DCRP Review: HP PhotoSmart C500
by Jeff Keller [DCRP Creator/Webmaster]
Originally Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000
Last revised: Monday, April 10, 2000

Of all the major camera manufacturers, HP has been one of the two holdouts on sending review cameras my way (Sony being the other one). Well, no more. First we've got the C500, and look for reviews of the interesting new PhotoSmart cameras later this summer.

The $699 PhotoSmart C500 is the first camera we've tested that uses Flashpoint's DigitaOS, which allows the C500 to do some things that other cameras just can't: like download new features right into the camera. It also can use HP's JetSend technology to print via infrared to select printers (my Laserjet 2100TN being an example). So with all these nifty features, can it still take pictures?

What's in the Box

The PhotoSmart C500 has everything you need to get started, with one major exception.

Inside the box for the camera, you'll find:

  • The 2 Mpixel PhotoSmart C500 camera
  • An 16MB CompactFlash card
  • Three NiMH batteries and charger
  • Neck strap
  • Video-out cable
  • Serial cables (PC only)
  • USB cable
  • Software package including PhotoImpact
  • "Basics" manual

HP has committed the same mistake that Nikon did when the initially came out: not including a "real" manual. I suppose you could use the 30 page basics guide to get started, but if you want more details, you have to actually download the PDF manual from HP's site! I'm thinking that they planned it this way, since on the first page of the Basics manual, they mention how to get it online. Regardless, this was the first disappointment with this camera.

Onto some better news now: Rechargeable batteries (3 of them) and a charger are included, which is always nice. For Mac users, you must have USB to use this camera -- no serial options are available.

And of course, there's a lens cap, with a strap to keep it from getting lost. That always makes me happy.

Look and Feel

I don't always trust my first impressions of a camera, but this time they were correct. The first thing that came to my mind when I unboxed the C500 was "wow, this thing looks really cheap." Now, if this camera was maybe $300, I wouldn't have a problem with it. But it's $700, which means it competes with the Coolpix 950, Olympus C-2020Z, and other higher end cameras, so you've got to keep up.

It's not as much the rectangular body, which appears to be metal -- but more the controls and buttons. There's just too much plastic that looks like its about to fall off. To HP's credit, the camera does fit well in the hand, and there are no nose smudging issues, regardless of which eye you use. Let's take a look to see what I mean:

Looking at the back now: You can see a "dimple" for your left thumb to rest on. The optical viewfinder doesn't include a diopter correction wheel, so those of us with glasses are out of luck. In the middle you can see buttons for controlling the LCD - menu on/off, overlay on/off, and LCD on/off. There's also the four-way navigation switch, and the three "soft" buttons below the LCD.

The LCD on the PhotoSmart C500 is quite possibly the worst I've tested. My minor complaint with it is that even when the brightness is all the way up, it's still not very bright. But the big problem is that it's really choppy, and not in real-time. My Coolpix 950 runs circles around it, and its been out for a year.

That brings us to the zoom controls, which could've been better. There's a bit too much lag when you push the button either way -- it's just not responsive.

Now we're at the top of the camera, where most of the cheesy plastic buttons I referred to are stationed. The usual LCD display is there, with diamonds (below "53") representing photo quality. This is similar to Toshiba's use of stars on their cameras, with one diamond being the lowest quality (most JPEG compression) and four being the highest (least compression). There is no uncompressed TIFF mode on this camera. The button just below "C500" there is labeled as "Share". If you look in the included Basics manual for what this button does, you will be out of luck. If you download the real manual, you'll find out that this uses the JetSend feature to transmit data to a printer.

The mode wheel has four choices: Record, Review, Play, and PC. Review is essentially the same as Play, but with a different interface. It also lets you mark and categorize your photos. The button just right of the mode wheel is the power button.

A look at one side of the camera, with the computer output port under a rubber cover. Other I/O ports include video out and power in.

Under a plastic cover on the other size lies the CompactFlash (Type I) slot. The card ejects easily, which is one thing that many cameras don't do too well. HP includes a 16Mb card, which is respectable.

Lastly, a look at the bottom of the camera. There's a tripod mount right in the middle, with a spot for a watch battery below that. To the left is the main battery door, which holds three batteries. This comes back to haunt you later, as the C500 drinks batteries.

Using the HP PhotoSmart C500

Things don't get a whole lot better when you power up the C500. It takes nearly ten seconds before the camera is ready to start taking pictures. By default, the LCD is off (good for saving those batteries), and the LCD is pretty lousy anyway, so I found myself using the optical viewfinder most of the time.

When it's time to take a picture, be prepared to wait again. There's lag both when the camera locks focus, and when it actually takes the picture. I'd say its about one second for each. Once I got used to this, I was able to take some photos of fast moving objects that came out pretty well. But for spontaneous photos, it's tough.

You don't have a lot of options in record mode. There's the usual stuff like flash, exposure compensation, burst mode, and macro mode, but that's about it. If you're looking to set the shutter speed manually, forget it.

But it could happen eventually. One of the neat things about the DigitaOS is that you can add new features to your camera just by downloading them from Flashpoint's website. Do you want the camera to create HTML pages and thumbnails of your photos, automatically? Download it now. Want digital zoom (why, I don't know)? That's available too. So, it remains a possibility that one day, you'll be able to download an uncompressed TIFF mode, a shutter priority mode, and a panorama helper. But out of the box, those things don't exist.

But here's the weird thing: with the exception of low-light shots (see below), the camera takes pretty good pictures. Take a look at the gallery, and these two macro shots below:

As I said, the C500 isn't great at low-light pictures. For this very unscientific test, I turned the lights down in the living room, and shot from the same place, with and without flash:

Keep in mind that in the shots above, the room was not dark: the light is on, and a camera with a slow shutter mode could've brought it out. And check out that lovely Target entertainment center!

The menus are different that most cameras (since they are Digita-based), but are easy to figure out. There aren't a whole lot of options at this point, but as I said, that may change in the future.

Jumping into play mode now: I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that my photos turned out a lot better once I downloaded them to my computer, compared to the initial viewing on the LCD. Scrolling through images is decent, with about a second delay between photos. You can zoom in several times, and the photos start to look a lot better when you do. There is "live" scrolling when you're zoomed in, as well.

The traditional slideshow is available, and you can delete one or all of your photos.

Mac and PC users are presented with different options when its time to take photos off the camera. For us Mac users, that tool is Digita Desktop, which is similar to NikonView - only slower, but with a few more features. It gets the job done just fine.

The last feature I'll mention is JetSend, which lets you "beam" photos to your infrared-equipped printer. For me, it's a HP LaserJet 2100TN. I was impressed with the printer quality (grayscale, of course) and the speed, but couldn't figure out why it always printed out four copies of everything! Oh well.

How does it compare?

I've decided that the PhotoSmart C500 is good in certain situations: Still subjects, macro shots, and "anticipated action" where you can frame your shot ahead of time. It also helps if the scene is well lit, as you saw earlier in the review.

The Good:

  • Good photos with accurate color, in well-lit situations
  • DigitaOS allows new features to be downloaded into camera
  • USB support
  • Includes rechargeable batteries and charger

The Bad:

  • Looks/feels cheap
  • Slow, slow, slow
  • No manual controls
  • Miserable LCD display
  • I have to get the manual from where?

As much as I hate to bash cameras, this site was created to help the consumer make a purchasing decision. That said, I really cannot recommend the HP PhotoSmart C500, at least at this price. $700 goes a long way these days, with far superior cameras available for that price, or less (you can pick up a Coolpix 950 for a little over $500 after rebate right now).

There are tons of other cameras to consider: The aforementioned Coolpix 950, the PowerShot S10 and S20, Olympus C-2020Z, Fuji MX-2900, Casio QV-2000UX, and Toshiba PDR-M5, to name just a few.

Photo Gallery

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

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com.

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