If you have only two Benjamins to spend and still crave a 5-megapixel camera, this HP compact fills the bill. However, don't expect any frills. This camera is delivered sans memory card, rechargeable batteries, or charger, and its feature set mainly covers the basics. But the real killer is mediocre image quality, with soft images that break down when enlarged much beyond 4x6 inches. Still, the price is right, and the camera is easy to operate. It may satisfy casual snapshooters who value simplicity over versatility. With an upscale-looking gray-and-metallic-silver plastic body, this compact 6.5-ounce camera will fit in most pockets. The HP Photosmart M417's design is aimed squarely at neophyte photographers who want to spend minimal time studying manuals and the maximum time snapping photos.
The top surface has only two buttons: one to take still photos and the other to start video-clip capture. The movie button is slightly recessed to reduce the chance of pressing the wrong one accidentally. On the back panel, six well-labeled buttons to the left and above the 1.8-inch LCD control the most common functions. Also on the back are a power switch, a zoom rocker with ends at the 9 o'clock and 12 o'clock positions (to fall under your thumb when your index finger is on the shutter release), and a four-way cursor pad with a central menu/OK button.
The controls are intuitive, even for new users. The Flash button cycles through available flash options, including red-eye reduction, forced off, forced on (fill), auto, and slow sync (Night). The Mode key lets you access the skimpy but serviceable scene- and focus-mode selection, which includes Action, Portrait, Landscape, Beach/Snow, Macro, and Fast Shot; the last option sets a fixed focal distance to bypass autofocus-induced shutter lag.
Another button selects a 2- or 10-second self-timer or burst mode; the one below it invokes the Instant Share menu for outputting images to a printer or e-mail. Other buttons activate display options or playback. Because the limited controls can be activated from the back panel, trips to menu land won't be frequent while snapshooting. Exposure compensation is the only frequently accessed adjustment that's tucked away in the five menu tabs, which include a useful Help page with tips and pages of instructions on how to use the buttons and the features. The HP Photosmart M417 is easy to operate, partly because the user has so few choices. This camera is intended for snapshot photographers who like things automatic and probably care more about the in-camera help than the lack of adjustable settings. HP's Help menu provides neophytes lots of useful information, covering both the camera itself and general photography tips---we only wish the type were a little larger. The M417 also accommodates the snapshot crowd with support for HP's Instant Share system, which facilitates direct printing and allows you to dock the camera in a compatible USB cradle (optional) for charging, uploading, and easy photo sharing via e-mail and the Web.
Exposure metering is always center-weighted, with no exposure-mode options other than full automatic and a modest selection of scene modes. The camera will choose shutter speeds from 2 to 1/2,000 second and apertures from f/2.9 to f/4.9 in wide-angle mode or from f/4.8 to f/8 in the telephoto position. The 3X zoom lens has decent wide-angle coverage at 36mm (35mm-camera equivalent) but functions as only a short telephoto with its 108mm (equivalent) reach.
The autofocus works well down to 19 inches (4 inches in macro mode), but you can't change the focus area, although you can lock focus by pressing the shutter button partway, then reframing. User tweaks are limited to exposure compensation, sensitivity settings from ISO 100 to 400, white-balance presets, and color modes such as black-and-white and sepia. The useful Adaptive Lighting feature functions like a fill flash to illuminate inky shadows without overexposing other areas. The electronic flash unit is middle of the road, good out to 9.2 feet at ISO 100 at the wide-angle setting.
This camera's movie capabilities trail the competition's. The Photosmart M417 captures low-res 320x240-pixel video clips at 15 frames per second and lacks a speaker for reviewing them with sound. However, the playback mode for photos has an image-rotation feature as well as the ability to search for red eyes and correct them in stored images. Performance figures ranged from average to below average for cameras in this class. The HP Photosmart M417 was slow to report for duty. It took 4.4 seconds to wake up and take its first shot; thereafter, it required 3.4 seconds to squeeze off another, slowing to 5.3 seconds when the flash was activated. Burst mode was respectable at a little more than 1.4 shots per second at full resolution and 2.3 shots per second at the 640x480 VGA setting, but we got a maximum of 4 shots per burst at both settings. Shutter-lag times also were mediocre. We clocked 1.1 seconds under high-contrast lighting and a lethargic 1.7 seconds (required by the non-focus-lamp-assisted autofocus system) under more challenging low-contrast lighting conditions.
The viewing system was problematic, too. The optical viewfinder's tiny image made accurately composing photos difficult. The LCD was easily overwhelmed by outdoor light, even at the highest brightness setting, and was plagued by ghosting when the camera or the subjects moved. Visual noise obscured the LCD preview as well, particularly at ISO 400. We were disappointed by the HP Photosmart M417's image quality. Even the Best image-quality setting uses enough JPEG compression to produce plentiful artifacts and soft-looking images. Chromatic aberration caused abundant purple fringing, and while the camera actually did a decent job of not blowing out highlights, detail in shadows was poor.
Most colors were without casts, although we found hues generally muted and not fully saturated. Red-eye reduction worked moderately well, sometimes producing pupils that had only a dull reddish tone rather than the brilliant crimson captured by some other cameras. You probably won't want to make 8x10-inch prints from this camera's output.