DCRP Review: HP Photosmart 850
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Sunday, November 17, 2002
Last Updated: Monday, December 9, 2002

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The HP Photosmart 850 is an impressive camera for a number of reasons. Most of them revolve around its $499 price. The 850 features a 4 Megapixel CCD and a very nice 8X optical zoom lens. It also uses HP's Instant Share system, which lets you share photos in many ways -- but more on that later.

Is the Photosmart 850 worth a look? Find out in our review.

What's in the Box?

The Photosmart 850 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.94 (effective) Mpixel Photosmart 850 camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital card
  • Four 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 software
  • 108 page camera manual (printed)

The Photosmart 850's bundle isn't great, except for the included software, which I really like. Since I like to complain, I'll get my gripes out of the way first.

The first complaint is about the skimpy 16MB Secure Digital card that's included. You'll soon want a larger one, and I recommend 64MB at the very least. The 850 works with both SD and MultiMedia (MMC) cards.

Issue number two is regarding batteries. You get four throwaway lithium batteries in the box. You'll want to buy two sets of NiMH rechargeables as soon as possible. HP did not publish any data about battery life on the Photosmart 850.

My third complaint is one I've never had to make before. Believe it or not, HP does not include an A/V output cable with the 850, even though there's a port for it on the camera body. Instead, you have to buy it yourself -- though I can't seem to find a price anywhere. I have to wonder, though, how many people out there actually use the video out cable?

The Photosmart 850 support's HP's Photosmart 8881 Camera Dock ($80), which let's you charge batteries (not the included ones, of course) and easily transfer photos. It's certainly not a requirement though.

Other accessories besides the video cable and dock include an AC adapter and a camera accessory kit (includes case, NiMH batteries, charger, and AC adapter). I'm not aware of any add-on lenses for the 850.

The 850 includes two USB cables. One is for connecting to a Mac or PC, and the other is for hooking into any USB-enabled HP printer.

The Photosmart 850 includes a lens cap with retaining strap. As you can see above, it's a good-sized camera.

The area where the Photosmart 850 really shines is the software bundle. HP's Photo & Imaging Software is for Mac OS 8/9, Mac OS X, and Windows. 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, as the screen shot above details.

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.

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 850's manual is easy to understand, but skips over a lot of the technical detail. For example, it talks about aperture priority mode but doesn't tell you what the available aperture choices are.

Look and Feel

The Photosmart 850 is a fairly large camera, made mostly of plastic. Don't expect to put this one in your pocket. Controls are well laid out, and it is easy to hold. In terms of build quality, it seems pretty solid for a plastic camera.

The dimensions of the 850 are 4.3 x 3.0 x 3.0 in (WxHxD), and it weighs 300 grams empty.

The Photosmart 850 is just a little larger than the Olympus C-720/730 Ultra Zoom

Let's start our tour of the Photosmart 850 now, beginning with the front.

Arguably the biggest feature on the Photosmart 850 is its 8X optical zoom lens, which is manufactured by Fuji. This F2.8-F3.1 lens has a focal range of 7.6 - 61 mm. For some reason, HP hasn't published a 35 mm equivalent focal range, but it's something like 37 - 300 mm (more or less). The lens is threaded, for what seems like 49 or 50 mm attachments. HP doesn't seem to offer any lens accessories, though.

Above the lens is the pop-up flash. HP did not provide any info on the working range of the flash. No external flash options are available.

Just to the left of the flash is a little hole for the microphone.

Over on the top-right of the photo is a special treat: an autofocus illuminator! This red/orange lamp helps the camera's contrast-detect focusing system work in low light. Now if only all cameras offered one of these!

One last item is HP's rather misleading label on the front of the camera. First, they list the resolution as 4.1 Megapixel. That's the total pixels on the CCD. In reality though, the effective resolution is much less -- 3.94 Megapixel. Hopefully HP will be more honest about the resolution on future cameras, like the other manufactures have been for over a year. Also, the 56X zoom label takes the 7X digital zoom into account... that too is kind of misleading in my opinion.

The Photosmart 850 has a large, high resolution LCD display. At 2 inches, it's larger than those found on other cameras. 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.

Like other big zoom cameras, the 850 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 bright and 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 eyepiece. You just rotate the eyepiece to bring things into focus. Another nice feature is an "eye start" feature that detects when your eye is up against the eyepiece, thus sparing the battery when you're not using it. It did get a little wacky on me a few times when I had glasses on, though.

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

To the right of the LCD are three buttons. The top one turns the LCD on and off (it's off by default), the middle one enters playback mode, while the bottom one is for Instant Share.

What is Instant Share? It's a system, similar to Kodak's EasyShare system, that lets you "tag" photos for e-mail and printing. Press the button, and you'll be presented with this screen:

You can choose to print a photo or mark it for e-mail. After setting up your e-mail contacts in the software on your computer, they'll be on the list in the menu. Just choose the recipient, and next time you connect to your Mac or PC, it'll be sent. I think beginners will really enjoy this feature.

Back to our tour now. To the right of those three buttons is the four-way switch, with the "ok" button in the middle. The four-way switch is used for menu navigation as well as adjusting the exposure compensation (-3.0EV to +3.0EV in 1/2EV increments).

At the top-center of the picture lies two more buttons, this time for flash and macro mode. The flash options are auto, auto w/redeye reduction, forced, night (slow sync), and night w/redeye reduction.

The final item on the back of the Photosmart 850 is the zoom controller. You can move from wide-angle to telephoto in just two seconds. Unfortunately, the zoom is just one speed so being precise can be challenging.

On the top of the camera, you can see the flash release button, mode dial, and shutter release button. The mode dial switches between standard record, self-timer (10 second), and movie modes.

Below the mode dial is the speaker.

I always like to see LCD info displays on top of the camera, but since you're looking at an LCD one way or another, there's really no need for it here.

On this side of the camera, you'll find ports for USB, video out, and DC in. As I mentioned, the video out cable is optional.

You can also see the rubber ring on the lens barrel. It doesn't turn or have any function.

Over on the other side, behind a somewhat flimsy plastic door, is the SD/MMC card slot.

You can also see the 16MB SD card that is included with the camera.

Finally, here's the bottom of the Photosmart 850. 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 850

Record Mode

Considering its long lens, the 3 second startup time for the Photosmart 850 is impressive. When the camera doesn't have to use the AF illuminator, autofocus times are good -- about 0.5 - 1 second. Even if it does have use the illuminator, it doesn't take much longer to lock focus.

Shutter lag speeds vary depending on the shutter speed used. In good lighting the shutter lag is minimal. In lower light, the shutter lag is quite noticeable, so those shooting in lower light may want a tripod or a very steady hand.

Shot-to-shot speed is very good as well. With the post-shot review turned off, expect a wait of just over two seconds before you can take another shot. After a picture is taken, you have the option of deleting the picture as it's being written to the card.

The Photosmart 850 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 850:

Resolution Compression Approx. File Size # shots on 16MB card
2272 x 1712
Best (***) 2.5 MB 5
Better (**) 1.0 MB 13
Good (*) 500 KB 26

1136 x 848

Best (***) 1.0 MB 13
Better (**) 400 KB 35
Good (*) 200 KB 71

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 850 has a very nice looking, intuitive menu system. One thing that did annoy me though was the inability for it to remember settings when the camera was turned off. I'd at least like to have that option.

Update 11/18/02: Want to recall the settings you last used? Hold down the "OK" button while starting up the Photosmart 850. I'd rather have it as a menu option, but this is better than nothing. Thanks to Mark Ferguson for the tip!

Anyhow, here's a look at the menus:

  • Exposure mode
    • Auto
    • Action
    • Landscape
    • Portrait
    • Aperture Priority - you choose aperture from F2.8 - F12.4
    • Shutter Priority - You choose shutter speed ranging from 16 - 1/2000 sec
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent, manual)
  • AE metering (Average, center-weighted, spot)
  • ISO speed (Auto, 100, 200)
  • Color (Full color, black & white, color)
  • Resolution (2272 x 1712, 1136 x 848)
  • Compression (Best, better, good)

As you can see, the Photosmart 850 has manual control of shutter speed, aperture, and white balance. I'm glad to see that HP is putting these controls on their cameras. If I recall, the Photosmart 812 didn't have any white balance controls at all. Or exposure compensation, for that matter.

One thing missing on the 850 is any kind of continuous shooting.

In addition to that menu, there's also a setup menu, with these options:

  • Audio record (on/off) - if this is on, you can add 30 second voice annotations to each picture
  • Instant review (Off, 2, 4, 6 secs)
  • Camera sounds (High, low, off)
  • Eye-start (on/off) - turns the EVF eye sensor on/off
  • Date & Time (set)
  • USB configuration (Digital camera [PTP], disk drive [Mass Storage])
  • TV configuration (NTSC, PAL)
  • Language (English, Deutsch, Español, Français, Italiano)

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

The Photosmart 850 did a very nice job with the macro test. The image is plenty sharp, and nicely focused. Colors are very saturated as well... the real figurine isn't quite that blue and red. The focal range in macro mode is 10 - 80 cm. One thing to note is that the lens won't go any further than 3.5X while in macro mode.

The night shot was fairly good as well. If I could take the picture again, I probably would use a slightly faster shutter speed, as this one is a bit overexposed. You can definitely see some purple fringing in this shot. Thanks for manual shutter speed control, you can take low light shots with ease. Just remember to use a tripod.

For the redeye shot this time, I enlisted my dad, who has been recovering from surgery at home (so I took his picture before he could escape). As you can see the Photosmart 850 did a fine job with the redeye test -- nothing to see here!

I must say that I was very pleased with the photo quality on the Photosmart 850. The color and exposure were both very good, and I must admit I was surprised by that. The two photo quality issues I noticed were "jaggies" on the edges of some of my photos, and the chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) that are "par for the course" on big zoom cameras. I didn't have time to take as many pictures as I would've liked, but I am definitely happy with what I did see. Have a look at the photo gallery and see if you agree with me!

Movie Mode

The Photosmart 850 lets you record movies, with sound, for up to 60 seconds. Movies are saved in MPEG format -- I believe this is the first non-Sony camera I've seen to use this format.

Movies are saved at the rather unusual resolution of 288 x 208.

You know how cameras that record sound with movies never let you use the zoom during filming? The Photosmart 850 shows you why. Believe it or not, you can use the zoom during recording... and well, I'll let the sample movie speak for itself.

Click to play movie (2.6MB, MPEG format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The 850 has a very basic playback mode, aside from the Instant Share stuff I described earlier. All you can do is view pictures, delete them, and magnify them (what I call zoom and scroll). There's no slide shows, no thumbnail mode, and no real info about your photos either.

The magnification feature lets you blow up the picture to 4X (and nothing in between), and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. It takes a few seconds for the 850 to blow up the image, but after that, it's smooth scrolling (bad pun, I know).

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

The 850 moves through images very quickly, especially considering their size. The only way to get any real information is to enter the menu, and even then, it's not much (see the menu screenshot above).

How Does it Compare?

The Photosmart 850 is HP's best camera yet, in my opinion. It gives other "big zoom" cameras a real run for the money. Speaking of money, at $499, the 850 is a great value for a 4 Megapixel camera with an 8X zoom lens. It's a shame the bundle is so poor, with a small memory card, no rechargeable batteries, and an A/V cable that's sold separately. But in terms of features, the 850 shines. You get manual shutter speed, aperture, and white balance controls. You get an AF illuminator. And the Instant Share system paired with HP's software can't be beat. The photo quality was also impressive. It's not as good as the best 4 Megapixel cameras, but I'd be happy with it. The only other negative is allowing the zoom to be used during filming (never thought I'd say that). But all in all, the Photosmart 850 is well worth a look if you want a camera with a lot of pixels and a lot of zoom, for not a lot of money. (That's a lot of lots!)

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • 4 Megapixels, 8X zoom for $499? Wow.
  • Excellent Instant Share system + software bundle
  • Electronic viewfinder is choppy, but usable, in low light
  • Has an AF illuminator lamp
  • Plenty of manual controls
  • Robust performance

What I didn't care for:

  • Some chromatic aberrations + jaggies in photos
  • Lousy bundle, aside from software
  • Zoom + audio recording in movie mode = major lens noise
  • Limited playback mode

Some other cameras with a big zoom and 3+ Megapixels include the Fuji FinePix 3800 and S602 Zoom, Minolta DiMAGE 7Hi, Nikon Coolpix 5700, Olympus C-720 and C-730 Ultra Zooms, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F717.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Photosmart 850 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 850 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.

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