posted by JBQ on Mon 31st Jul 2006 18:06 UTC
IconGeeks.com, as usual a great source of Kodak digital cameras, sent us a Kodak P850 for review. The P850 is a current camera in the Kodak lineup, announced exactly a year ago. It's the lower model in Kodak's "performance" P range (the other ranges are the entry-level C cameras, super-zoom Z cameras, and pocket V cameras). As a member of the P range, the P850 has a few features that are only found in some high-end point-and-shoots and in DSLRs, e.g. the ability to record raw files, or to use an external flash via a hot shoe. Note: OSNews is a broad tech site (and has been for years), such non-software reviews are welcome here even if our focus remains towards "system software".

As Geeks.com had indicated, the camera was a refurbished one, and (as we've experienced several times in the past) the only hints that it had been refurbished were the generic box and a "refurbished" sticker on the camera; without a doubt Kodak is serious about bringing the camera back to their original specifications when refurbishing them.

There are plenty of digital cameras from all manufacturers that offer different features, at different price points. Whenever I consider a digital camera, I try to consider how the manufacturer intended to position them on the feature/price curve, and how they succeeded in that goal. That is why I don't rush to compare specifications between cameras.

Kodak P850

The P850 is priced aggressively against its competition, being listed below $300. In fact, there are very few cameras with a 10x or 12x zoom and optical image stabilization at that price, and none that offers raw shooting or a hot shoe.

So, what market does Kodak target with this camera? I've struggled for a while trying to find an answer to that question. It's certainly priced far too low to compete with DSLRs (the cheapest DSLR costs about twice as much, and that's without a lens. Adding image-stabilized lenses that cover the same range of angles makes the price sky-rocket). On the other hand, its distinguishing features (flash hot-shoe and raw shooting) are an indication that Kodak intends the camera to be used by photographers aspiring to do more than simply point and shoot. The best description of the market for this camera is that it might be the second camera of someone who already uses a DSLR but needs a smaller and lighter camera, and that's how I'm going to review it.

By DSLR standards, the P850 is very small and very light. In fact, it weighs less than a pound in "ready-to-shoot" configuration, and it is smaller than even the Canon Digital Rebel XT. While not really intended to be a pocket camera, it does fit in the side pocket of my cargo pants and shorts, but I wouldn't leave it there for a long hike.

What I quickly noticed about the P850 when I started to handle it is the sheer number of buttons that it has. There are 13 buttons, one more than on my Canon 5D DSLR, and their layout doesn't seem to follow much logic. The autofocus control is on the top-left, the auto-exposure control is on the top-right, while the AF/AE lock is on the back. There is a programmable button on the top-right, but some of the functions that would be likely to be assigned to such a button (e.g. explicit AF) aren't available. While the layout of the buttons is sub-optimal but can easily be learnt, the tactile feedback of the buttons is very poor: the buttons are very small in diameter and are mounted flush with the surface of the camera, which makes them hard to feel and harder to press. Because they're mounted close to one another and there's no difference in their textures, it's easy to press the wrong button. Michael Reichmann (of Luminous Landscape fame) always tests cameras with gloves, because he knows he often shoots in cold conditions, and the P850 wouldn't pass his glove test. Finally, the location of some of the buttons makes them uncomfortable (exposure) or impossible (focus) to reach without taking the eye away from the viewfinder and shifting the hand positions; some others (share) are in locations where they tend to be pressed by accident. That's certainly a disappointment.

In addition to the buttons, the P850 has several other controls. There's a master mode dial at the top, with the usual PASM, green, scene and movie modes, plus 3 sets of custom settings. Having 3 different sets of custom settings is certainly nice to have. In fact a common complaint about the Canon 5D is that there's only one such set (and plenty of available space on the master mode dial). Just below the master mode dial is the zoom control, which feels unpredictable: from the widest setting, a quick flick to the right causes the zoom motor to emit some noise, but the angle of view doesn't change. From there, it takes two quick flicks to the left to get the zoom indicator back to the starting pint, and at each point the zoom motor emits some noise but the framing doesn't change. Just next to the zoom control is the command dial. Combined with the set button, it is used to change various shooting parameters like aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation. Unfortunately, the dial is too small, made of hard plastic, and mounted too deep inside the camera, so that it's somewhat hard to use. Finally, much further down the back of the camera is a 5-way joystick, which is used to select the focus/meter point while shooting.

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