DCRP Review: Contax TVS Digital
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: April 27, 2003
Last Updated: April 27, 2003

Printer Friendly Version

The Contax TVS Digital is the first consumer digital camera from the legendary German camera manufacturer (who is now owned by Kyocera Optics of Japan). The TVS Digital is what's known as a "boutique camera" -- a "luxury" model. The TVS is attractive, well-designed, limited in terms of manual controls, and expensive ($899 for the body shown, $999 for the black body).

The two available colors. Image courtesy of Kyocera.

At the heart of the TVS is a 5 Megapixel CCD and 3X Carl Zeiss T* lens. Many of the TVS' features have an uncanny resemblance to those found on the Kyocera Finecam S5 (see our review), not surprisingly.

Learn more about the TVS Digital in our review!

What's in the Box?

The TVS Digital has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 effective Megapixel TVS Digital camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital card
  • BP-1500S Li-ion rechargeable battery
  • AC adapter
  • Remote control
  • Camera case
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • Wrist strap
  • CD-ROM including Pixela ImageMixer software and drivers
  • 109 page camera manual (printed)

The only thing holding me back from giving the bundle an "excellent" rating is the skimpy 16MB SD memory card that's included. On a camera at this price, it should have a 32MB card at the very least. Consider it your mission to buy a 128MB or larger card right away if you buy the TVS. It accepts both Secure Digital (SD) and MultiMedia (MMC) cards.

Everything else is good news. The TVS includes a Kyocera BP-1500S li-ion battery, which is quite powerful at 5.6 Watt/hours. Contax estimates that you can take about 285 photos per charge (50% LCD usage), or spend 4.5 hours in playback mode.

I've spoken about the disadvantages of proprietary batteries like this many times. The main issues are their price ($50 each) and the fact that if you're in a bind, you can't just use regular batteries to get you through the day.

When it's time to recharge the battery, just plug in the included AC adapter. It takes about 6 hours to fully charge.

Contax gets major bonus points for including both a leather carrying case and a wireless remote control in the box. The remote control is very basic (it's only a remote shutter release), but it's better than nothing.

The TVS Digital's slick design includes a built-in lens cover, so there's no lens cap to worry about.

Despite its price, the TVS isn't an expandable camera. In fact, the only accessory I could find was a fast external battery charger for around $90.

Kyocera includes an older version of Pixela's ImageMixer software. The version included is not Mac OS X native, so you'll have to run it in classic mode. The camera does works fine with Mac OS X (iPhoto and Image Capture), and Windows XP as well.

The TVS' manual is quite thorough -- though it can be a bit hard to find things at times.

Look and Feel

The TVS Digital has a classic design reminiscent of older Contax cameras. The body is mostly metal, though some of the plastic parts feel cheap -- a surprise given the cost of this camera. The controls are well-placed and easy to operate.

The camera is what I'd call midsize, quite similar in size to something like the Canon PowerShot S45/S50. It can be operated with one hand or two.

The official dimensions of the TVS are 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.3 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs just 210 grams (empty).

Let's begin our 360 degree tour of the TVS Digital now!

The TVS Digital the famous T* Vario Sonnar lens from Carl Zeiss. This F2.8-F4.8 lens has a focal range of 7.3 - 21. 9 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 105 mm. The lens is not threaded.

At the upper-right of the photo is the built-in flash. This flash has a working range of around 0.6 - 3.2 m at wide-angle, and 0.6 - 1.7 m at telephoto. There's no support for an external flash on this camera.

Next to the flash are three small circles, plus the optical viewfinder. The circles are for the remote control receiver, self-timer lamp, and light sensor. Unfortunately, there is no AF-assist lamp on this camera.

The TVS Digital appears to have the same 1.6" LCD as the Finecam S5. Although the LCD has only 85,000 pixels, I found it to be quite sharp. The frame rate is very good as well. As with most LCDs, it's difficult to see when in very bright or very low light. One strange phenomenon that I noticed was that black areas on the LCD often appeared posterized or dithered.

Above and to the right of the LCD is the optical viewfinder. It's a little on the small side for my taste, though it does include a diopter correction knob to adjust the focus. It displays 83% of the frame.

Below the LCD are three buttons:

  • Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash off, fill flash, night portrait flash) + voice annotation (30 secs)
  • Focus mode (AF, macro, manual focus)
  • Display - toggles LCD on and off, as well as the info shown on it

Manual focus

The TVS has a manual focus feature, where you can use the four-way controller to choose the focus distance (which is shown on the LCD). Unfortunately the camera doesn't enlarge the image on the LCD so you can confirm proper focus, like some other cameras.

To the right of the LCD is the four-way controller, with four buttons surrounding it. The four-way controller is used for changing menu options. The four other buttons are for invoking the TVS' various menus (more on this later), as well as for entering the record review mode, which allows you to review and delete the photo you've just taken.

Straight above all of that is the power button. To the right of that is the zoom controller. THe zoom moves very quickly -- just open second to cover the whole focal range -- but it's also easy to be precise with quick presses of the buttons.

The final item back here is the release for the SD/MMC card slot, shown on the far right.

Here we are now at the top of the camera. On the let, you can see something I really like -- an LCD info display. It shows several of the TVS' current settings, as well as the number of shots remaining. It would've been a nice touch had this display been backlit.

Right at the center is the microphone. Continuing to the right, you can see the autofocus lock (AFL) and shutter release buttons, as well as the mode wheel. Earlier I mentioned cheap plastic parts, and the shutter release and mode wheel are the prime offenders.

Another thing I don't like about the shutter release button is the amount of "play". The button doesn't move very far down, and there isn't really a "notch" at the halfway-pressed position. In other words, it just doesn't feel right.

There are just four options on the mode dial, and those are:

  • Movie mode
  • Aperture priority mode (Av) - see below
  • Program mode - for everyday shooting
  • Playback mode
  • Setup mode

Aperture priority is the only manual mode on this camera. You can choose aperture values ranging from F2.8 to F6.7 - a fairly small range.

On this side of the camera, under a plastic cover, are the camera's I/O ports. These include USB, video, and DC-in (for included AC adapter).

On the other side is the SD/MMC memory card slot. To remove the memory card, you just push it inward and it pops out.

The included 16MB SD card is also shown.

Lastly, here is the bottom of the camera, where you'll find the metal tripod mount, speaker, and battery compartment. The tripod mount is strangely located all the way to the side of the body.

The included BP-1500S battery is shown on the right.

Using the Contax TVS Digital

Record Mode

The TVS takes under 6 seconds to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can start shooting, which is on the slow side. Autofocus speeds were very average, with the camera taking around one second to lock focus in most cases. Focusing in low light was challenging at times, due to the camera's lack of an AF-assist lamp.

The TVS did pretty well in terms of shutter lag, with minimal delay when you fully press the shutter release button, even at slower shutter speeds.

A histogram can be displayed in record mode, though its placement could be better

Shot-to-shot speed was very good, with a 2 second delay between shots (assuming the post-shot review is turned off).

Now, here's a chart of the various image size and quality choices available on the TVS Digital:

Resolution Quality # Images on 16MB card
2560x 1920 Fine 5
Normal 10
1600 x 1200 Fine 13
Normal 25
1280 x 960 Fine 20
Normal 37
640 x 480 Fine 64
Normal 100

As you can see, that 16MB SD card is way too small.

The TVS does not have a TIFF or RAW file mode.

Files are named KICX####.JPG, where #### = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even as you erase and switch memory cards.

The menu system on the TVS Digital is a little strange. There are actually three separate overlay-style menus: one for camera functions, one for digital functions, and another for white balance/exposure compensation/ISO. The menus are very similar to those on the Finecam S5. I'll go through each menu one at a time.

C. Menu (camera functions)

  • Self-timer/remote control (Off, 0, 2, 10 secs) - the 0 sec option is only for the remote control
  • Focus mode (Wide, spot)
  • Metering mode (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Auto Bracketing Mode (0.0, 0.3, 0.5, 1.0) - takes three shots in a row with different exposure compensation values. You can change the order in which the shots are taken in the setup menu
  • Drive (Single-shot, continuous) - continuous mode takes up to 3 shots at 2 frames/second
  • Longtime exposure (1, 2, 4, 8 sec) - this is the extent of the shutter speed controls. When in aperture priority (Av) mode, you get a limited manual exposure mode.
  • Flash exposure compensation (-1, 0, +1)

D. Menu (digital functions)

  • Color (Color, black & white, sepia)
  • Resolution (2560 x 1920, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 640 x 480)
  • Quality (Fine, normal)
  • White balance bracketing (on/off) - takes three shots in a row; one normal shot, one with a slightly bluish cast, and the other with a slightly reddish cast
  • Sharpness (-1 to +3)
  • Chroma (-, 0, +) - for color intensity

Exposure menu

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, incandescent, cloudy, fluorescent, custom)
  • ISO (Auto, 80, 100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, 400)

Everything up there should be self-explanatory. The TVS Digital has quite a few manual controls, as you can see. You can tweak some settings, but not to the same degree as other cameras in this price range (e.g. there's no way to choose a fast shutter speed).

The TVS also has a pretty elaborate setup menu (accessed via the mode wheel), which covers both the digital and camera menus described above. The interesting options are:

  • Setup Camera Functions
    • Default flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash off, fill flash, flash slow sync)
    • Bracketing sequence (0/+/-, +/0/-)
    • Autofocus lock hold time (1 frame, until off)
    • Autofocus lock function (AF lock, AF/AE lock) - define what this button does
    • Exposure compensation time (Until off, until cancel)
    • Exposure compensation steps (0.3EV, 0.5EV)
    • Manual focus hold time (Until off, until cancel)

  • Setup Digital Functions
    • LCD brightness (+2 to -2)
    • Insert date (on/off) - print date on pictures
    • Digital zoom (on/off) - turning this on will reduce photo quality
    • Beep (Off, 1-3) - annoying beep volume
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-3) - for the fake shutter sound
    • Color select (Blue, purple, red, yellow) - choose the color of the menus
    • Startup screen (Contax, user setting, off) - use the Contax startup screen, or use a photo
    • Auto playback (Off, 2, 4 sec) - how long photo is shown on LCD after it is taken
    • Language (Japanese, English, French, German, Spanish)
    • Video Out (NTSC, PAL)
    • File numbering (on/off) - maintains the file numbers
    • Mode reset - change settings back to defaults

Well that's enough menus for me -- let's move on now.

The TVS Digital has a rather strange macro mode. Some cameras let you use the full zoom range, others lock the camera at the telephoto end -- but this one locks the lens at the wide-angle end. Why, I'm not sure -- this is where barrel distortion is at its worst.

That said, the camera did produce a nice rendition of our famous porcelain mouse. The colors are nicely saturated and most of the subject is sharp (with the exception of the ears -- some depth of field adjustment would probably fix that).

The focal range in macro mode is 15 - 60 cm. The maximum shooting area is 76 x 102 mm.

The macro test turned out exactly like it did on the Finecam S5. The TVS' shutter speed controls allow you to take night shots like the one above. I don't care for the choices of 2, 4, and 8 seconds though -- too limiting. The photo above came out well, though the color is too yellow. I suspect tweaking the white balance could've made the color a little more accurate.

Noise levels were quite low on this 8 second exposure.

Our redeye test shows a bit of this annoying phenomenon, but it's not horrible. Redeye can usually be fixed using software. I should add that this flash shot was a little noisier than I would've liked. The cropped area was enlarged a bit so you can see the details.

The distortion test shows the noticeable barrel distortion seen at the wide-angle setting. Something else that sometimes pops up here is vignetting (darkened corners), but I don't see any of that here.

The photo quality on the TVS Digital is quite similar to the quality on the Finecam S5. In other words, the quality is good, but certainly not class-leading. Noise can be seen in many of the images, reducing some of the detail. Color and exposure were generally okay, and purple fringing only showed up a few times.

Please don't take my word for it though -- have a look at the gallery and judge the photo quality for yourself!

Movie Mode

Not surprisingly, the TVS Digital has the exact same movie mode as the Finecam S5. That means you can record up to 30 seconds of 320 x 240 video, or 120 seconds at 160 x 120. Sound is recorded as well.

If you turn on sound recording, the zoom lens cannot be used during filming. You can use it beforehand, though.

Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

Here's a quick sample movie for you. I really need to stop taking these in windy places.

Click to play movie (1.5MB, AVI format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

You guessed it -- the TVS has the same playback mode as the Finecam. The basic playback features include slide shows, thumbnail mode, DPOF print marking, and image protection.

The usual "zoom and scroll" feature is here too. You can zoom in 2X or 4X into your photo, and then scroll around.

Two other nice features include image rotation and resizing.

By pressing up on the four-way switch, you can get more information about your photo. Press the display button and a histogram shows up, as you can see above.

The TVS moves through images with incredible speed. It's instantaneous as you move from one to the next. It does take longer than most cameras to enter playback mode, but after that, it doesn't get any faster.

How Does it Compare?

The Contax TVS Digital is a nice camera that would be a whole lot nicer if it was about $300 less in price. With a price of $899, you're paying a big premium for the Contax name on the front of the camera, which is evident when you see how many features this camera shares with the $599 Finecam S5. The fact that Contax charges $100 more for a black-colored body doesn't help matters.

Price aside, the TVS does take good quality pictures, though noise levels are higher than I'd like. Performance was average, except in playback mode where the camera really shines. The body design was very nice, though there were a few cheesy plastic parts, as well as a shutter release button that I just don't like. The camera lacks an AF illuminator, and there doesn't appear to be any lens or external flash options available. I wasn't a fan of the triple menu system, and the LCD got a little strange sometimes (refer to that section of the tour for details). Finally, I must give the "thumbs up" to Kyocera/Contax for including both a remote control and carrying case in the box with the camera.

If you've got the bucks, the TVS Digital may be worth a look, but currently there are better options that cost a lot less.

What I liked:

  • Slick, well-designed body
  • Camera case + remote control included
  • Complete, fast playback mode
  • Low shutter lag
  • Good battery life
  • Quite a few manual controls

What I didn't care for:

  • Expensive
  • Higher than average noise in images
  • Shutter speed, aperture controls too limited
  • Lens locked at wide-angle position in macro mode
  • No AF illuminator
  • Dark images on LCD appear posterized
  • Shutter release button doesn't have enough "play"
  • Strangely located tripod mount

Here are some other small 5 Megapixel cameras to check out: Canon PowerShot S50, Fuji FinePix F410 (I suppose), HP Photosmart 935, Konica KD-500Z, Kyocera Finecam S5, Minolta DiMAGE F300, Olympus C-50Z, Pentax Optio 550, and the Sony DSC-P10 and DSC-P92.

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

Photo Gallery

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

Want a few more opinions?

Get a second opinion on the TVS Digital over at Steve's Digicams.


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.

All content is © 1997 - 2003 The Digital Camera Resource Page. All Rights Reserved.
Reviews and images from this site may NEVER be reposted on your website or online auction.
All trademarks are property of their respective owners.

Comments should be directed to Jeff Keller.