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HP PhotoSmart 850 review: HP PhotoSmart 850

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The Good Powerful 8X zoom lens; logical, straightforward menu system; solid ergonomics; reasonably priced.

The Bad Slow performer; records JPEG files only; limited accessory compatibility; some compression artifacts in images.

The Bottom Line Its big zoom lens and 4-megapixel resolution come at a reasonable price, but its slow performance may tax your patience.

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6.2 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 5
  • Image quality 7

The Photosmart 850 is HP's contribution to the really-big-zoom craze. It combines an 8X zoom lens with a 4-megapixel CCD, an electronic viewfinder for SLR-like viewing, and HP's Instant Share automated printing and online photo-sharing system. The camera's thin feature set and disappointing performance reduce its prosumer appeal, but it takes good pictures, and its sub-$500 street price is reasonable. No camera with an 8X zoom lens could be tiny, but the Photosmart 850 is reasonably compact and fits nicely in your hand. While no beauty, the camera's clean lines and silver finish keep it from being plug-ugly like some of its megazoom brethren. A mostly plastic body helps keep the camera's weight down to 1 pound, 1 ounce with batteries and media installed, but it gives the camera a bit of a budget-model feel.

Since the 850 has a separate mode for shooting with the self-timer instead of using a button to activate it, you won't have to reactivate the timer before each shot.

The rubber eyepiece ring doubles as a diopter dial--just twist it to adjust the viewfinder focus.
The Photosmart 850's overall usability is very good. Controls are well placed and easy to operate, and the menu system is exceptionally logical and straightforward.

The five-way controller lets you navigate the menu, and its right and left arrows provide quick access to exposure compensation.

You can enter and leave playback mode quickly via the Play button; the button below it lets you mark photos for printing or e-mailing.

You can save only five best-quality shots on the included 16MB SD memory, so don't forget to budget for a larger-capacity card.

The Photosmart 850's 8X zoom lens is clearly its top feature. The lens covers a useful range--from 36mm to 290mm in 35mm-camera equivalent terms--and opens to a maximum aperture of f/2.8.

Exposure options on the Photosmart 850 include three scene modes, programmed auto, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority. There is no manual exposure mode, which will be a drawback for many advanced photographers. Happily, exposure compensation is easily available at the touch of your thumb.

You can capture pictures at 1- or 4-megapixel resolution; inconveniently, there are no options in between. Unlike many of its competitors, the Photosmart 850 can't shoot uncompressed or RAW images, but you can save your images at one of three JPEG compression levels. In movie mode, the 850 can record MPEG-1 video with sound at up to 60 seconds per clip.

Like other models in the Photosmart line, the 850 supports HP's Instant Share system, which lets you mark photos in-camera for one-button printing or Web-based sharing with friends and family. The camera is compatible with HP's Photosmart camera dock and can also print directly to compatible HP printers via USB. These features work just fine, but they're probably more useful for entry-level shooters than for the more advanced hobbyists that this camera will attract. Many of those same advanced shooters will be disappointed that the camera lacks a hotshoe for external flashes or an easy method for mounting supplemental lenses.

We got several hours of shooting time out of a set of AA nickel-metal-hydride rechargeables (the camera comes with alkaline cells).

You compose pictures through the Photosmart 850's big zoom lens, using either the LCD or the electronic viewfinder (EVF). You can set the EVF to activate when it senses that you've brought the camera to your eye. Unfortunately, it isn't very sharp or colorful, and its slow frame rate produces a mildly jumpy image. The 2-inch LCD isn't jumpy and gives a sharp image, but it's hard to see in bright outdoor light. Both the EVF and the LCD show approximately 100 percent of the actual image.

The image in the EVF also freezes while the camera is focusing, an annoyance that's greatly magnified by the camera's poky autofocus. The slow autofocus also contributes to significant shutter lag and longer than average shot-to-shot times. Add to that the lack of a continuous shooting mode, and you have a camera that's not much good at shooting action photos. Its zoom action is a bit jerky and noisy, although reasonably easy to control.

The built-in flash's maximum range of eight feet is adequate at best. Overall, the Photosmart 850's photos are good but not the best we've seen in the 4-megapixel class. Our test photos show sharp details and vivid colors. In fact, purists might find the colors a little too vivid. Our test exposures were generally accurate.

Electronic noise in our images wasn't severe, but the best of the 4-megapixel digicams are a notch cleaner. Edge artifacting, jaggy diagonal lines, and color fringing in dark to light transition areas were all moderate, and we saw a bit higher than average compression artifacting.

Typical of most wide-range zooms, the Photosmart 850's lens shows noticeable barrel and pincushion distortion at the wide-angle and telephoto ends, respectively. All that noted, prints from the Photosmart 850's images should look good up to 8x10 or even 11x14 inches.

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