I may have mentioned to my fianc- although my recollection is still a little fuzzy -- that I was intrigued by digital photography. On my birthday a few weeks ago, he turned up with the new Kodak mc3 -- a combination digital camera/digital video camera/MP3 player. Sort of the Swiss Army knife of cameras -- many tools in one package.
When my excitement over this extravagant gift wore off, I was horrified thinking about what he must have paid for it. I had looked into digital cameras myself and decided I would have to wait until the prices, which range from $400 to $800 for a good camera, came down. But he confessed that he had paid only $200.
AMAZE YOUR FRIENDS. Well, thank you, dear. And while the price may be part of the attraction, the camera's simplicity is another lure. There only are six buttons plus a volume control and simple slide to switch between digital stills, video, MP3, and playback, which lets you review images and videos.
The software is a breeze to load and includes video and photo imaging software that allows even me to make movies in minutes. But the best part is how easy it is to upload the images from the camera to the PC. The mc3 comes with a handy, Palm-like cradle that you simply slide the camera into. The images automatically appear in the mc3 software that launches on your PC, also automatically, after you've loaded it.
The mc3's first test was a wedding we attended that same weekend just outside Toronto. As the soon-to-newlyweds headed up the aisle, everyone stood to snap the prerequisite photos. I stood up, too -- and with my tiny, 7-ounce camera shot a 15-second digital video. We also filmed the best man singing to the couple, the newlyweds' first dance, and showed off at the party some dozen photos just moments after they were taken. The next day, I e-mailed the bride's parents the QuickTime movie files. QuickTime is an Apple video standard, which means you do need a plug-in to view the files.
I AM A CAMERA. They were thrilled. And I was inspired. Maybe I had been unfairly suspect of digital gadgets. After all, I had done all this without reading the manual. I imagined myself Rollerblading through Central Park listening to MP3s on my mc3. During my breaks (which are frequent when I'm skating), I would amuse myself by shooting a couple of videos of funky New York scenes and zip them off to far-flung friends.
Well, that was the plan. It didn't turn out to be quite that easy. But once I figured out the mc3's limits, I had the most fun I've had in a long time.
Whether shooting inside or out, the mc3 produces decent, low-resolution (640-by-480) images. On a 64MB card, which comes bundled with most mc3s, you'll be able to stash more than 600 still images. (Mine inexplicably came bundled with a tiny 16MB card. I bought a 64 MB card online for about $50, though some cards sell for as much as $90.) You could also choose to shoot four minutes of video at 20 frames-per-second, or 20 minutes at 10 frames per second. I liked that I had the choice of high- or low-quality video because I can decide if quantity or quality is more important in a given situation.
If you forgo pictures (and the multitasking Rollerblade fantasy), the mc3 can hold about 90 minutes of music. But remember, you have to record it at 96 kilobits per second. That's not top quality, but it's great for zipping around the park.
VERY STILL LIFE. The mc3 isn't the first of its kind. Kodak, in fact, has been notoriously slow at getting its digital business off the ground. For the last two years, the company has played second fiddle to Fuji, which beat Kodak to market by six months with its own digital camera/video/MP3 combo, the FinePix 40i. The slim, silver device is sleeker than the plasticky mc3. And Fuji's offering is more sophisticated technically. Video resolution is twice as good. But it also costs twice as much. CNET.com, which tracks electronics pricing, reports that the FinePix sells for anywhere from $384 to $599.
Still, you get what you pay for. While the mc3's images are fine for posting online or e-mailing to a friend, they lack detail. And make sure your subject stands perfectly still -- even the slightest movement causes blurring. Moreover, the camera has no flash, which means that you need good light at all times. Inside shots are O.K. but often have a greenish cast.
And if loading images onto the mc3 is a dream, transferring MP3 files poses problems for a gadgetphobe like me. Kodak made a deal with the devil by including RealNetwork's RealJukeBox software with the mc3. RealJukeBox is the program you use to copy music off CDs so that you can transfer songs to the mc3. RealJukeBox copies the songs, all right, but saves them in its own proprietary format, .ra. That means that instead of simply dragging and dropping files from my hard drive to the device, I had to use the RealJukeBox software to transfer them to the mc3, a process that converts them from .ra to MP3s. This can take about one to two minutes per song. For a reasonable of music, that can add a good 30 minutes to your set-up time.
PROGRAM SWITCH. Of course, I discovered this after spending nearly two hours trying to figure out why the songs weren't in MP3 format in the first place. (O.K., I could've read the manual, but what fun would that have been?) In the end I decided to subvert RealJukeBox altogether by downloading MusicMatch Jukebox -- an excellent (and free) program that saves songs as MP3s.
Now that I've got it all figured out, I'm fulfilling my skating/listening/shooting fantasies. The mc3 is far from perfect, but it's still a good choice for a gadgetphobe like me, or someone who wants to dabble without spending a lot of money. It's not a fabulous camera or video recorder. Nor is there really enough memory to listen to a slew of MP3s. But it does the trick for spontaneous shots and silly moments with friends. More important, it's fun. And after all, isn't that what gadgets are all about? Black covers technology for BusinessWeek Online in New York.