DCRP Review: Toshiba PDR-M81
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Monday, August 13, 2001
Last Updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2001

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Just when I was getting used to reviewing 3 Megapixel cameras, the 4 Megapixel camera invasion has started. Almost all of the big players in the digicam world have announced 4MP cameras, and the list continues to grow.

Toshiba's entry into the field is the PDR-M81 ($799), a 4.2MP camera with a 2.8X optical zoom lens, manual controls, and more. How does it stack up against the competition? Find out now in our review.

What's in the Box?

The PDR-M81 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 4.2 Mpixel Toshiba PDR-M81 camera
  • 8MB SmartMedia card
  • 4 AA alkaline batteries
  • Shoulder strap
  • Lens cap w/strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring ImageExpert and drivers
  • 134 page manual (printed)

I'll get the negatives out of the way up front. First, Toshiba includes an incredibly skimpy 8MB SmartMedia card with the camera. Folks, this is 4 Megapixel camera and it deserves at least a 16MB card -- I'd prefer a 32MB one.

Secondly, they don't include rechargeable batteries, so you'll want to pick up a NiMH charger and a few sets of batteries. They'll last a lot longer than throwaway alkaline batteries and are better for the environment. At least they're not using the proprietary batteries like they used to.

Now the good news. It's not often when they throw a case in the box with a camera these days, so I was pleased to see a soft case in the box.


PDR-M81 with lens cap

The PDR-M81 has a rather unique lens cap, though it's hard to tell from the above photo. It's more like a "lens plug", and it's got a tether so it won't get lost. If you turn on the camera with the cap on, it will give you a warning.

While the M81's lens isn't threaded, Toshiba will make available in November a lens adapter which uses the tripod mount. This will let you use 37mm attachments. You can also buy a step-up ring which will let you use 43mm attachments as well.

The manual included with the camera is about average. There's a separate manual for the ImageExpert software as well.

Look and Feel

The PDR-M81 is a unique looking camera that I found to be easy to hold and use. The body is made of high-grade plastic, that seems like it could take whatever you throw at it. The controls are all in the right places and you can use it with one hand as well.

The dimensions of the M81 are 4.2 x 2.8 x 1.8 inches (W x H x D) and it weighs 340 grams empty. The camera does seem heavier that you'd expect for its size, but it's still pretty light.

Let's take a 360 degree tour of the PDR-M81 now.

Here's the front of the M81. The F2.9 lens is made by Canon. The focal range of the lens is 7.25 - 20.3 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 98 mm. The lens is not threaded.

In the top right of the photo you can see the microphone.

Over towards the left is the flash, which has a working range of 0.8 - 3.0 meters. There is a redeye reduction feature available. Flash strength is not adjustable.

Now onto the back of the camera. The controls here are quite similar to Toshiba cameras of yesteryear.

The 1.5" LCD display is smaller than average, but is bright and fluid. You can adjust the brightness via the menu system, if you'd like.

Towards the top-left of the photo is the optical viewfinder. While it lacks diopter correction (for those of us with glasses), it is large. Those of you who use your right eye to look through it won't smudge the LCD with your nose either.

The button below the LCD (Disp/i) is used for toggling what is shown on the LCD.

Over to the right of the LCD are:

  • Four-way switch (for menus)
  • Menu
  • Focus (AF/Macro/1m/3m/Infinity)
  • Folder (create)
  • Delete

Finally, at the top right is the zoom control. It's well placed and responsive, though the zoom mechanism itself is a little slow.

Here's the top of the PDR-M81, where you can see the LCD info display, some buttons, the mode wheel, and the shutter release button.

The LCD info display shows things such as battery strength, size/quality setting, flash setting, and shots remaining. It does not show shutter speed or aperture, like some other displays do. One feature I miss from the PDR-M70 (see our review) is the backlit display. It's a handy feature that too few cameras have.

The buttons to the right of the info display include:

  • Self-timer (2 or 10 sec)
  • Size/Quality
  • Flash

One thing I don't like about the size/quality button on the M81 is that instead of scrolling through all the choices, it only has three that you set up in the menus. I suppose for everyday usage this is fine, but I preferred the old way myself.

Further towards the right is the mode wheel, which has the following choices:

  • Setup
  • PC Connect
  • Playback
  • Auto Record
  • Manual Record
  • Movie

I'll have more on these later in the review.

Here is one side of the M81. You can see the (large) speaker, power port (left), and USB/AV port (right). There is no serial support available on the M81.

Here is the other side of the M81, with the included 8MB SmartMedia card shown. The card is easy to insert and remove from the spring-loaded slot. The door that covers the slot seems strong as well.

Lastly, here is the bottom of the PDR-M81. Here you'll find the battery compartment as well as a plastic tripod mount. The battery compartment holds 4 AA-sized batteries, and is lockable.

Using the Toshiba PDR-M81

Record Mode

Toshiba is now competing with Sony and Casio for the flashiest camera user interface. When you power up the camera, a "fanfare" sound plays, and the lens extends. It will be about five seconds before you can start taking pictures. Pressing the shutter release button halfway results in locked focus in about one second. There is noticeable shutter lag on the M81 -- you'll wait almost a second after you press the button all the way down before the shot is taken. Also, I recommend turning off the sound on the camera. When you take the picture, the M81 will produce an artificial "shutter sound", which gives you the impression that it took the photo. However, due to the lag, it hasn't yet (listen and you'll hear the real shutter a few moments later). You can also speed things up by just pressing the button all the way down (instead of stopping halfway), though in some situations the photo may be out of focus.

Shot-to-shot speed is decent on the PDR-M81. You'll wait about 3 seconds between shots at the highest quality setting.

There are many quality settings on the M81, but as I mentioned, you have to choose 3 of them to assign to the quality button on the top of the camera. The chart below explains:

Size Quality File Size # photos on 8MB card
(included)
# photos on 64MB card
(for reference)
Full
2400 x 1600
*** 1536 KB 5 41
** 1024 KB 7 62
* 512 KB 15 124
Half
1200 x 800
*** 480 KB 16 133
** 320 KB 24 199
* 160 KB 49 399
Small
720 x 480
*** 192 KB 41 332
** 128 KB 62 499
* 64 KB 124 998

There is no TIFF or RAW mode available on the PDR-M81.

Now let's take a look at menu options. The follow options are available in Auto or Manual mode:

  • Preview (on/off) - shows image after it's taken
  • Color (Standard, vivid, monochrome, sepia)
  • ISO (Normal, 2X, 4X) - equivalent to 100, 200, 400
  • Sharpness (normal, soft, hard)
  • Contrast (normal, strong, soft)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - 2X digital zoom; will reduce image quality if used.
  • LCD brightness

The setup menu (use the mode wheel to get there) has some other common options that aren't worth mentioning here.

In Auto Record, there will only be a few controls. That includes the above menu items, flash, quality, and focus. You can adjust exposure compensation (-2.0EV to +2.0EV, 0.5EV increments) by using the left/right buttons. In addition, there is a "scene mode" accessible via an overlay-style menu that lets you choose from the following:

  • Auto
  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Action
  • Night Scene
  • 16-multi shot - 16 continuous frames (7.5 frames/sec) put into one collage

If you want more manual controls, then turn the mode wheel to Manual Record. Here you'll won't get the scene mode, but you'll get this other stuff instead:

  • Exposure (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Full Manual)
  • White Balance (Auto, Sunlight, Cloudy, Fluorescent [x 2], tungsten)
  • Metering (Multi, Spot)
  • Drive (1 shot, burst, automatic exposure bracketing)

The AE bracketing feature doesn't let you choose the settings to use: instead it uses -0.5EV, 0EV, and +0.5EV. Burst mode will take up to 3 shots, at a 0.8 sec interval. There is no "manual" white balance on the PDR-M81.

Aperture priority mode will let you choose the aperture, while the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The range of values is F2.9 - F8.0.

Shutter priority mode is just the opposite: you choose the shutter speed, the M81 picks the aperture. Shutter speed ranges from 1/1000 - 15 sec.

In full manual mode, you pick both the shutter speed and aperture.


Quite a busy screen in Manual Record mode!

Another feature in manual mode is a histogram shown on the LCD. This is a pretty uncommon feature that most people probably won't pay attention to, but it's nice to have.

The PDR-M81 did a great job in our macro test, nailing both color accuracy and detail. You can get as close as 10cm (at full wide-angle) in macro mode on the M81.

The M81 did a pretty good job with the night shot test as well. There isn't too much noise, and the buildings are sharp and recognizable.

However, there was one weird problem that occurred with my M81. I'm not sure if it's just mine or what. The problem that I discovered the night I took the shot above was that it would record a corrupted image on long exposures. Taking shots in Program mode came out fine, but in the manual modes with a 1.5 or 2 second exposures, the M81 would record an all green image. The preview image on the LCD looked fine after it was taken, but as soon as you viewed it in playback mode or on the computer, it was corrupt. I did mention this to Toshiba and they had not heard of it. I haven't been able to consistently replicate the problem either.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the M81's photo quality. The only thing I noticed was that it can have a problem with chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) in some situations. Take a look at the gallery to see that photo (of the trees) and to see some more photos.

Movie Mode

The PDR-M81 has a pretty good movie mode. You can choose between Full (320 x 240) and Half (160 x 120) sizes, and the three "star" qualities in each. Depending on the size and quality chosen, you can record anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes of video, with sound. That's pretty close to as good as I've seen on a digital camera.

You cannot use the optical zoom during filming, since the sound of the lens moving would be picked up by the microphone.

Movies are recorded in AVI format. Here's a sample movie for you:


Click to play movie (2.9MB, AVI format)

Playback Mode

Toshiba continues to have one of the best playback modes out there, and now it's even flashier.

Basic features are covered on the PDR-M81. That includes slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, and zoom and scroll.

The zoom and scroll feature now has a "zoom window" effect that's pretty cool. You can zoom in two or four times into your photo, and then move around them in real-time. This is still the best implementation of this feature out there, in my opinion.

Some of the advanced features include the ability to resize and change the quality of your photo. This will replace the current photo on the card, so be warned! You can also copy photos from one SmartMedia card to another.

Want more information about your photos? The PDR-M81 has got it, including a histogram!

How Does it Compare?

The Toshiba PDR-M81 is a very good camera, that's packed with features while delivering quality photos as well. I liked the manual controls, easy of use, playback mode, and quality of the camera body. On the negative side, I wish it had manual white balance, a TIFF mode, faster recording speeds, and a larger included SmartMedia card. Then there's the issue I had with the "green" long exposure shots. Since I'm not sure if it's just my camera or all of them, I'm going to not hold it against the M81 at this point.

That brings up the question: is the PDR-M81 the best 4 Megapixel camera for the money? The only other low-priced model I've tried is the Sony DSC-S85 (see our review), and I'd have to give it the edge over the PDR-M81 (better lens, manual white balance, TIFF mode). I wouldn't ignore the PDR-M81 at all - if you're not bothered by my negatives then it might fit the bill just fine.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Good amount of manual controls
  • Flashy menus (I'm a sucker for those kind of things)
  • Very good playback mode

What I didn't care for:

  • No manual white balance or TIFF mode
  • More shutter lag than I'd like
  • No support for external flash
  • Only an 8MB SmartMedia card?

Other consumer 4 Megapixel cameras include the Casio QV-4000, Fuji FinePix 6900 Zoom (not really 4MP, but it produces comparably-sized images), Olympus C-4040Z, and the Sony DSC-S85.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the PDR-M81 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Be sure to read Steve's Digicams review of the Toshiba PDR-M81.

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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