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Simple and understated
Though not striking, the PhotoSmart 812's simple styling is pleasing, and the camera's ultracompact form fits the hand well. Weighing only a little more than eight ounces with batteries and a Secure Digital/MultiMedia Memory card installed, the camera is also highly portable. Its overall feel, however, is less than luxurious, the product of an all-plastic body combined with small, somewhat mushy buttons. Those buttons are well positioned, though, and handle nearly every task that you're likely to perform, with just a few functions left over for the very straightforward LCD menu system.
Automatic for everyone
The PhotoSmart 812 has fewer buttons and menus to fiddle with than almost any other 4-megapixel digicam; one reason for this is that it also has fewer features. Aside from the zoom control, the picture-quality setting, the macro mode, the self-timer, and four flash modes--auto, auto with red-eye reduction, flash cancel, and fill flash--every picture-taking function is automatic and nonadjustable. This means that there's a troubling lack of exposure compensation and any white-balance setting other than auto. You could make a strong case that this approach is taking the concept of snapshot simplicity a bit too far. On the other hand, the 812 can record one-minute video clips with sound and has a voice-captioning feature that lets you annotate still shots.
The camera's all-auto theme comes to full fruition with HP's Instant Share system. This feature allows you to mark photos in-camera for automatic printing on compatible printers or sharing with designated friends and family members. Later, when you connect the camera to your computer via USB or set it in the optional dock, a single push of a button generates your prints or uploads the photos that you marked for sharing to an HP server. E-mails with links to the shared photos are automatically sent to the recipients that you selected in-camera, who can then view the pictures and order their own prints online. Instant Share works well, and it's worth considering if you're not interested in managing printing and photo sharing yourself. The reasonably priced optional camera dock doubles as a battery charger, and it enables one-touch picture display on TVs, too.
Not quite right this instant
The benefits of HP's Instant Share system are somewhat offset by the PhotoSmart 812's--at best--middling performance. The camera's optical viewfinder is fairly big and bright, but its 1.5-inch LCD is frustratingly hard to see in daylight. The autofocus system is slow, and when you press the shutter-release button, the view in the LCD freezes on a single frame until the focus finally locks. That annoyed us when we were shooting stationary subjects and made capturing moving subjects a maddening trial. The rest of the camera's performance rises almost to the level of average, with a six-second start-up time, a six-second shot-to-shot time, and several hours of shooting on a single battery charge.
Test pictures from the PhotoSmart 812 were perfectly acceptable, although they weren't as detailed as those from this camera's best 4-megapixel competitors and showed some compression artifacts when viewed at full size. Colors were reasonably accurate and very vivid, though sometimes so vivid that they looked a little garish. The automatic white balance and exposure systems performed well, giving us good results in most of our shots. Predictable exceptions included backlit scenes, which were often underexposed, and some indoor shots under incandescent lighting, which had an amber color cast.