Cheap Digital Pix:Part 1

It occurred to me not too long ago that while Appleis push to make us all Digital Hub groupies is a good thing, there seemed to be a certain segment of the populace who may not, or simply cannot, subscribe to Appleis digital mantra. Of those, a large number of folks just canit pay the entire cost of outfitting themselves digitally. I wrote a piece called "VCD: Digital Video for the rest of US," that addressed one aspect of this, and this piece takes a look at another piece of the Digital Hub puzzle: cameras.

This isnit intended to be a review of cameras; my goal is to show you how you can get reasonably good quality digital pictures and video using equipment that cost a fraction of the cost of the tools usually considered for the purpose. I also want to be able to warn you of some of the pitfalls that you may run into on your quest to be Digitally Hubbed.

The Breakdown

Due to the range of products available, Iive decided to break this little excursion into the cost conscious side of the Digital Hub into 3 pieces. This first installment covers what Iive discovered thus far, and as new products become available, I will write a new installment. If you have some suggestions feel free to make them. I canit promise anything, but Iill try to include as much of what you want as possible.

Now, on with the show.

Stroll into a local consumer electronics store and, unless you are from some religious sect that eschews anything powered by electricity, you are bound to have an eye opening experience. Your local CompUSA, for instance, is a veritable cornucopia of gee-wizardry, with gadgets and doodads to excite every one of your five basic senses. However, unless your bank account gets a sizeable infusion of fresh green on a very regular basis, you are apt to walk out either in shock or plotting ways to knock over an armored truck. Keeping up with technology costs money - cool technology, doubly so. Life just isnit fair.

Whatis worse is that those who do have seemingly bottomless pockets get to play with all the high tech toys for real. These technoids get the thousand dollar, 5 megapixel digital cameras with auto/manual shutter, spot focus, and built-in nose wipers, and the $1900 iMacs with the slick LCD screens and that cool DVD/CD burning drive. They get to become one with the digital hub, embracing the ideas of digital nirvana set forth by Steve Jobs. They also seem to get all the women. What about us guys with shallow pockets? Canit we at least smell the digital hub? Can we have some semblance of a digital lifestyle, but without the cost?


Us shallow-pocket guys may not require as much from our digital video and pictures; our picture may not need to be the highest possible resolution, and our video may not have to be DVD quality for our Aunt Unice in Ithica to get joy out of our digital moments. Well true believers, Iim here to tell you that, yes, you too can join the digital hub club and you donit have to sell pints of blood and your momis dentures to do it. You can snap snappy pictures, shoot stunning video and create digital memories that anyone can be proud of, and, if you already own an OS X compatible Mac, you donit need to spend two thousand dollars to do it. Would you believe less than two HUNDRED dollars?

Head on over to your local electronic gadget-selling nationwide super store, walk past the expensive camera displays and continue on over to the computer peripheral section. What you should find there, among the keyboards, track-balls, and joysticks, is a small selection of what Iill call combo-cams. Companies like Aiptek and Cool iCam make these using basically the same internal circuitry. Consequently, the combo-cams all have very similar features, main differences between them being the amount of memory they contain and the number of pixels.

Feature & Cost go hand and hand

The rough rule of thumb is this: the more the combo-cam cost, the more pixels and internal memory it is likely to have. Aiptek, for instance, makes several version of the PenCam. They all work exactly alike, but the more expensive ones (around $100) offer 1 megapixel resolutions and memory to support the higher resolutions. You might also see cameras offered by Logitech, which do not use the same guts as the other combo-cams (weill take a look at what Logitech has to offer later). The combo-cams range in price from a paltry $25 to a bit over $100. Whatis interesting about these cameras is that they not only allow you to take digital pictures, but, with some work, they also allow you to shoot video clips and serve as a fairly decent Webcam. Be forewarned; to use these combo cameras to take video or serve as a Webcam requires some extra effort, especially in OS X, and the results may not be entirely satisfactory. Also, some of these cameras come with software that works in OS 9, but many do not. Donit fret. Iive got a way for you to use them in OS X.

What I used

For this article I used Aiptekis PenCam 2, and a liespion, a really cute little camera I bought from a British Web site called As I mentioned earlier, both cameras use the same guts, but the packaging was quite different. The Aiptek PenCam2 is about 6 inches long and about as thick as a large felt-tip marker, while the liespion is a dinky little thing about 2 inch square by 1 inch thick. Both cameras take the same quality images, fairly poor, but they are more than adequate for e-mail.

Both cameras supply a USB cable for downloading pictures and connecting the cameras as a Webcam, and software, which is pretty much useless because the software is made for Windows or, on rare occasions, OS 9. To use these cameras in OS X you have to first download a free application called macam, which will allow you to download the photos youive taken onto your hard drive. The macam software will also help you test the Webcam capabilities of your camera. Both the PenCam2 and the liespion take either 20 high resolution (352x288), or 80 low resolution (176x144) photos. That may not sound like much, but the high resolution photos are adequate for e-mail and snapshots, and low resolution photos are good as snapshots. Neither camera has a flash, so you are forced to use natural lighting. Both cameras work well outdoors but are deficient in the indoor arena. Regardless of where you take the picture, it is likely that you wonit be satisfied with the way it looks. I recommend using software to modify the photos you take.

You put the lime in the coconut, and you drink it all up...

Now, this is where the work comes in; OS X and iPhoto do not recognize the combo-cams or download the pictures youive taken automatically. The pictures will have to be imported into iPhoto after downloading them from the camera using the macam software.

I mentioned that these cameras also allow you to take video clips. Thatis not exactly true. What the cameras do is take a rapid succession of photos which you then stitch together using the supplied software. As I also mentioned, the supplied software is useless in OS X because the software is Windows or OS 9 compatible . You get around this problem by buying QuickTime Professional from Apple, which allows you to stitch the photos youive taken into a QuickTime movie.

A word of caution: The macam software is a very generic bit of beta code designed to accommodate several types of cameras, and it can be a bit touchy when downloading pictures. Iive had my pictures erased from the camera while attempting to download them so following a sequence is very important. I suggest experimenting first to become familiar with the software. Itis not hard, just not as forgiving as a more polished app (remember, its free!).


What about the Logitech cameras I told you about? Logitech currently makes two camera models that are similar in function to the combo-cams Iive described: the ClickSmart 310 and 510. The good news is that these cameras take really good photos and real video (not the kind that must be stitched together), and they serve as excellent Webcams.

The bad news is that they donit work well with Macs. The ClickSmart 310 cannot be used at all because it does not have removable media, thus you have no means of downloading your pictures. The ClickSmart 510 is a 1 megapixel camera that sports an 8 MB SmartMedia card. Since the card is removable, a SmartMedia card reader (which you must buy separately) can be used to download your pix. OS X recognizes most readers without you having to load a driver, and iPhoto will recognize the SmartMedia card, once itis plugged in and offer to download your photos for you. You cannot, at this time, use the camera to take videos.

Logitech uses an exclusive video AVI codec that QuickTime does not recognize yet. Neither can you use any of the AVI to QuickTime converting applications, because many of them depend on QuickTime to do the decoding of the video format. Unfortunately, without an available codec the camera cannot be used as a Webcam either. So why even bother with this camera? The ClickSmart has a flash built in, allowing good night time shots, and the pictures it takes are really very good for the $150 you will spend to buy one, making software editing not as necessary as with the other combo-cams I mentioned. If Logitech would just make their video codec available for QuickTime, the ClickSmart 510 would be a fine camera for Macintosh users. For now, I can recommend it only if you intend to take photos, and nothing else. If you have a PC the ClickSmart 510 is the ideal inexpensive camera.


Another suggestion would to keep an eye out for deals on cameras on the Web (try our deal site) and in your local stores. Many of the makers of higher priced cameras also have inexpensive models or models that are being discontinued, and you may be able to pick up a sweet little camera for a lot less than $200. This is a good option because the camera will work more smoothly with OS X. The trade-off is that these cameras may not have the features you want. Many of the older model cameras donit have the ability to take a movie, and fewer still can serve as a Webcam. They do take great pictures, however, and they often sport those little LCD screens on the back of the camera so you can preview your photos. The Logitech or the other combo-cams I mentioned do not have this feature.

And finally...

One final word of advice; make sure you can take the camera you buy back to the store for exchange or refund. The combo-cams come in a large variety of sizes, shapes and colors, and one may be more convenient than another. For instance, while I like my liespion for its dinky size, it makes a less than adequate Webcam because it offers no support stand to hold the camera while Iim online. I had to prop the liespion up on some CD cases, and because of its light weight, it kept falling over. The Aiptek PenCams and some of the Cool iCams do have such a stand included in the package, making them far more convenient.

So, there you have it. You can now go grab a really cheap camera, download the pictures you take into your Mac, and send them off to Aunt Unice in Ithica or provide some personal pix for your Web site. While you may have had to work at it a bit, it didnit cost you your first born to be a disciple of the Digital Hub. Now, go make Aunt Unice proud.

Vern Seward is a frustrated writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. Heis been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.