With the plethora of affordable digital cameras available now, we have to wonder why HP is offering one without an optical zoom. Equipped with only a 7X digital zoom, this 4-megapixel camera doesn't cost much; however, sluggish performance and mediocre image quality overshadow the Photosmart M23's ease of use, attractive design, and price point. If you're in the market for an easy-to-use point-and-shoot camera, you're better off paying a few more dollars or dropping to a 3-megapixel model and getting an optical zoom. The HP Photosmart M23's attractive silver metal-and-plastic body is weatherproof to withstand splashes, although dunking it is out of the question. Sufficiently compact to fit in a pants pocket, the camera weighs 6.2 ounces with batteries and a memory card installed. However, its sliding lens cover, which protects the lens and powers the camera on and off, can be accidentally moved during normal stowage in a purse. If you're not careful, you could run down the batteries with such inadvertent power-ups.
Since the Photosmart M23 doesn't have an optical zoom, the lens does not protrude when you power the camera on. There's no optical viewfinder either, so the small 1.5-inch LCD provides the only viewing option. The right rim of the LCD is home to most of the physical controls: buttons for selecting capture and playback, flash settings, automatic-exposure modes, and the self-timer.
You have to go into the menu system to reach other settings on this camera, but it's logically organized and offers written descriptions of what each selection does. A whole menu section is devoted to shooting tips, information about the camera, and other helpful information. The onscreen type is small, but if your eyesight is up to the task of reading it, you can leave the camera manual at home. Combined with the M23's simple physical layout, the help system makes this camera very easy to use. The HP Photosmart M23's bare-bones feature set is designed to make picture-taking simple. Exposure options are limited to automatic, a decent set of typical scene modes, and exposure compensation. White-balance presets, three ISO settings (100, 200, and 400), and a choice of black-and-white or sepia tones round out the basics.
Without an optical zoom, this Photosmart restricts you to a fixed focal length of 36.7mm (35mm-camera equivalent), supplemented by a 7X digital zoom. Since digital zooms do nothing more than crop and interpolate images in-camera, we recommend making do with the fixed focal length and altering your photo later with image-editing software if necessary. The lens does provide decent low-light performance, though, with a reasonably fast f/2.8 maximum aperture, and shutter speeds range from 1/1,800 second to 15 seconds.
One of the more useful features is HP's Adaptive Lighting, which brightens dark areas and helps compensate for low light and backlighting; you can set it to high, low, or off. The camera also has a red-eye correction feature that you can apply after you've taken a picture, although we found that the Photosmart M23's red-eye-reduction flash setting works fairly well in the first place. Another uncommon feature that we like is Undelete. In Playback mode, it reinstates the last image deleted in case it was accidentally discarded.
The built-in help system is one of the fullest we've seen. In addition to context-sensitive help, the Photosmart M23 offers general photo suggestions as well as an onboard mini users manual.
HP's Instant Share features, particularly when used in conjunction with the company's optional cradle, make short work of transferring and e-mailing photos. This Photosmart is bundled with two AA nickel-metal-hydride batteries that are charged in-camera. Other than HP's optional cradle for charging and image transfer, there are no other accessories for the Photosmart M23.
Although you can record movies with sound up to the capacity of your memory card, the Photosmart M23's video mode is limited to 320x240 at 24 frames per second, so you won't be holding public viewings for your video clips. With few exceptions, the HP Photosmart M23's poor performance made it frustrating to use. It took more than six seconds to grab the first shot from the time we slid open the lens cover and powered on the camera. Waiting for the flash to recycle was equally frustrating, with the fastest time a little more than five seconds. The camera did not fare much better with available-light shots, with a wait time of more than four seconds. The only good point in performance was the minimal shutter lag once focus was locked in.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of this camera is its erratic autofocus. The camera frequently delivered messages such as "focus too close" or "unable to focus." Even when we set the M23 on Macro mode, we often had to step back several feet, refocus, and shoot--totally negating the idea of macro. Other times, Macro worked fine. We had less trouble focusing wide-angle shots regardless of lighting conditions.
For a flash on such a small camera, the M23's delivers decent coverage near and wide, although we noticed occasional hot spots.
The camera performed much better in Playback mode, and we were able to rapidly scroll through images without any delays. Deleting images was also fast.
Generally functional under most lighting conditions, the LCD exhibits slight ghosting in low light. Images from the HP Photosmart M23 were just so-so. Although we did not notice any big color shifts, natural light and the flash resulted in slightly cool images, while tungsten light made images overly warm. Colors didn't look particularly vivid either.
Aside from occasional hot spots from the flash, exposures came out generally even and fairly accurate. The Photosmart M23's dynamic range is somewhat limited, however, so highlights and shadows often lost detail. And even when we were able to get the autofocus to work, images were still a little soft and lacking in fine detail.
Noise was manageable at ISO 100 and slightly above, but it became more evident at higher sensitivity settings. High-contrast edges exhibited blue halos as well as some noticeable purple fringing.