60 seconds of audio.

Like the 850, the Photosmart 945 is one of those cameras that is always ready to shoot. Whether you're in playback mode or the menus, you can still operate the zoom and quickly get back to shooting with just a half press of the shutter release button.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the 945:

Resolution Compression Approx. File Size # shots on 32MB card
(included)
5MP
2608 x 1952
Best (***) 2.6 MB 11
Better (**) 1.3 MB 23
Good (*) 600 KB 48

1MP
1236 x 976

Best (***) 1.3 MB 23
Better (**) 600 KB 48
Good (*) 300 KB 96

There's no TIFF or RAW mode available on this camera.

The camera names files as HPIMyyyy.JPG, where y = 0001 - 9999. The camera maintains the numbering even if you erase the memory card.

The Photosmart 945 has a very nice looking, intuitive menu system. I love how HP has "help" information for each option. This is something that more cameras should have.

Here's what you'll find in the main menu:
  • Exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent, manual) - shoot a white or gray card in manual mode for perfect color in any light
  • AE metering (Average, center-weighted, spot)
  • ISO speed (Auto, 100, 200, 400) - the 400 option is new
  • Digital flash (Off, low, high) - see below
  • Color (Full color, black & white, sepia)
  • Resolution (see chart)
  • Compression (see chart)
  • Saturation (Low, medium, high) - these next three are new additions
  • Sharpness (Low, medium, high)
  • Contrast (Low, medium, high)
  • Setup - enters setup menu shown below

The Digital Flash feature is probably the most hyped new addition on the 945. Using what HP calls Adaptive Lighting Technology, the Digital Flash attempts to increase the dynamic range of photos taken when lighting isn't perfect. And it works, too. Have a look:


Here's the subject with digital flash turned off. Doesn't look like much.
View full size image


Here it is again with the digital flash set to "low". It's better but still pretty dark.
View full size image

Now we're talking! With the digital flash set to "high", we get a great shot.
View full size image

As you can see, the digital flash works -- though it took the high setting to satisfy me, at least in this shot. You will find that image noise will increase when you use this feature, especially at the high setting, but if you're printing or downsizing the photo, you won't notice. All-in-all, the digital flash a nice way to improve dynamic range that actually lives up to the hype.

In addition to the record menu, there's also a setup menu, with the following options:

  • Camera sounds (Off, low, high) - HP's beeps drive my nuts for some reason
  • Eye-Start (on/off) - turn the EVF eye sensor on and off
  • Focus Assist Light (Auto, off)
  • LCD brightness (Indoor, outdoor)
  • Instant review (Off, 2, 4, 6 secs) - post-shot review
  • Auto power off (Never, 2, 6, 10 mins)
  • Date & Time (set)
  • USB configuration (Digital camera [PTP], disk drive [Mass Storage])
  • TV configuration (NTSC, PAL)
  • Language (English, German, Spanish, French, Italian)
  • Remembered settings (Flash, focus, burst, exposure compensation, white balance, ISO speed, metering, digital flash, color)
  • Reset settings

One of my big complaints about the Photosmart 850 -- that it didn't remember your settings -- has been resolved on the 945, with the addition of the "remembered settings" option.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The Photosmart 945 did a pretty good job with our macro test subject, with saturated color and sharp detail. One thing I noticed is some noise/grain in the reds, which is something that I wouldn't expect to see at ISO 100. The focal range in macro mode is 10 - 80 cm. Do note that the zoom range is limited to 1X - 3.5X while in this mode.

My night shot results were unfortunately not good, and I can't explain why. The first attempt was at Treasure Island with 4 other cameras. All of my shots from the 945 came back blurry. And that's with a tripod, self-timer, and a myriad of focus options (auto, manual, infinity) too.

So I wrote it off as bad luck and tried again down at the Oracle Corp. compound in Redwood Shores, CA. Once again, all my shots came back blurry -- except for one. I shot a sequence of them, each at a different ISO (100, 200, 400), using the same methods as described above. None of them were sharp. Just for the heck of it, I took one final shot at ISO 400, 12 seconds, and it was the only good one.


Shot #1 (F2.8, 6 sec, ISO 100) - blurry
Shot #2 (F5.7, 12 sec, ISO 400) - sharp


Crop from shot #1


Crop from shot #2

I can't explain the above results. I did everything right, and this same thing happened to me twice, in two different locations. I don't know if the camera is actually out-of-focus, or if it's some strange image processing issue.

Update 3/1/04: This problem was specific to my camera, which was a production model that was miscalibrated at the HP labs. Shipping 945's will not have this problem.

Here's a low light shot that did turn out okay, and you can compare the noise levels at the various ISOs:


Shot #1 - F2.8, 2.8 sec, ISO 100
Shot #2 - F2.8, 2.1 sec, ISO 200
Shot #3 - F2.8, 1.0 sec, ISO 400

Noise is fairly low until ISO 400, where it starts to eat away at the details in your photos.

The 945 did well in the redeye test, with just a hint of red in the shot.

The distortion chart shows moderate barrel distortion, and no vignetting (dark corners).

Aside from my first review camera and the night shot problems, the images produced by the Photosmart 945 are quite good. Color and exposure are both accurate, and images are sharp (since HP cranks up the in-camera sharpening). One thing I did notice (probably due to the image sharpening) were a lot of "jaggies" on edges in my test photos. They're not hard to find -- just open up any image. Purple fringing (chromatic aberrations) were higher than average, a common trait of ultra zoom cameras. Noise was also a little higher than I'd like, but it's no worse than other top models in this class.

Don't take my word for all this -- have a look at our gallery and see if you're pleased with the photo quality. You are more than welcome to print the photos, as well.

Movie Mode

The Photosmart 945's movie mode isn't the greatest. You can record up to 60 seconds of video at the unusual (and small) resolution of 288 x 208. Sound is recorded as well.

Movies are saved in MPEG format.

Like the 850, the 945 lets you use the zoom lens during filming. There's a reason why most sound-recording cameras don't let you do that, though: the microphone picks up the zoom motor noise. So, pick a zoom setting and stick with it for your movie.

Here's a brief sample movie for you. There's unfortunately some sound clipping here... first time I've experienced this.


Click to play movie (3MB, MPEG format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

Aside from the Instant Share stuff I already covered, the 945's playback mode is quite basic. You can delete photos, record audio clips, and use the "zoom and scroll" feature. Slide shows are only available when the camera is hooked into a television.

The magnification (what I call zoom and scroll) feature lets you blow up the picture to 4X (and nothing in between), and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. It takes about four seconds for the 945 to blow up the image, but after that, it's smooth scrolling.

While you can't rotate photos in playback mode, it's not a big deal -- the Photosmart does it automatically.

If you want more information about your photos, choose the Image Info option in the playback menu. I like how the zoom setting is shown -- I've never seen this on other cameras.

Moving between photos is super fast -- it's basically instantaneous.

How Does it Compare?

With a few tweaks, the HP Photosmart 945 could be one of the top ultra zoom cameras. But based on the two 945's I tested, it's about average (I'd rank it below the Olympus, Panasonic, and Kodak models). My main concerns are regarding the two strange photo quality issue I ran into, as well as overall performance. The first image quality issue are the horizontal lines in images on my first camera, which have been reported by other 945 owners. The second issue was the inability of the camera to take the night shot test -- they always came out blurry, even with settings that should produce great results. I don't know if there's a quality control problem, or if I'm just cursed with bad luck. My other big complaint about the 945 is regarding the lengthy write times on the camera. It takes over a minute to flush the buffer after taking a sequence of six shots. For about 1/3 of that time, the camera is unusable. In other areas, the camera's performance was average.

If HP can resolve those issues, I'd warm up to the camera a little more, because it is a good camera otherwise. The 945 sells for around $500, and that's quite a deal for an ultra zoom, 5 Megapixel camera. Photo quality was good (aside from the issues discussed above), with good exposure, sharpness, and color, though "jaggies" and purple fringing were worse than average. It has a full suite of manual controls, an AF-assist lamp, and the very impressive Instant Share system that makes sharing photos a snap. The Digital Flash feature is one of the most useful things I've seen in some time, even if it does increase noise a bit. The camera supports a wide-angle conversion lens and filters, but no external flash (something most of the competition can do). HP has one out of their way to make this camera easy-to-use, and I'm not just talking about the Instant Share system. I think the in-camera help system and the camera manual should be examples for other manufacturers to follow.

A few other complaints, if I may. I don't like how both the EVF and LCD freeze up when you halfway press the shutter release button. Combine this with occasional choppiness (especially with the EVF), and you'll find that tracking a moving subject is frustrating. Along those lines, action shots in burst mode are difficult, as the EVF/LCD black out until the sequence is done. The 945's movie mode is quite dated as well, with a 60 second limit for below average-resolution movies.

All-in-all, the Photosmart 945 is a mixed bag. Worth looking at, but there are better choices.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality in most cases
  • Full manual controls
  • Excellent Instant Share system + software bundle
  • Digital Flash feature actually lives up to the hype
  • EVF can be used in low light
  • Great value
  • Low redeye
  • Very easy-to-use: in-camera help system and manual are excellent
  • Supports wide-angle conversion lens + filters

What I didn't care for:

  • Jaggies, above average purple fringing in images
  • Two weird image quality issues: lines in images + night shot troubles
  • Very slow write times
  • EVF/LCD pause when shutter release pressed halfway
  • EVF/LCD turn off during burst shooting (both of these make action shooting difficult)
  • EVF/LCD can get choppy in low light (the tradeoff for being able to use them in those conditions)
  • Unimpressive movie mode
  • Video cable not included

Ultra zoom cameras are quite popular now, and there are many choices. Here are some other models to consider: Fuji FinePix S5000 and S7000, Kodak EasyShare DX6490, Minolta DiMAGE A1 and Z1, Nikon Coolpix 5700, Olympus C-740 and C-750 Ultra Zoom, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F717 and DSC-F828, and the Toshiba PDR-M700.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local retailer to try out the Photosmart 945 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photo quality stacks up in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read a review of the Photosmart 945 at Steve's Digicams.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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