DCRP Review: Toshiba PDR-M4
by Jeff Keller [DCRP Creator/Webmaster]
Last revised: Monday, July 12, 1999

The 2+ million pixel market is getting more crowded indeed! While more competition is welcomed, it's getting harder and harder to choose the best camera!

After our reviews of the Nikon, Olympus, and Ricoh cameras, Toshiba was anxious to let us try a PDR-M4, and we were happy to oblige!

Above: That's two cameras in a row with a built-in lens cover!

What's in the Box

Toshiba throws in all the necessities in the box: There's the camera (you would hope!), USB, serial, and video out cables, software, an 8Mb SmartMedia card, and two manuals. A very nice feature of this camera that I was happy to see was the inclusion of a rechargable Lithium Ion battery and an AC adapter! If you can buy another battery for it, you should be set!

Above: Major kudos to Toshiba for this!

The manual is well written, still a rarity in the digicam world. There's also a separate manual for the included software, Image Expert. There's also USB drivers for Mac and PC on the CD-ROM!

Look and Feel

The camera designers are getting a lot better -- the M4 is the best designed 2Mpixel camera I've used yet! The PDR-M4 is a small, attractive camera that's well built too!

The back of the camera has just five buttons: The round one is a hat switch of sorts: it can go in four directions, as well as being pushed in. This is the only control I think they need to work on... I found it a little difficult to push that enter button sometimes!

Another minor quibble is common: When looking through the optical viewfinder, your nose smudges the LCD screen. Such is life, I guess.

The four other buttons are easy enough: Menu, Display, Macro, Trash. You use the round button for scrolling around in the menus.

Above is a look at the record menu. You'll find that everything is pretty intuitive... you want to make a change, just scroll to that item and push the round button to the right. You can then make your selection by moving up or down, and then push the enter button to save it! Moving around the menus is very easy indeed.

The top of the camera has the feature that got the "Why didn't someone think of that before?" award. See that LCD display on the left side? It has a backlight! Yes, you can actually view how many photos you have left after dark! Amazing!

Besides that feature, the LCD also shows battery life, photos remaining, and quality level. When the camera is off, it's a clock. Below the LCD are buttons for the timer, quality (described below), and flash settings. The wheel on the right has setup, PC connect, play, and two record modes, which will be explained further ahead in our review.

The quality settings are a bit unconventional, but easy enough to understand. There are two "sizes" available: Full, and Half. Full is 1600x1200, and Half is 800x600. The M4 has three levels of quality (how much compression is applied to the images) as well. Instead of the usual "Fine, Normal, Economy" thing, they use stars... with * being the lowest quality, and *** being the highest. Makes sense, no?

There's a door on each side of the camera: One for SmartMedia, and the other for output and power. The Smartmedia door is well designed (see above): you hit the little switch and the door swings open. Push the button inside and out pops the card! The other door isn't quite as sturdy, but it should hold up. There seems to be a trend with these USB connectors on the Ricoh and Toshiba cameras though: it's hard to unplug the cable!

Using the Toshiba PDR-M4

The PDR-M4 is truly a point and shoot-- there are some manual settings, but not a lot. You've got two choices for record mode: Auto and Manual. When you put it in either record mode, the small lens cover opens up, since it's somehow attached to the mode wheel on top of the camera--cute!

Once it's on, you can shoot through the viewfinder or the 1.8" LCD screen, though the latter eats through the battery pretty quickly. Hitting the Display button gets rid of the LCD, and you can also turn off the preview feature, which shows you the photo after you've taken it (why is it called preview then?) Getting into macro mode was easy enough-- you just hit the button on the back. Changing flash settings is equally simple, with the button on the top.

When you hit the menu button (see the photo above), you're presented with a list of options. The first option is Record mode, and you've got four choices: 1 Shot, Burst, Multi, and Bulb. 1 Shot mode is pretty self-explanatory. Burst mode is a "shoot until the buffer is full" mode. Unlike other cameras I've tried, the M4 gives you the results of your rapid fire immediately after you're done-- you can look at what you've just shot and choose which ones to keep!

I was very happy to find another camera with the 16 shot mode (Multi) that my Coolpix 950 has. While not the most useful feature in the world, it's very cool for action shots! I'm not sure where the Bulb term came from (I'm not a pro photographer either, so that could be why), but it's basically a mode which keeps the shutter open for 1, 4, or 8 seconds. That's the only control of shutter speed that you'll find on the M4--there's no aperture control either. Then again, the other camera in the price range that I looked at (the Ricoh RDC-5000) didn't have it either, and I'm not sure if even the Coolpix 700 can do it.

Another feature you won't find is an uncompressed TIFF mode, though I certainly don't miss it.

Getting back to the menu in record mode: You can turn the "preview" on or off (more like the post game show...), choose color or B&W photos (no sepia mode on this camera), tweak the sharpness settings (normal, hard, soft), and change the self timer and LCD brightness settings.

So what does manual mode add? Well, not that much that we haven't seen before... If you look at the photo above (these are taken on my Coolpix 950, BTW) you'll see the four boxes on the bottom of the LCD. Here you can control white balance, exposure compensation, flash intensity (don't see this often), and another new one: focus area (selected on my screen shot above). You can choose what area of the field the camera tries to focus on. I would think you could just point the camera towards that object, depress the button halfway, then move back to center and fire--but who knows?

Enough talk about menus already-- it's time to take photos! And the PDR-M4 does it QUICKLY! This is the fastest camera I've ever used! In less than 2 seconds after turning the mode dial, it's ready to go. Even in the highest quality mode, you can take another photo in under a second-- and rapid fire mode has to be seen to be believed! You'll see some of the samples from this speedy guy further down the page! Photos are numbered sequentially like on other cameras these days.

A brief note about PC connect mode: I didn't try the Image Expert software, but I did use the USB connection on my PowerMac G3 to get the photos off the camera. Like with the Ricoh, USB is THE way to go! It's just like having a card reader -- You can download the whole card in seconds! On my Mac, they appear on the desktop as JPEG files, which can easily be opened.

The PDR-M4 has the best "play" mode of any camera I've tested. The camera's speed allows you to quickly move from one photo to another, and deleting is a snap. When you find a photo you want to get rid of, just hit the "trash" button. Want to delete or format the whole card? Keep holding down the trash button and those options appear. (Along the way, the M4 emits different beeping sounds, which provide good feedback as you move through the menus). You can also do the usual slide shows (with nice transitions between photos), protect certain photos, resize photos on the camera (from full to half size), categorize them, and more.

One of my favorite features in play mode is the "live" zoom mode. On my Coolpix 950, you can zoom into a picture on the LCD, and you can move around it in. But it's jumpy: it just redraws that part that you're moving over to. Not on the M4. Here you can use the round button to move freely through the photo in real time, a very nice touch!

How does it compare?

I really like this camera -- but I wouldn't buy it for one reason: no zoom lens. Now not everybody needs a zoom lens, but I can't live without it. If you can live with digital zoom (see the sample below), then I'd highly recommend this camera. The speed is amazing, and it has a great feature set for the price.

For the same money, though, you can get the RDC-5000 with a true 3X optical zoom lens. I'd give the Toshiba the edge over the Ricoh, if the zoom isn't important, though. I will try to take some comparison photos between these two!

If you can wait a bit, you might want to grab the PDR-M5, which should be coming soon, with a real zoom lens. Other similar cameras available include the Coolpix 700, and the Fuji MX-2700, which also lack an optical zoom.

Photo Gallery

Be sure to blow up the thumbnails to take a closer look! All photos were taken in Full ** mode.

Quick Macro Test

Shot in macro mode; The camera focused on the Test Track car which came out pretty sharp, with the quarter in front a little on the blurry side as a result. The colors are accurate, but the car isn't totally sharp.

Digital Zoom Test

This shot was taken on a tripod out in front of our house. The shot on the right has 2X digital zoom turned out, which produced a pretty good photo. Keep in mind that with digital zoom, it's 2X or nothing--there's no in between.

Other Photos

Here's a shot of the C-2000Z that got a little too much light from outside. A little Photoshop work fixes this problem, of course.

The traditional flower shot in the shade.

A shot of my car (I wish...)

What review would be complete without the requisite cat picture?!

More photos are available in the PDR-M4 gallery!

You might want to compare these with my Coolpix 950, Olympus C-2000Z, and RDC-5000 galleries.

Steve's Digicams also reviewed this camera, in case you want a second opinion.

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

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