No company wants to be known as a supplier of cheap digital cameras, but Toshiba Imaging Systems is trying to establish itself as your first choice for inexpensive ones.
Right now, a 2-megapixel autofocus camera with 3X optical instead of just chintzy digital zoom is the sweet spot of the digital photography market - quality enough for at least decent 8 by 10-inch prints or gorgeous 5 by 7's, with at least a few manual or creative controls as well as automatic point-and-shoot modes. From most vendors, such a camera will cost you around $400 - a fair deal, well below prices a year ago.
From Toshiba, it's $279. The PDR-M25 is no toy, either, but a 1,792 by 1,200-pixel picture-taker with adjustable flash, exposure, ISO, and white balance settings, a macro mode for shots as close as 3 inches, and a video-out port to view images or slide shows on your TV.
Has Toshiba succeeded in being like Target - discount prices, but with style and flair -- or will it suffer the stigma of K-Mart - low prices, but lackluster offerings?
To be sure, the PDR-M25 doesn't have every feature on a digital camera addict's wish list. While it has a video-out port, it can't capture video clips or movies (not even silent ones). It doesn't come with a rechargeable battery and charger, but uses four AA batteries, so you'll want to consider buying a set of NiMH cells - although we got a reasonable two and a quarter hours' shooting, despite a fair amount of LCD monitor use, from four Energizer alkalines.
Like all but the oldest digital cameras, the Toshiba comes with a USB cable for faster-than-serial image transfers to a PC, but it isn't automatically recognized as a USB storage device by Windows Me, 2000, and XP - we had a bit of a hassle installing the supplied USB driver and Image Expert software. Like all but a few digital cameras, the PDR-M25 comes with a too-small storage card - an 8MB SmartMedia card. That's only enough space for seven of its best-quality, 1,792-by-1,200-resolution JPG images, although you can save as many as 29 images by selecting a lower-quality (higher compression) JPG format or as many as 112 by opting for smaller, 896 by 600-pixel shots. There is no uncompressed TIFF format available.
The silver PDR-M25 is attractive in a retro-sci-fi sort of way, too big to conceal in a pocket or palm like some of its rivals, but still compact at 4.1 by 2.7 by 2.2 inches. It weighs 12 ounces with batteries and memory card in place. We wish its smooth shape had more of a grip for one-handed operation, and suspect point-and-shooters would prefer a built-in, sliding lens cover to its snap-on lens cap (even though an eyelet and tether keep the cap from getting lost).
A rubber flap covers USB, video cable, and AC adapter (not included) ports on the camera's right side, while a door at the left rear covers the SmartMedia slot. At the rear, a small viewfinder with no diopter adjustment sits between the power switch and a four-way compass button for navigating menus and making selections; a rocker switch at top right handles wide angle/telephoto zoom.
The Toshiba's LCD monitor is relatively small (1.5-inch diagonal), low-resolution (61,600 pixels), and prone to wash out in sunlight, but adequate for most shot-framing and -reviewing duties. In playback mode, pressing the center of the compass button toggles between single-shot and nine-at-a-time thumbnail display, while the zoom switch toggles a smooth-scrolling 3X close-up view. A trash-can button beside the monitor takes care of deleting unwanted shots or (if held down) formatting the SmartMedia card, while a southern compass push summons a menu for starting a slide show, protecting images, or resaving them in a smaller size.
On top of the camera, a dial behind the shutter button switches among playback, auto record, manual record, and setup modes, the last letting you set the date and time, restart sequential shot numbering, turn off sound effects, and specify the menu language, NTSC or PAL video-out format, and one-, two-, or three-minute automatic power-off.
A monochrome control-panel LCD shows battery status, the number of shots left before filling the memory card, and your current settings -- governed by three buttons below the LCD -- for image size/quality (cycling through the two sizes and three quality levels); flash (automatic, always on, always off, red-eye reduction, or slow sync for night shooting); and self-timer (with two- or 10-second delay) and macro modes.
Being able to choose flash, macro, and image settings without using the LCD monitor menu is a plus for the PDR-M25. The south-compass menu in record mode lets you switch on or off the monitor (both as a viewfinder and for a brief image preview after each shot); specify 100, 200, or 400 ISO or black-and-white shooting; and switch from normal single-shot to a one- or two-second long exposure ("bulb" mode) or a "multi" mode that takes 16 shots in four seconds and saves them as a single, four-by-four-tile mosaic.
Switch to manual record mode, and two mini-menus appear on the rear monitor: one letting you adjust exposure control from -1.5 to +1.5 EV in 0.3 EV increments, and the other offering white-balance or ambient-light settings for flashless shots - automatic, outdoor daylight (but no cloudy setting), incandescent, regular fluorescent, or cool fluorescent. You won't find an option for softer or harder image sharpness, manual shutter or aperture priority, exposure bracketing, or the "best shot selection" of the Coolpix 775 and other Nikon digicams.
The Toshiba's 3X optical zoom lens (F/2.9 to F/6.9, 6.2mm to 18.6mm, equivalent to 38mm to 114mm on a 35mm film camera) is supplanted by a 2X digital zoom when you want maximum range. Focus in regular mode is 1.3 feet to infinity, while macro mode goes from 3 inches to infinity. The built-in flash is rated for 1.3 to 8.2 feet, and its red-eye reduction mode works well.
As for the acid test of image quality, we were genuinely impressed with the PDR-M25's outdoor, auto-exposure shots; family picnics and landscapes looked bright and sharp on both our PC monitor and ink-jet printouts. When the party moved indoors, however, flash shots were disappointingly grainy, although tinkering with exposure and white balance yielded some tolerable no-flash images and macro close-ups were good.
If you're on a tight budget and take mostly outdoor photos, the Toshiba PDR-M25 is a bargain (although we'd say the same of the $299 Fuji FinePix 2600 Zoom, which comes with a bigger 16MB SmartMedia card and can record video clips, but lacks TV-out). If you care about indoor portraits and more flexible controls, we'd suggest spending the extra money for a fancier 2-megapixel model like the Coolpix 775 ... or moving higher up Toshiba's line.
Pros: Maybe the most affordable 2-megapixel, 3X-optical-zoom digital camera; compact design, convenient controls; outdoor shots as sharp as any camera's in its class.
Cons: Indoor flash shots not nearly as good as daylight snaps; can't record video clips or save uncompressed TIFF images; a bit awkward to use one-handed; typically skimpy 8MB flash card.