Interesting: when we asked Hewlett Packard for their best long zoom camera for a recent long zoom shootout among the industry's very best, they sent us the R817. When we asked them for their "thin" flagship to determine the best in that category, they sent us another R817. It's a bit weird that one camera should be a giant company's long-zoom champion as well as the best they have to offer in the slim-is-in department. But that's what HP sent us and we're not going to argue with them.
Though Hewlett Packard has been selling digital cameras for a long time, somehow we never had high expectations for any HP camera. While no one would ever question HP's technological competence, for some reason the computing behemoth generally seems content to issue ho-hum digicams that are dumbed down to an extent that makes them nearly unusable for any serious photographer. However, there are some indications that HP is seeing the error in its ways. As of this writing, HP no longer sells any digicam under 4 megapixel. And there is now a good variety of pretty interesting cameras. Truth be told, you wouldn't expect a new beginning just from the looks of the PhotoSmart R817. Its oddly designed brushed metal body with a cheap-looking faux carbon fiber insert doesn't look like much. Ergonomic indents in the metal look more like the camera has been banged up (though they fit your fingers nicely). Else, there really isn't much to say about the design other than we wouldn't exactly call it "thin."
While the footprint of the R817 certainly qualifies with a compact 3.6 x 2.24 inches, with a depth of 1.17 inches the camera is almost twice as thick as the sexy Casio S500 and actually looks even bigger. It's also the heaviest shooter in the entire lineup (6.7 ounces--almost half a pound) and the most voluminous as well. If HP considers that "slim," then our definitions of slimness are different.
However, just as in the long-zoom review, we found that once you get over preconceived notions and the ho-hum first impression, the R817 is actually a pretty nice and handy camera. While it's thicker than the others, it's also the only one with a 5X optical zoom, and that is a big difference to the 3X variety. Despite the big Pentax lens, the HP remains eminently pocketable. The picture at the top of this review shows the camera's 5X zoom lens barrel fully extended. When the R817 is turned off, the lens completely retracts into the camera body, making the HP a relatively compact little box that fits into almost any pocket.
As far as the LCD goes, at 2.0 inches diagonal it is the smallest in this group, but--amazingly--it has a gratifyingly large 153k pixel count and offers 640 x 240 resolution as opposed to most others that languish in the 85 to 115k range. No optical viewfinder, though.
Controls are neat and clean and kept to a bare minimum. There's an on-off switch, four buttons (flash, focus, mode, timer) that bring up on-screen menus, a dedicated movie button next to the shutter, and a novel third-of-a-circle zoom segment that you operate by rolling your thumb left and right. It works, but takes some getting used to.
Moving on to features, the HP can hold its own. This is not just a point & shooter; HP equipped the R817 with aperture and shutter priority modes as well as a program and a manual mode. Exposure compensation operates by a full six EV points (all others do just four), and the 5X optical zoom can be digitally multiplied to a full 40X (not recommended). It also has a cool panorama stitch mode that glues the pictures together right in the camera. And there's even speed. The camera starts up quickly, focuses quickly, and cycles quickly. Nice. The menus are a pleasure as well. Everything is clear and logical. There's even an on-screen Help mode that provides guidance on how to use features.
There are some not-so-clever features. For example, to charge the battery or connect to a computer you need to use the included dock. And you either love or hate the many hundreds of megabyte worth of software HP plows onto your hard drive.
The HP had scored quite well in our long zoom roundup, but for some reason it didn't fare nearly as well here. We used two different cameras, so the much lower grades this time may have been a fluke.
Not so much:
- Very easy to use, very clear menus
- Speedy, nice features, manual modes
- High-resolution LCD
- Looks a bit cheap
- Rather thick and heavy in this class
- Nice software, but WAY too much of it