DCRP Review: Toshiba PDR-M5
by Jeff Keller [DCRP Creator/Webmaster]
Last revised: Monday, October 25, 1999

One of the most eagerly awaited cameras of the year has been the Toshiba PDR-M5. Users who read my review of the PDR-M4 will recall that I was very enthusiastic about the camera... but couldn't really recommend it without a zoom lens. The M5 is the answer to our prayers -- same Toshiba speed, good feature set... is it what we've all been waiting for?`

Above: Here's the camera with the power on.

What's in the Box

Toshiba should be applauded for the excellent package of goodies they toss in the box. Here's a rundown:

  • The 2.1 Mpixel PDR-M5 camera
  • An 8MB SmartMedia card
  • Rechargable Li-Ion battery (Update: Our review unit, as well as cameras sold at Best Buy, included 2 batteries)
  • AC adapter
  • Hand strap
  • Video-out cable
  • Serial cables (PC style, with Mac adapter)
  • USB cable
  • Software package including ImageExpert and drivers
  • Owners manuals for camera and software

Above you can see the camera, with cheesy plastic lens cap, and the two batteries that our camera included. As for the lens cap issue: it doesn't always like to stay on, but at least they included a strap so you don't lose it.

The manual is one of those first half English, second half French types. Toshiba is one of the best at camera manuals, giving good instructions with illustrations, as well as a handy glossary at the end.

Look and Feel

This area is kind of a mixed bag for the M5. The thing looks weird... for some reason, it reminds me of a beluga whale. It doesn't feel terribly solid... I found the Ricoh RDC-5300 and Canon PowerShot S10 (see below) to feel a little less "cheap".

In size, it's actually pretty small-- smaller than I had imagined. It holds its own against other cameras in this class, with the exception of the PowerShot.

Here's a size comparison for you.

This camera would win points with my dad, the "nose smudge policeman" of the family. Since the optical viewfinder is to the left, your nose stays off the LCD (at least if you're right-eyed).

My dad's other big beef is how a camera fits in your hand. Neither him nor I are a big fan of this one, especially for your left hand. There's just enough room to get a good grip on the camera with it.

One last complaint and then I'll stop: For some reason, the diopter correction on the optical viewfinder never really gets things in focus.

An area where Toshiba again scores major points with this reviewer is the little info LCD screen on the back of the camera. Most camera makers assume that you'll never use the camera at night. Why? Well, because they make it impossible to read how many photos you have left, or what flash settings are being used. The folks at Toshiba figured it out, and like with the PDR-M4, the M5 has a backlit LCD display. Bravo!

If you look at the photo above, you can see the unconventional scheme Toshiba has come up with for photo resolution and compression settings. First, there is Full (1600x1200) and half (800x600). My manager at work thought that the card was full when he saw this. Secondly, there is a "star" rating system for quality (from one to three stars). The more stars, the higher quality (and less compression). This makes sense.

So let us now begin our tour of the PDR-M5. The one thing I do want to mention up front is that the lens barrel is threaded, and you can buy an adapter ring so you can "attach a commercially available optical filter to your camera" (manual, p.103).

So let's take a look at the back of the camera:

It's pretty similar to the M4 model that we looked at before. Looking at the bottom, above the LCD display: Timer mode, Quality (moves between Full/Half and quality settings), Flash.

The four way switch is for using the menus. Below that is the menu button (needs no explanation), the Display button (used for turning off the LCD, usually), macro mode, and delete.

The zoom button is well placed -- there's no mistaking it for anything else. Toshiba has got button placement figured out. And, there's no two handed work needed to change settings.

Moving on to the mode dial:

While a bit on the blurry side (you can see where the PowerShot S10 focused on this one), the usual modes are here -- no surprises. Setup, PC, Play, Off, Auto record, manual record.

A minor annoyance is that when you go from record to play, it draws the lens back into the camera (the PowerShot S10 did this as well).

Using the Toshiba PDR-M5

As I've said countless times, I loved the PDR-M4 because of its quick response times, and great play abilities. Now that we've added a zoom into the equation, how does that change things?

Well, the speed hasn't changed--it's still fast. But I was a little disappointed with the focusing system. Much like the Fuji MX-2900, this thing is often uninterested in focusing the first time you depress the button. To make matters worse, the thing is noisy. I don't understand why it has to be so loud... I've used many other cameras with zooms of 3X or larger, and with the exception of this and the MX-2900, they've all been both quiet and responsive. Luckily, that is only one of my three complaints with the camera. I'll get to the other two in a bit.

There are two record modes-- auto and manual. In either mode, you can choose from 5 different types of photos:

  • 1 Shot (need I say more?)
  • Burst (4 shots in a row, in about 2 seconds or so. Once it takes them, you can choose which to keep, and which to dump.)
  • Multi (just like on the Coolpix 950-- takes 16 photos in a row, and puts them into a collage.)
  • Bulb (for night shots)
  • Movie (read on)

The movie feature is new to the M5, and it's a nice one. You can record up to 2 minutes of AVI video (no sound, unfortunately) on one 8Mb card. You can still choose between Full/Half and the Quality stars, which affects how much video you can store. You start out pushing the shutter release just like any photo, but then it's like a camcorder. You can move around and zoom just like your Handicam. There's a handy counter on both LCD displays showing how many seconds you have left before you fill up the card.

In auto record mode, you can change a few things, like flash, macro, and ISO sensitivity (you can choose between normal, +1, and +2, which I assume is 100, 200, and 400).

Manual record mode was a bit of a disappointment, considering that this is Toshiba's answer to the Coolpix 950 and C-2000Z. The only additional things you can change are white balance, exposure compensation, aperture (more in a sec), and focus area. Yes, I said aperture... but this isn't a true aperture priority mode, nor is there a shutter priority mode. Here you can set your aperture to auto, F3.5, and F7.6. There isn't a manual focus option either, nor anyplace to attach an external flash (the Fuji MX-2900 had that though). Complaint #2 out of the way.

Above: The overlay-style menus in manual mode.

Moving on to the fantastic play mode (Toshiba has got this one down too). Here you can jump between photos very quickly, zoom in on them, and then scroll around them in real time. Very nice. If you've taken AVI movies, you can view them on the LCD. If you want to delete one photo, or all, you just hit the delete button (quick press to delete one, longer to delete all or format the card). Unfortunately, you cannot delete a group of photos.

My last complaint deals with the folders that it records things into. When I took some photos and a video at the Blue Angels show recently, I was puzzled about why I couldn't find the video. Turns out, it goes in a special folder, and you have to move into it by going into the menu. This took me a long time to figure out.

Connecting to the computer is a piece of cake-- just plug it to the USB port, and it mounts like a hard disk.

How does it compare?

I thought I'd be won over by the PDR-M5, but after using it, I wasn't convinced that it was a Coolpix 950 or C-2000Z beater. In summary:

What I liked:

  • Movies!
  • Very fast processing
  • Good playback mode
  • Well placed controls
  • USB support
  • Backlit LCD display

What I didn't like:

  • Construction could be better
  • No real manual controls
  • Noisy, fussy auto focus
  • Can't delete more than one photo at a time
  • Folder confusion in playback

So this is a tough one.. lots to like, a few annoyances. Decide what your needs are (do you care about manual controls? USB?), try it out in the store, and read other reviews. If I were choosing a camera in this price range, I'd probably lean towards the CP950, C-2000Z, and maybe even the PowerShot S10 (though it also has some of the same flaws as the M5).

Photo Gallery

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

Want a second opinion?

Check out Steve's Digicams review of the PDR-M5.

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

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