When buying a digital camera, the rule of thumb has been small size, small price, big features--choose any two. With recent technological advances and price reductions, you can almost have all three at the same time. The Photosmart R817 is one of HP's recent efforts to cram its mix of image-enhancing technologies into an inexpensive, pocket-size camera. The 6.7-ounce R817 has a 5.1-megapixel sensor, a mostly metal body, and a bright 2-inch LCD screen. It also has a 5X optical zoom, which is unusual in a camera this small. Less impressive, it lacks an optical viewfinder (which can be a problem in bright sunlight), some of its photos are overly noisy, and the battery can take four to six hours to recharge. Despite its flaws, this camera would be a good choice for a beginner who wants to learn more about photography, because it can analyze your photos and offer context-sensitive advice. More experienced photographers will appreciate the HP Photosmart R817's manual controls. Stylish and durable, the HP Photosmart R817's brushed-aluminum finish makes an immediate impression. The shiny metal looks terrific, though it does show fingerprints. A ribbed, leatherlike black strip along the top and the side makes it easy for your left hand to steady the camera. Rather than using a traditional two-button or rocker-style design for the zoom control, HP created a crescent-shaped button that mirrors the shape of your thumb. Raised points at each end of the crescent let you feel the control without looking. It's a very functional design, though the raised points could irritate the skin after extended use.
Overall, the construction feels solid, with two exceptions. The cover for the retractable lens is flimsy. It could be pierced or broken if you place the camera in a bag or a pocket along with a pointed object. In addition, the cover for the battery and the SD card can be difficult to open and close. The cover is on the bottom of the camera, making the battery and the card inaccessible when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
The onscreen menus are among the best we've seen. Color-coded, with clear, unambiguous text, they have only one weakness: they force you to scroll down several screens to find some of the menu options. The most popular settings are at the top, which helps, but you have to move back up to the top or down to the bottom in order to change menu sections. The menu has five sections: Capture, Playback, Instant Share, Setup, and Help. HP's help menus should be required on every consumer-oriented camera. They offer concise lessons on such topics as sharing and printing images, recording video, managing batteries, and using camera shortcuts.
The most powerful help function is associated with the playback menus. It analyzes captured photos and provides context-sensitive advice. For example, if the camera is in macro mode and the focus appears to be wrong, the help function might provide tips on what the macro feature can and cannot do. For beginners who want to advance in the craft of photography, this on-the-spot feedback could be invaluable. Sometimes this feature guessed wrong, but most of the time its suggestions were right on the mark.
HP is carving a niche for its cameras by offering unusual in-camera technologies that help casual users capture high-quality photos. The camera's Adaptive Lighting option, for example, automatically brightens dark areas and darkens light areas in backlit or high-contrast situations. (Nikon's D-lighting feature offers the main competition for this tool.) Because Adaptive Lighting may guess wrong or add excessive visual noise to the photo, you can set it to Off, Low, or High. If you're uncertain about applying this feature, you can use bracketing to capture three rapid-fire photos while Adaptive Lighting cycles through its three settings. The bracketing feature can also vary the three photos by exposure compensation or color mode (Full Color, Black And White, and Sepia).
Other unusual features include a panoramic mode that joins the photos inside the camera (previous HP models required a computer to complete the process). There's also a postcapture red-eye-removal option. You can preview the results and reject the red-eye removal before permanently altering the photo.
This model's best interactive feature, especially for beginners, is the real-time feedback the camera provides while you're setting up a shot. For example, if you set the camera to macro or supermacro mode and press the shutter button gently for a prefocus, text might appear on the screen warning that the subject is outside the focus range.
A big selling point for this camera is its 5X Pentax lens, which is the 35mm equivalent of a 36mm-to-180mm zoom lens. We would have preferred that the zoom offer a wider angle of view, given its broad range. On the other hand, having the equivalent of a 180mm telephoto lens on a 6.7-ounce camera is a real plus for outdoor or large-venue photography. With a maximum aperture range of f/2.8 to f/4.7, the lens is relatively fast (meaning its aperture opens wide enough to let in a good amount of light quickly) even when extended to its extreme telephoto position.
The Photosmart R817 provides a generous selection of 15 photo modes, including a customized mode where you can store your favorite settings. The manual mode allows control over the aperture, the shutter speed, and the focus. Changes you make in the manual mode carry over to the aperture- and shutter-priority modes. The video mode records 640x480 clips at up to 30 frames per second (fps).
Like all of HP's cameras, the Photosmart R817 is compatible with HP's Instant Share system of docks and software, which simplifies the process of sharing and printing photos. No one likes to wait on a camera. Fortunately, the HP Photosmart R817 is relatively fast with just about everything it does. We clocked the shot-to-shot time without flash at a speedy 0.96 second. With the flash on, that time increased to 2.48 seconds, which is about average. Shutter lag was 0.27 second in bright light and 0.36 second in dim light. That's quite respectable, especially for a small camera. The burst mode captured photos at a fairly swift 2.17fps. The camera's wake-up-to-first-shot time of 3.21 seconds is about average.
Also impressive, though harder to measure, was the speed of the interface. The menus pop up quickly and show no lag when you're moving from section to section. Similarly, the playback mode was lightning-fast at browsing through photos. In fact, it was almost too fast when we deleted multiple photos one by one. Though the menu provides a second verification screen, it would be easy to get caught up in the rhythm of deleting photos and accidentally erase a keeper. To solve that problem, the camera has an Undelete Last option, so feel free to breeze your way through the process.
The automatic focus, the manual focus, and the zoom were also fast and responsive. HP rates the flash coverage at 12.5 feet for wide-angle and 6.9 feet for telephoto (ISO unspecified). In our tests, the camera easily exceeded those specifications.
LCD screen accuracy was close to 100 percent, which is important given the lack of an optical viewfinder. The LCD screen was bright and easy to see except in strong sunlight, when the reflective finish sometimes caused glare. In that situation--without an optical viewfinder to fall back on--you'll have to shift your position in relation to the sun. While it would be easy to dismiss the HP Photosmart R817's image-enhancing technologies as gimmicks, on the whole we found they improved our photos. For novices who might otherwise become frustrated, the Adaptive Lighting and the postcapture red-eye removal can make a difference. The downside of using Adaptive Lighting is higher levels of visual noise in some photos. In shots with extreme light and dark areas, the Photosmart R817 produced silky-smooth gradations where similar-priced cameras would have lost the detail. In those same shots, however, even at ISO 50 and ISO 100, we saw a noticeable increase in visual noise. Given the available light, the thin veneer of colored specks seemed out of place. Was the trade-off worth it? Yes, but it definitely was a trade-off.
Apart from the elevated noise levels, this camera functioned well in low light. The focus-assist lamp and the bright screen made it easy to set up shots, and the results with or without the flash were generally very good. Having three focus-range options (Normal, Macro, and Super Macro) might confuse beginners if it weren't for the focus feedback built into the camera. With that feedback and the ability to focus down to 1.2 inches, we were able to capture spectacular close-ups. On the other hand, the exposure accuracy dropped considerably at very close range with the flash on.
The sharpness of the lens held up well and, when combined with the excellent contrast range, provided a rich amount of detail. Colors looked vibrant but not oversaturated. This small camera squeezes just about everything it can from the 5.1-megapixel sensor.
The three video settings did not perform as well. Our videos, recorded at 640x480 resolution and 30fps, exhibited excellent color and contrast but displayed significant compression artifacts when the camera or the subject moved. The 640x480, 24fps setting looked relatively flicker-free but greatly increased the visual artifacts. At the space-saving 320x240, 30fps setting, artifacts became so distracting that we had trouble recognizing small objects once the camera or the subject began to move.