Kodak mc3's beauty in its ease of use

April 16, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

KODAK'S new mc3 isn't a very good digital camera. It isn't a great digital videocam, either. And I've certainly heard better MP3 music players.

So why am I having so much fun with this shirt-pocket gadget? Probably because it can do all of these things without requiring a Ph.D. in computer science. That could make it a success with Kodak's target audience - the teens, college students and young adults that marketers call "Generation Y."

Kodak officials are upfront about it: they want to hook the next generation on digital photography. So they've built a camera into something the kids already love - a portable music player - at the price of a decent music player alone.

This, of course, requires compromise. If you want to be a great photographer, spend the money for a high-end digital outfit. If you just want to take snapshots or short videos of your friends, send them via e-mail or post them on the Web - the artistic aspiration of most kids - the mc3 is a cool machine.

The $300 model I tried out comes with a 64-megabyte flash memory card, which is enough to store 60 to 90 minutes of digital music, four to 20 minutes of video, or 600 still pictures. Kodak offers eight different configurations (starting at $119 with no memory) but the extra capacity is what makes the mc3 really useful. The gadget's clever design allows you to mix music, photo and video files up to the limits of your memory card.

Physically, the mc3 is a bit bulkier than the average music player, at 4 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide and an inch thick. At 7 ounces with batteries, it's heavier, too, maybe a bit too much for joggers who want to listen while they're running. A belt-loop carrying case is available separately for $15. It should have been included.

On the upside, this is one easy gadget to use, considering all the things it does. A slide control on the back panel switches between still photos, video and music. A small, color LCD serves as a viewfinder, playback screen and control center.

The back panel has seven navigation buttons and a small speaker, while the top houses the shutter button, volume controls and a headphone jack (earbud headphones are included). A panel swings out from the bottom to accommodate three "AA" batteries. There's no AC adapter or recharger. If you want rechargeable batteries, you'll have to buy a kit.

The camera connects to a PC or Mac through its USB port. My model came with a docking station and a straight USB connector. Since the system doesn't recharge, (the main convenience of a docking station), there's no real reason to use the dock.

Setup requires the installation of Kodak's mc3 connection software. It's a snap to use, automatically sensing when the unit is plugged in and launching an application that makes it easy to transfer files.

Ironically - considering the source - the mc3's biggest failing is its performance as a still camera. It captures 24-bit pictures at a resolution of 640-by-480 pixels, which is OK for posting Web shots or sending via e-mail but not high enough for crisp prints. Nor are the images particularly sharp or vivid - Kodak uses a cheap recording technology known as CMOS instead of the more expensive Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) found in better cameras. There's no flash - another major cost-cutting omission - so indoor photos have to be perfectly lit, and both photographer and subject must be perfectly still to avoid blurring.

That said, all the people I snapped seemed to enjoy seeing their pictures - which is the whole point of this gadget. If you want to touch up your photos, Kodak bundles a simple but capable editor called ArcSoft PhotoImpression.

Movies are a lot more fun. Although the 320-by-240 pixel image is small and a bit grainy, and the audio processor tends to turn "s's" into "shhh's," everyone is recognizable and understandable. And once again, everyone got a kick out of the videos I shot. You can record at 10 or 20 frames per second. The former saves oodles of space, but the results are pretty choppy. Unless you're e-mailing your production, the 20 FPS setting is better.

The camera records movies in Apple's QuickTime format (which can be played on Windows machines with an included plug-in). However, the ArcSoft VideoImpression software bundled with the camera allows you to save your productions as standard MPEG or AVI files, too.

I had great fun with VideoImpression, a basic movie editor that allows you to stitch together a variety of video clips with titles, wipes, fades, dissolves, overdubbed audio and other effects. If Kodak wants to hook people on digital video, this is a great way to do it.

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