AstraPix 540: Digital Chimera

A pple bills itself as the supplier of the hub of the Digital Lifestyle. Macs, for many, are at the center of the digitized snippets of the lives their owners lead -- from music to pictures to movies and more -- but what of the devices that gather all of these isnippetsi?

There are digital cameras for the photos and movies, PDAs and cell phones for organization and communication, and music players for jammini to tunes whenever and wherever you wish. The problem is that these devices can be expensive, confusing to use, and you may need a utility belt just to carry it all conveniently. One device from UMAX seeks to change all that by combining a 2 megapixel digital camera with a music player that also can take short movies and voice notes in a small and inexpensive package; the UMAX AstraPix 540.

AstraPix 540

In concept, combining all of those major features sounds like a good idea, but in reality, there are sacrifices that you must be prepared to deal with; if you can, then the AstraPix 540 may be the ideal device for you.

Note: The AstraPix 540 is a multi-function device, and this in-depth review looks at all of them. If you want the quick and dirty, head down to the Wrap It Up section.

Digital Chimera

The AstraPix 540 will take photos and movies, play MP3s, and store voice notes, all on a Compact Flash memory media card that, unfortunately, UMAX does not provide: We have several of the media cards lying around so that was not a problem for us, but for new users of the AstraPix 540, it is definitely a drawback since the camera canit do much without a card.

To gain access to the different features the AstraPix 540, you use the dial that sits on the top of the device; from it you can set the camera to take photos, play them back on the 1.6" LCD display on the back of the camera or on your TV with the provided cabling, play MP3s, or download data into the camerais memory. While we liked the convenience of the dial we found that having it act as a power switch was probably not a good idea; if you donit put the device in the provided carrying case and just shove it into a bag, as we did, the jostling in the bag may inadvertently hit the dial and turn on the camera, thus wasting precious battery power.

Other switches along the top and back of the camera allow you to adjust the many features, like setting image quality, controlling the flash and maneuvering through the menu that appears on the display. All of the switches and buttons can be confusing so it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with their functions before you take the device out for a serious spin.

Four AA batteries power the device and are installed through a hinged door on the bottom, which is where you also install the CF card. While this arrangement is not bad, we would have liked for the CF card to have itis own opening; when swapping out the card you have to be careful not to spill the batteries.

A Picture Tells The Story

Looking at the AstraPix 540 you would instantly conclude that the device is primarily a camera, and youid be right; the AstraPix 540 looks like an average camera, and as a camera, the AstraPix 540 is unremarkable, but thatis not necessarily a bad thing if you remember that this is more than just a camera; it records movies and voice too, as well as play MP3s, so you need to make some allowances. The photos you can take when it is in its camera mode are more than adequate for the casual point-n-click photographer. The fixed focus and automatic exposure features produce good images comparable to those of inexpensive film based cameras. Thereis a built-in flash for night shots, a timer so that you can include yourself in your pix, and there are settings which can help you make the most of, or counteract the affects of available lighting. Even with these options you should not expect the AstraPix 540 to equal a good quality digital camera; it is a snapshot camera, useful for catching photo moment when you donit happen to have your other camera around. In this respect the AstraPix 540 should meet expectations.

Orchids, AstraPix 540 Style

The pictures we took were crisp, showing reasonably good detail. As mentioned earlier, the AstraPix 540 has several adjustments you can set to help you take the best possible picture in most lighting situations. You can manually adjust the exposure, that is, you can manually set the exposure setting which controls the shutter speed and how much light is allowed in to make a picture. This can be useful in situation where the light is either too bright or dim for the automatic exposure take a good picture. However, under most circumstances the automatic exposure setting, which is the default setting, is all youill need to get a reasonable shot. More on this later.

One nice feature is that the device will alert you if you try to take a photo with the lens cover in place; something some analog and digital cameras donit do; a much appreciated feature.

Music On Your Minds

As a music player, the AstraPix 540 is, once again, adequate. You can load up your music by dragging MP3is to the CF card in a directory labeled iMP3i; easy enough. The switches and buttons normally used for navigating the menus are used to navigate through your list of music, and you use the shutter button to start and pause your music. This is a bare bones player; you have no playlist or random function. There is also no equalizer, and we felt that the player sorely needed one as the music it produced was a bit tinny for our taste. We tried the included ear buds and several different types of headsets, but none seemed to be able to overcome the overly bright pitch of anything we played.

Still, if you keep in mind that you can have a few of your favorite songs with you and not have to carry another gadget, you may not mind a little more treble in your tunes.

Whatis On The Menu?

We mentioned that the AstraPix 540 has a LCD screen; it is one of the best features of the device. Through the menu that is displayed on the 1.6" colorful LCD screen you can adjust the many features of the device, and the screen is a good size for reviewing the photos youive taken. The menu icons are easy to see and the menu is a cinch to navigate; you can delete photos, digitally zoom in on sections of photos youive taken, and you can adjust the screen brightness, access the MP3 player, and a long list of other feature and options.

There a small LCD status window on top of the device which clues you in on number exposures taken, the current flash mode the device is in, and other essentials.

Below the viewfinder youill find two status lights; the right light flashes yellow, warning that the camera is not ready for action. The left light will shine a steady green indication the device is good to go. These are conveniently placed since you can get a general status of your camera without moving your eye from the viewfinder.

Video Cool

One of the best features of the AstraPix 540 is its video capture option. We didnit like the sequence of button we had to go through to get to the video recording mode, but once we got there all we needed to do was press the shutter button. Video is store on your CF card in QuickTime readable AVI format; youill need to download the movie from a CF card reader, but once downloaded, youill like what you see; the movie is clear and crisp and runs at 15fps.

Other Stuff

Some of the features of the AstraPix 540 is not available to Mac users; for instance, Windows users can use the device as a USB webcam if they use the provided Windows only software. There are Twain drivers for OS X, but, after briefly trying, we couldnit get them to work.

The AstraPix 540 will do allow you to make 7 second audio clips. Think of them as very short voice notes. We are not sure why UMAX chose to limit the clips to 7 seconds, in doing so it has limited what would otherwise be a very useful feature.

One other feature that we did find useful is the TV presentation option; you can show you photos on a TV simply by plugging in the provided cable. We found that photos displayed quite well on your average TV, youill likely use this option a lot as a convenient way of showing your friends and family the digital photos youive taken; itis a digital version of the old slide projector.

The provided CD ROM is primarily for Windows users; the only thing of interest Mac users is the instruction manual, which is in PDF format.

The Dark Side

While there is plenty to like about the AstraPix 540 we found that there is plenty not to like too.

For starters, we understand that the device isnit suppose to be the best at everything it does, but we feel that some of the more important features really could be improved. The camera, for instance, while easy to use, requires too much fiddling in order to get a good shot. This doesnit mean you can just take a decent picture by pointing and clicking, you can, but the resulting pictures tended to be a bit too blue. This can be corrected somewhat by fiddling with the settings on the camera, and adjusting the picture afterwards. We took a picture of bogavelias with the AstraPix 540 and another low resolution digital camera that we think gets the color right, and compared them below. As you can see, the left half of the photo shows that the AstraPix 2MP resolution is tops but the unretouched color leans heavily into the blue, especially compared to the more color correct low-rez shot.

The left is from the 2MP AstraPix 540, the right from a low resolution camera

The same is true for the MP3 player; there were too few features for us to get excited about, and the sound did not impress us.

We mentioned that the included CD held little for Mac users, and it is true, only the instruction manual is of any use to Mac users. Still, it is a pretty good manual; it does a good job of covering the many features of the AstraPix 540, many of which are not intuitively obvious.

We would have loved to have been able to plug the AstraPix 540 in to our Mac with the provided USB cable to moved files back and forth, but we could never get our Mac to see the device. Consequently, anytime we needed to move data to or from the device we had to remove the CF card, and thatis a hassle because of where the card slot is located (under the battery door, as we pointed out earlier). As it stands, we found no use for the USB cable UMAX provides with the camera. We asked our UMAX representative about it and was informed that the problem was most likely due to a bad USB cable, so you most likely wonit run into this problem.

We also frowned at the lack of a battery saving auto-shutdown feature. We inadvertently left the camera on over night and came back to find dead batteries.

Wrap It Up

There are things to like about the AstraPix 540; the video clip and TV playback features were great, and the included carrying case is quite nice. Still, we found just as many things not to like. For a Mac user, thereis little of interest on the included CD and the remaining major feature of the AstraPix 540, the webcam, has no Mac support. The camera and the MP3 player were merely adequate, and we did not like the access to the CF card.

In short, the AstraPix 540 strives to be a Swiss Army knife of digital functionality. Like a Swiss Army knife, the features and gadgets are not intended to be the best, just useful, and the AstraPix 540 does accomplish that goal. At a retail price of US$129.00, it is a reasonably priced do-it-all. As long as you are willing to live with its shortcomings.

Product: AstraPix 540

Company: UMAX

List Price: US$199

Vendor Price: US$129

Any USB capable Mac

Pros: Lots of features, good detail in photos, nice TV play-back mode, large LCD screen
Cons: Getting to some features is confusing, MP3 player lacks many features, photos can be a bit too blue, all features are not Mac supported