Pocket-size camcorder inexpensive, easy to use



When you show a new gadget around the office and people want to know where they can buy one right now, chances are you're looking at a hot product.

That was the reaction to RCA's Small Wonder EZ101 camcorder. It weighs a couple of ounces, runs on a pair of AA batteries, and records a half-hour of video on an internal memory card.

At $129, it's one-third the price of the cheapest traditional camcorder - and its target audience of casual videographers isn't likely to miss the features it lacks.

A 2X zoom lens produces recognizable if not stellar video footage, which can play directly through a TV with a bundled cable.

Goof-proof internal software also makes it a snap to e-mail video clips to friends and relatives, or store them on your computer.

If you don't have a PC handy, you can take the camera to one of 8,000 CVS, Rite Aid, Ritz Camera or other stores that support Pure Digital processing. They will burn the video clips onto a DVD in an hour.

Interestingly, this device is based on an absolutely terrible idea - a one-time-use digital camcorder that Pure Digital marketed through CVS last year. It was a bomb for several good reasons, including price and quality.

This year, RCA has turned the same basic technology into a useful, reusable camera.

The company says it designed the EZ-101 with women in mind, because surveys showed they typically shoot videos that last a half-hour or less. That helped keep the price down. But this gadget will have an audience beyond soccer moms - one that includes kids, grandparents and even normal adult males.

Yes, camera makers, there are "real men" out there who don't want a $1,000 digital camcorder with 28 buttons and 400 settings to capture a two-minute clip of a 1-year-old stuffing birthday cake up his nose.

At 2 1/4 inches wide, by 4 inches tall and 1 inch deep, the EZ101 fits into a shirt pocket with just a minor bulge. In operation, the hardest thing I had to get used to was holding the camera vertically, with the flat side toward the subject. If you hold it horizontally, your videos will be tilted 90 degrees on a TV or computer screen - as my first few tries were.

There's no optical viewfinder - the subject appears in a reasonably bright, 1.4-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) on the back of the camera. Five controls handle everything - a power button, a Play button, a red Record button, a Delete button to get rid of unwanted videos, and a four-way rocker that zooms the lens and switches between video clips. There are no other settings or features - no slot for additional memory, not even a rechargeable battery.

The EZ101 shines when it's time to transfer video to your computer for e-mailing or storage. An unobtrusive slide on the edge of the camera releases a switchblade-style USB connector that plugs directly into an accessible USB port on your PC.

With an included extension cable, you can connect the camera to a port on the rear of the computer. Then real magic happens. Software programmed into the camera's digital memory automatically runs on Windows XP machines (there's a Mac version in there, too, although I didn't try it). This eliminates the need for an installation CD and means you can easily offload your video onto almost any computer.

The program provides an easy menu-driven interface for playing, e-mailing and copying video clips to your PC's hard drive. It will automatically save files in MPEG-4 format (with an .AVI extension), or in lower-resolution, compressed Windows Media Format (with a .WMV extension). For Windows users, the latter are better suited for e-mailing, particularly over dial-up connections.

And here's a great idea: By default, the EZ101 stores files in a clearly marked folder, right on your Windows desktop. So you can actually find the videos when you're finished. This is a breakthrough in software design - too many programs do their best to save files in places where no one can find them.

One thing the EZ101 won't do is turn your clips into a coherent video (although it will play back a group of them consecutively on a TV). If you want to get into the movie biz on your PC you'll have to use Microsoft's MovieMaker on PCs or Apple's iMovie on the Mac. For anything more complicated, you'll need a third-party video or DVD authoring program such as Adobe Premiere Elements.

Of course, if you need that capability, consider a more sophisticated camcorder. It will provide better-quality clips from the start - and a payoff if you're willing to invest the time and money.

The RCA EZ101 is strictly for people who want to capture a few minutes of video here and there - and it does that with minimal fuss.

The EZ101 (and a similar model from Pure Digital) will be on retail shelves later this spring. It's available online now at www.mysmallwonder.com.

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