By Burt Helm
The Good Stylish, performs well in low-light
The Bad LCD display is grainy, uses its own brand of memory card
The Bottom Line Slick design, but the camera looks better than the pictures it takes
I was flipping through New York magazine, when I came across a full-page spread for the FujiFilm FinePix Z1, in their "Best Bets" section. It's a "sleek ... credit-card-size" camera, the caption read, "that hits the sweet spot for amateur shutterbugs." Since I'm currently on my own search for a super-slim, five megapixel camera, I decided to give the people at FujiFilm a call to see if I could get my hands on a model and test it. While the FinePix Z1's photos didn't floor me, I found it to be a very competent point-and-shoot -- and it certainly has style to spare.
The FinePix Z1, which retails for $400, is easily one of the most attractive cameras I've tested. It measures 4.6 by 0.7 by 3.5 inches -- slightly thicker than some of the slimmest ultracompacts, but not by much. The back and sides of the camera are formed by single piece of brushed aluminum that wraps around to meet the front, which is all black plastic, save for embossed silver letters spelling FINEPIX.
The camera powers on by sliding a panel on the front open, revealing a small lens in the upper right-hand corner along with a flash. The 3x optical zoom mechanism works inside the camera, so nothing ever sticks out. The control layout is simple and straightforward, though it cramped my thumb slightly to reach the buttons. There wasn't too much room for controls because the liquid-crystal display (LCD) screen is a sizeable 2.5 inches, so I can't complain too much.
NIGHT LIGHT. The control layout may be straightforward because there aren't too many extra features to choose from. The Z1 is strictly for snapshots: It comes with only four scene presets, special "black & white" and "chrome" color settings, and a "shooting guide" mode that divides the LCD screen up into a grid. There's also a manual mode that lets you tweak the exposure, adjust the shutter speed, and switch through several white-balance presets.
The scene presets include ones for portraits, landscapes, night shooting, and another -- Natural Light -- for shooting without a flash. The night-shooting mode didn't perform all that well: most of the pictures I took left peoples' faces overexposed by the flash, with the background dark.
But the natural-light preset was excellent. With most of the cameras in this category, I've had trouble taking pictures without a flash. I kept getting blurred images. The FinePix did the most competent job so far. Photos I took of a stuffed cape buffalo in New York City's Museum of Natural History were sharp and had good color balance, despite the glass casing standing between the camera and the buffalo.
SCREEN IMAGE. Photo quality was average for this category of camera. The color contrast looked fine, but in most settings photos came out looking less sharp than photos from most of the other cameras I've looked at. On close examination, it was often hard to pick out details in the photos that looked stunningly sharp on other models. But for someone who just wants to snap shots of friends and print and e-mail them around, this would be of little concern.
The LCD screen on the camera is deceptive. Images on it were a lot grainier than other cameras, especially in low light. There is a nice feature that lets you brighten the LCD in dark rooms, but that also increased the amount of noise on the screen. Once I got photos off the camera and onto my computer, they looked substantially better, and could compete with many other models. I wasn't wowed by the picture quality, but it was a relief to see they weren't nearly so grainy as on the LCD.
MEMORY MATTERS. Another downside is the memory card. FujiFilm sells its own brand of memory, called an xD-Picture Card. The camera comes with a 16Mb card in the box, though a larger storage size will be necessary if you want to shoot more than 20 photos at a time. If you're upgrading and your old camera used the more typical mini-SD card, you're out of luck.
All-in-all, the camera looks better than the photos it takes. If you're a fashionista looking for a sleek, small digital camera to slip into a handbag, don't mind ordinary quality, and don't want a bunch of extras, the FujiFilm FinePix Z1 could make a very nice little accessory.
Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York