My wife bought me my first digital camera, a Fujifilm FinePix S3000, that I got for a Christmas present over four years ago. In its day it was a pretty good camera, not perfect but then what is or, at least, what ever is at a reasonable price? It went with us all around the World and I still have the thousands of photos I took with it.
But, as time goes by technology improves and, it seems, at an ever increasing pace. What was state-of-the art six months ago is now impossible to even give away, and this doesn't just apply to digital cameras. However, the FinePix was definitely past its sell-by date and a replacement was overdue. It only had a 3.2megapixel CCD but that wasn't really the biggest problem with it. The biggest problem was the very slow shutter response, that and its overall size. Pop it in your pocket you definitely couldn't.
I had been looking around for a new camera for a while and, you know how it is, you keep thinking, "It isn't EXACTLY what I'm looking for. There's bound to be a new one along next month. I'll wait a bit longer". I'm currently trapped in that loop over a new flat-screen TV I want.
Then I got an email at work (this is the job I've now left, if you've been reading my recent reviews) telling me that as I was coming up to my 20 years with the company I was entitled to a gift at the company's expense. Wasn't that nice of them?
The catalogue arrived and amongst the various choices were two cameras, a Nikon digital SLR and a Sanyo Xacti. Now, I used to have an old 35m Canon SLR that I loved but my daughter "borrowed" that when she went to university to study for a degree in Photographic Art and I never saw it again. I was very tempted to get the Nikon but these days most of my photography is done on holidays and for that you definitely need something compact, so I went for the Sanyo instead.
The Sanyo Xacti range of cameras are advertised as combined still and video cameras and as such they have a shape which is more video camera than still. The body is about 11cms long and about 7cms wide at its widest, and only about 2.5cms thick. The biggest feature though is that the lens is at the top on the narrow edge. You hold the camera body like a pistol grip and point the lens as though it was the barrel of a gun. This means that one-handed operation is definitely possible.
The Xacti has a 6megapixel CCD, which is definitely not state-of-the-art these days but to be honest I found the pictures that took with my old Finepix, at 3.2meg, were quite good enough. I don't blow pictures up to room size for prints so I figured 6meg would be sufficient. This gives you a picture size of 2,816x2,112 and this can be saved in low or standard compression for best or normal quality. The Xacti doesn't offer RAW format.
Although only a 6meg CCD, the camera will upscale to 10meg equivalent but I haven't tried that. You also get downscaling options to 3meg, 2meg and 300k for lower quality but greater storage capacity. Also offered is a portrait mode so that portraits can be taken without having to turn the camera on its side. However, in order to do this the camera cheats; it simply takes the middle 3meg chunk of the 6meg picture so you actually get a downgraded photo!
The camera also offers video at rates varying from 30fps at 640x480 high bit rate right down to 15fps at 176x144 frame size. Video is stored in the latest MPEG4 (avi) format whilst stills are stored as JPEG.
All of this is stored on a Secure Digital (SD) card. As delivered the firmware supports card sizes up to 2gig but it is possible to download a firmware upgrade from the Sanyo website to enable it to support the larger cards, up to 8gig in capacity. I haven't done that yet as I struggle to fill the 2gig card I bought for it. The camera doesn't come with a memory card and there is no built-in memory so, until you've bought one you can't use it.
The camera is powered by a Sanyo DB-L20 Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) battery that must be fully charged first time before use. The manual says that a battery charge should be good for about 140 photos but I haven't counted. My impression is that it will do more.
Charging the battery can be done either by connecting a small plug to the base of the camera that enables the power connector to be attached or else you can stand the camera in a supplied base station that will do the job and which also doubles as the connector to enable the camera to be attached to a TV for display of the pictures and videos using a supplied lead. When used for this purpose the camera can be controlled by a tiny remote control.
So what's it like to use? Well, switching it on requires first that you fold out the LCD screen. The screen is hidden from view normally, which is good in that it means that it is unlikely to get damaged. The camera does, in any case, come with a leather case to protect it and there is a lens cap as well. The camera also has a lead that enables you to hang it around your neck.
The screen is on the left-hand side as you would use the camera and is hinged to rise out of the body like a wing, and then it can be swivelled to face backwards so you can see it. It will also swivel forwards if you are taking a picture of yourself. The back of the screen houses the stereo mike for recording sound with video, as well as the speaker for playback.
You have to open the screen up first because the on/off switch is located on the camera body beneath it, so it can't be switched on by accident. The button needs to be held in for about three seconds before the camera switches on. You can choose to have a nice little tone play as it starts up if you want. There are lots of little tones if you want them, such as a simulated shutter sound, and so on.
The screen initially displays the current date and time setting for the camera. Once switched on the camera can be set to go to standby to save the battery, if you don't use it. A green LED flashes on the top of the camera to indicate standby mode.
The screen is only tiny, about 5cms diagonally, an inevitable consequence of the overall size of the camera. It's also quite difficult to see in bright light although the back-light level can be varied. This can be the biggest drawback with the camera in that outside shots can be difficult to frame as you are not quite sure exactly what is in the picture.
Superimposed on the screen on the top left is the stills information and on the top right the video information. Primarily it tells you what format you have chosen for both and what the remaining capacity is on the memory card in stills shots or video length. There may also be other information such as flash mode selected or auto/manual focus.
The main controls for the camera are all designed to be operated with your thumb. Your index finger naturally sits below the lens when you are holding the camera and that is where I would have expected the trigger to be. Operating the camera therefore takes some getting used to. You have to get used to holding the body firmly with your fingers so as to ensure that pressing the trigger button with your thumb doesn't change the framing of the picture you were intending to take!
The main reason that the buttons are at the back instead of the front is that there are two trigger buttons; the one on the left takes stills pictures, the one on the right starts and stops video shots. A facility is even offered so as to take a still whilst shooting a video but doing so inserts a visible pause in the video whilst the still shot is captured.
Between the two is the wide-angle/telephoto switch. The Xacti comes with a x6 optical zoom, which is the same as my old FinePix plus a x12 digital zoom. I have digital zoom deactivated as it only works by degrading the picture quality, which is how all digital zooms work.
The stills trigger button works like most do; a half depression activates and locks the autofocus, a full depression takes the picture. The video button requires one depression to start taking the video and a second to stop it.
Below the main controls are the operation controls. On the right is the slider that chooses between record and playback modes and at the bottom is the Menu button. This does as it suggests, displaying on the LCD screen the options that control the settings of the camera. On the left is the joystick button that does everything else. In Menu mode it scrolls between the various options and when pressed, selects the option highlighted. In Normal mode it allows you to control real-time options such as flash mode, exposure correction and manual focus.
The Menu mode allows you to change just about all of the possible camera settings. As well as those that I have already mentioned in passing there are, for instance, controls to turn on or off motion compensation (anti-shake), select focus range, change between 5 point and spot focus, select ISO equivalence up to ISO 400 and change white balance for different shooting conditions. Most of these I have left as standard or switched off.
The pictures it takes are quite good. The colour balance seems natural and there doesn't appear to be much picture "noise". As I said, the biggest thing you have to get used to is making sure that you don't push the button too hard with your thumb and so change the framing of the picture you were intending to take. Once you've mastered that it's pretty simple to use.
Video is quite good. I have posted a video on Facebook that I took with it during my last days at work, as well as some photos from our recent ski trip to Cervinia. By the way, did you know there's a dooyooers group on Facebook? Why haven't you joined??????
What isn't any good is the flash. The flash unit is tiny and located just below the lens. It would struggle to illuminate anything further away than a few feet so don't expect any decent flash pictures out in the open at night. There really isn't very much you can do about it unfortunately. There is no facility for synchronising an external flash unit. If flash photography is primary requirement than this is probably not the camera for you.
Playback onto a TV screen of any reasonable size does expose the quality of the video and of the pictures, but especially the video. It's good enough I suppose but its not the way you would normally want to see them. I play most of my stuff back on my Acer laptop. It is equipped with a multi-format memory card reader slot so I can simply remove the SD card from the camera and plug it into the laptop so as to unload and edit the pictures.
I use Irfanview for most photo editing although I do use Google's Picasa for picture orientation, for which I have yet to find anything better and simpler to use. Video poses more of a problem. MPEG4 format is somewhat short of free tools. For editing I use SolveigMM AVI Trimmer and to play MPEG4 videos I usually use Quicktime although I've now found that the GOM Player does a pretty good job.
I have used this camera for a few months now and am as satisfied with it as I need to be considering it cost me nothing. Whether or not I would have gone out and paid over £200 for it is debatable. I feel that I would more likely have chosen to spend a bit more and got a higher specification model, maybe even one that offers an HD video recording capability. I would definitely want one with a better flash. I do like the shape of the camera though, despite how initially awkward it is to operate compared with a "normal" camera.
However, technology advances. This model as with most others, will undoubtedly be out-of-date within a year or less. I'm sure the price you would have to pay for it now will have gone down compared with what it was when I received it. I expect you could pick up some bargains on Amazon or eBay.