Changing cameras and memory card formats

Week of August 20, 2006

Q: I purchased a Sony DSC-F717 digital camera in April 2003 and it is broken. The repair outlets say pitch it- the problem is with the lens and repairs are too costly. I find it hard to trash such a beautiful camera. What do you suggest? I own 2 other Sonys plus many memory sticks.
-John Matic, Pittsburgh, PA

A: I recommend you trash it. It may be hard, but look at the bright side- you will be getting a newer, much better camera! The repair facilities want your business and if they say it is beyond economical repair, they mean it for your own good.

The 5 megapixel F717 was one of the class leaders in its day. Unfortunately the higher-end Sonys that followed the F717 will not work with the original Memory Sticks you own. They use Memory Stick Duo, a new format with a smaller form factor.

Memory cards are much less expensive than they used to be, and chances are your original-style Memory Sticks are of smaller capacity, under 256MB. With these two factors in mind I am going to recommend one Sony model as well as a couple of alternatives.

The best Sony model that is compatible with your Memory Sticks is the DSC-H1, which is discontinued but still available at around $400. It has a 12X zoom lens with optical image stabilization for sharp pictures at long focal lengths.

The caveat is you can get a better model for the same money, the DSC-H2. It replaced the DSC-H1 and has 6 megapixels as well as operational improvements over the H1. You would need to buy Memory Stick Duo cards as your Memory Sticks won’t work with it.

The Sony cameras are excellent but as you can see there are drawbacks to using proprietary memory formats like Memory Stick- it tends to lock you into the system and subject to the whims of the manufacturer, such as changing memory formats mid-stream. If you select a camera with Secure Digital (SD) cards, you will have more options available to you in the future.

My favorite small camera is the $499 8-megapixel Kodak P880, from Kodak’s advanced series. The zoom is 5.6x vs. the usual 10x-12x of a superzoom model, but it starts very wide, at an equivalent of 24mm. The wide angle is usually more useful than a very long telephoto.

The P880’s zoom ring is mechanical, which means you can change the zoom instantaneously and immediately, with no lag or battery drain from a zoom motor. The P880’s lens is very sharp and the camera produces very high quality images that are surprisingly low in noise, which usually plagues small cameras with more than 5 megapixels. The colors and contrast are exceedingly natural and the images reminded me of those coming from a digital SLR. What’s more, it always seems to nail it and give you good results whether working in manual or automatic mode, with or without flash.

If you want a camera with a long lens, check out the Kodak P712, also $499. It has a 12x zoom lens with optical stabilization, but uses a motorized zoom.

I’ve used both back to back and would definitely pick the P818 given a choice. The pictures look better, have less noise and the mechanical zoom ring makes a big difference when you are taking pictures.

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