DCRP Review: Umax AstraCam
by Jeff Keller [DCRP Founder/Webmaster]
Last revised: Tuesday, December 14, 1999

If there is one thing I like about reviewing barebones cameras, it's how short the reviews are. After all, there's not a lot of features to go over!

What I don't like is how stripped they feel, especially after being spoiled with so many high end 2Mpixel cameras!

The Umax AstraCam is a Windows-only, unique digital camera that retails for $199. It has no zoom, no flash, no removable media-- no 'anything'. It takes photos at 640x480, and can interpolate to 1280x960. That doesn't mean the photo quality is comparable to a 1 Mpixel camera though.

What is unique about this camera is the way you hook it up to your PC -- just like your Palm organizer!

Read on to find out more about this camera...

What's in the Box

Just like the camera itself, there's not a lot included in the box either.

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

  • The AstraCam camera
  • Cradle (see below) with USB and battery charger
  • 2 NiMH (AAA) rechargeable batteries
  • Camera strap
  • PhotoDeluxe 3.0 for Windows
  • AstraCam software (PhotoCabinet, VistaShuttle, TWAIN drivers)
  • Quick Start Guide

There's no lens cap included with this camera.

The cradle is what separates the AstraCam from any other camera which I've tested. You have one cable which plugs into an AC adapter which plugs into the wall. This allows your camera to recharge while in the cradle. It also has a USB cable that you plug right into your Windows98 PC. I did try to plug it into my Mac, but it needs drivers. There is no other interface, so if you don't have USB and Win98, you're out of luck.

Look and Feel

The AstraCam is one of smallest cameras I've ever seen, and the lightest, by far. This is probably because there's not much inside that plastic case!

The front of the camera (see top photo) features only a F2.8 lens (with no cover), and the optical viewfinder.

The back of the camera is where all the action is. The first thing you'll notice is that there's no LCD. The LCD info display that's usually on the top of most cameras is on the back here. It shows battery status, photos remaining, white balance mode, and camera/microphone status.

The erase button deletes one photo at a time, or all of them, if you hold the button down long enough. The mode button switches between four white balance modes: Sun, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent.

The optical viewfinder is well placed, though it lacks diopter correction.

Let's talk about the top of the camera for a second-- there's the power switch, and the shutter release. Ok, next!

The bottom of the camera is where all the action is. You can see the slot where you plug the camera into the cradle. Also, that door on the left is for accessing the batteries. There is no tripod mount.

Using the AstraCam

Since the camera is so easy to use, this will be quick. To startup the camera, you just flip the switch on the top -- the camera is ready to go in about two seconds.

There are two modes you can use with the AstraCam -- with record feature, and without it. With it, you can add up to 20 seconds of audio to each photo (and store 31 photos in the camera). If you choose to turn off record mode, you get 46 photos. I should note that you can only switch between these two modes when the internal memory is empty! From my time playing with the audio recording, I'd say the quality is pretty low -- it's pretty scratching, but you can still understand what is being said.

To take a picture, you just press the shutter release all the way down -- and wait. There's about a 2 second lag between the time you press the button and the time the shutter opens. The only feedback you get during the process is one beep at the beginning, and another when the photo is taken. To the AstraCam's credit, the cycle time between shots is fairly quick.

Since there's no LCD, there is no playback mode, or menus to talk about. Most of the work is done in the software that's included with the camera.

To view your photos, you put the AstraCam in the cradle, and press download. Usually, Windows fires up PhotoCabinet, and downloads your photos. Other times, pushing the button would do nothing. If I went into PhotoCabinet and told it to download the photos from the camera, it would hard crash my PC.

If you can manage to get into Umax's software (I did at first, but soon couldn't find a way back in), you can do a number of things to your photos (besides rotate them!). One is to adjust brightness, contrast, highlight, shadow, and gamma, in real-time. The other is something called After Shot Recovery (ASR), which lets you switch between different white balance settings, as if you were retaking the photo.

Another thing you can do with the software is put the camera in "megapixel" mode. Don't let this mislead you -- it's just interpolating. Here's an example:

On the left is the 640x480 version, on the right is the 1280x960 version. I'm not sure if this is good or bad interpolation. The photo quality, in general, was pretty bad. And with no flash, when the sun goes down, you're out of luck.

Using PhotoDeluxe, PhotoCabinet, and VistaShuttle, you can do a number of things with your photos, including create cards and calendars, and e-mail pictures with sound attachments.

How does it compare?

I'd never used a true entry-level camera before the AstraCam. As a regular Coolpix 950 user, I'm spoiled I guess. I don't think you can get anymore bare bones than this -- and if you want to pay very little, perhaps that's to be expected?

What I liked:

  • Neat cradle idea
  • Rechargeable batteries
  • USB!
  • Decent design (and it's light, too)

What I didn't like:

  • Lousy photos
  • Unreliable software
  • Lack of features
  • High price for what you get

There are a number of competitors in this area, from fairly obscure makers like Relisys and Mustek. Some more familiar models include the Agfa ePhoto Smile, which retails for $129 (it interpolates to 640x480-- yikes!) and the Fuji MX-1200, which costs about $250 (and features a real 1.2 Mpixel CCD, SmartMedia support, and flash!).

As always, we advise you to head out to your local store and try the AstraCam and its competitors before you buy. I would strongly urge you to spend an extra $100 or $200 to move out of the entry level arena, though! With any camera in this price range, corners are cut!

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 the Steve's Digicams review of the AstraCam.

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

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