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Simple and slow
With an ergonomically pleasing--if not especially compact--shape that fits nicely into your hand, the 612 weighs 11.5 ounces with four AA batteries and a CompactFlash card installed. The camera's control layout is very straightforward, with dedicated buttons for image quality, flash, and self-timer settings, as well as a nicely out-of-the-way power switch. Its bright optical viewfinder makes composing easy. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the dim LCD, particularly in outdoor light. In addition, the camera's poor playback display makes it difficult to judge picture quality. On the other hand, it's easy to navigate the minimal LCD menus with the jog wheel on the back of the camera.
Bare-bones is the only way to describe the 612's feature set. You can select from three picture-quality levels and four flash settings, but everything else is fully automatic. An internal 8MB of memory lets you save seven highest-quality images, and you can purchase CompactFlash cards to increase the camera's capacity. The lens zooms quickly through its small 2X range. Although it lacks a macro setting, we got usable images of subjects as close as 15 inches, with and without flash.
The flash covers its recommended range of up to nine feet well in normal room lighting. However, the camera has trouble locking focus in a dimly lit room, displaying an "Unable to focus" message on the LCD in situations that are too dark for it to handle. The 612 also has a pokey shutter delay of about 2 seconds, although prefocusing cuts the wait to about half a second. Processing time between shots can be as long as 10 seconds, depending on the picture quality you've selected. The camera depletes alkaline batteries pretty quickly if you use the LCD as a preview screen, so you should plan to pick up some longer-lasting nickel-metal-hydride batteries and a charger if you opt for the 612.
This camera's picture quality gets mixed reviews. For average daylight shots, it produces generally sharp images, pleasing colors, and a decent amount of detail in both shadows and highlights. Unfortunately, without any exposure controls, backlit scenes are difficult to shoot, and pictures taken in open shade tend to go blue. Our shots containing strong contrasts--such as tree branches against a bright sky or red berries on a green shrub--were plagued by color aberrations and bright areas that bled into dark ones. And both indoor and outdoor images were noisy enough to give prints larger than 4x6 a mottled look. The lack of white-balance controls was troublesome as well, since colors shifted badly under incandescent lighting. Correcting them in HP's software required a bit of trial and error, but fortunately the requisite settings can be saved as a filter that you can apply to other indoor images.