Last year, when the drugstore chain CVS started selling a $30 single-use digital camcorder, we thought it was a pretty dubious idea. We're not sure how it did, but Pure Digital Technologies, the company behind the product, has removed the disposable label and added a hideaway USB connector and built-in viewer software to make a simple plug-and-play model that it calls the Point & Shoot Video Camcorder. RCA has licensed the technology from Pure Digital and is marketing the same model under the name RCA Small Wonder EZ101 for the same price ($130).
The lightweight, 5-ounce camera stores up to 30 minutes of VGA-quality video on 512MB of internal flash memory (sorry, there's no expansion slot). It has a 1.4-inch LCD screen on back for instant review, so you can delete any undesirable clips right away, and it has a video output, so you can view clips on any TV with a composite-video input. The unit is powered by two AA batteries and comes with a felt protective carrying case.
Currently, there are several inexpensive cameras on the market whose sole purpose is to capture MPEG-4 video, which is more compressed--and, thus, lower in quality--than the MPEG-2 video recorded by MiniDV camcorders. Video quality is steadily improving with these sorts of cameras, but it's really designed to be viewed in small windows (read: not at full screen) or on portable devices with small screens. Though the video is generally smooth, it's usually a little grainy and sometimes pixelated. In other words, it's a step up from the video quality of a camera phone, but it's on a par with what you'd record on a basic digital camera's Movie mode.
What sets this model apart from its competitors is the camera's internal software. Flip out the USB connector, and plug it into the USB port on your Windows PC (Windows 2000/XP or later)--a viewer automatically pops up. On a Mac (OS X or later), the camera appears as another drive on your desktop, and you must install the software the first time you use it. After that, it operates the same as a PC. You can play back one clip, string several together to make a "movie," delete a clip, or e-mail it to someone. If you decide to e-mail a clip, the program automatically compresses the video to reduce the file size and launches your e-mail program. Even short clips (around 30 seconds) result in nearly 1MB e-mail attachments, but the beauty of the software is that you can shoot a video and send it off in less than 5 minutes by pressing just a few buttons.
If you're really lazy--or truly technophobic--you have the option of bringing the camera to any CVS, Rite-Aid, or Ritz/Wolf Camera store that processes the single-use version. The folks there will make a DVD of your footage for $10.
Aside from its so-so video, the camera has a few shortcomings. First, its finish easily scratches if you leave it unprotected next to a set of keys in your pocket; secondly, your finished video includes an audible clicking sound whenever you press the button to zoom in or out (it's a 2X optical zoom). If you're attracted to the camera's simplicity, those drawbacks shouldn't be deal breakers, but we think the Pure Digital Point & Shoot Video Camcorder and its identical twin, the RCA Small Wonder, would be easier to recommend if they cost less than $100. The good news is we suspect it won't be long before they hit that price point.