The Samsung Digimax U-CA 3 (pronounced "yoo-kah three") is the digital camera to buy for a teenager ready to graduate from cell phone snaps to something more sophisticated. Instead of photographic bells and whistles, you get multicolored flashing lights, decent 3.2-megapixel photo quality, and a user-customizable avatar that dances on the LCD when you start up the camera. This camera is high on fun and low on confusing features. It has no burst or special shooting modes other than Night and Macro, and it offers few manual controls other than exposure compensation, white balance, and ISO selection.
This ultracompact 4-by-2-by-1-inch model fits in just about any pocket and weighs just 5.5 ounces with the postage stamp-size 32MB Sony Memory Stick Duo media and the nonrechargeable lithium CP1 battery, both included. Operation of the camera is simple because most of its shooting options are available from the U-CA 3's relatively uncluttered back panel. The control pad, with its embedded Menu/OK button, can be rocked in four directions to set flash options, activate the self-timer, switch into macro mode, and begin voice recording. Even novices should find it easy to master the controls for selecting display options; playing back pictures; and activating the photo-capture, standby, and movie modes. An eight-screen menu system lets you choose between multisegment and spot metering, adjust the sharpness, and select the Sunset, Sepia, RGB, and Black And White color filters. The poorly named RGB filter makes colors more vivid and boosts contrast.
The fun starts when you turn on the camera. A multicolored lamp on the front flashes briefly, then blinks in colors--green for stills, purple for video, blue for voice recording, and red when the self-timer is operating--so that your subjects always know what you're up to. The default loading screen features a dancing teenager, which you can customize with the bundled DigiStudio software. Your kid can choose the avatar's face, skin color, and clothing or, better yet, import his or her own visage. You can animate the avatar with dozens of different dance movements and gestures and add voice-overs and music files. With a little creativity, you can create an amazingly lifelike introductory animation for the U-CA 3. Once you start shooting, the 3X zoom lens provides a 38mm-to-114mm view (35mm-camera equivalent) and focuses down to about 2.5 inches from the front of the lens. In addition to shooting JPEG photos, you can capture 20fps or 15fps MPEG-4 video with sound at resolutions of 320x240 or 160x120 for as long as the memory card holds out.
The U-CA 3's performance was nothing to write home about. The dancing avatar gives you something to watch while you wait more than 6.5 seconds for the camera to wake up, but the 5.3-second intervals between pictures (5.6 seconds with flash) can seem longer. Shutter lag was acceptable, at 0.7 second under high-contrast lighting conditions, but this Samsung gave new meaning to the word lag under dimmer, low-contrast lighting, where it took about 2.6 seconds to focus, even with the focus-assist light operating. The U-CA 3 comes with a CP1 lithium-ion battery, which is neither rechargeable nor cheap nor easy to find at the corner drugstore. We recommend you pick up Samsung's $59.99 rechargeable battery and charger kit for the camera, which the company should have put in the box in the first place.
Our test photos were certainly acceptable, displaying appropriate, even exposures across the board and lots of detail in the shadows, though lighter tones had a tendency to wash out. Our macro results were especially pleasing, with excellent sharpness and reliable automatic focusing. Noise levels were low at ISO 100 but predictably became noticeable at ISO 400.