Kodak EasyShare M381
Kodak's 12-megapixel EasyShare M381 is a good low-priced point-and-shoot camera for anyone who doesn't want to fuss with a lot of controls--as long as you're also willing to deal with a few of the camera's quirks.
The 5X optical zoom (35mm to 175mm) EasyShare M381 looks and feels like many basic point-and-shoot cameras geared toward easy operation. The top of the camera hosts the shutter button, the mode dial, the power button, and a useful flash button for quickly switching flash modes.
Through the mode dial you get access to six shooting modes: Video, Smart Capture, Program, Blur Reduction, Sport, and Panorama. Most people using the M381 will set the mode dial to Smart Capture, which is essentially an automatic mode; the camera determines the settings based on the scene framed in the 3-inch-diagonal LCD.
In my informal tests for image quality, I noticed inconsistencies in exposure. Shots taken within a few seconds of each other in the Smart Capture mode varied noticeably; some images looked fine, while others seemed overexposed.
The exposure issues were especially apparent in outdoor shots. Colors were consistent and accurate, but seemed to lack pop. And sharpness was a little soft, so some fine detail became lost in a blur. Even so, the M381's overall image quality is acceptable for casual snapshots--aside from the exposure, nothing about the M381's images in my tests stood out as either problematic or fantastic.
According to the user guide, Program mode lets you access the manual settings, but the only such settings I saw in that mode were exposure compensation, the timer, and focus. That's a limited set of manual controls, but fairly standard for a bargain-priced point-and-shoot. Blur Reduction mode helps cancel out any camera shake; I found that it worked well, taking clear shots even when I purposely shook the camera while shooting. Sport mode is for action shots, while Panorama mode stitches together three pictures of a landscape taken as left, center, and right.
Also on the mode dial is the SCN selection, which lets you choose from 18 scene modes that automatically set up the camera according to the environment. The SCN options include such standards as Close Up, Museum, Night Portrait, and Portrait.
After you take a picture in Smart Capture mode, the camera automatically processes the image with its Perfect Touch technology, which adjusts the shot for backlighting or poor exposure. Perfect Touch worked well with many of the photos that I took in problematic lighting, and for the target audience (novices), it's a nice feature.
In Smart Capture mode, Perfect Touch makes changes to the original photo, not a copy. To get an unmodified original (ideal for performing adjustments after the fact in image-editing software), you must shoot in Program mode. You can still apply Perfect Touch after you have taken a picture in Program mode.
The M381 also lets you crop images while saving the original shot, and you can make copies of a picture in the camera.
The main problem I encountered with the M381 was in the use of the controls. First, though the shutter button is easy to press, the camera has a short shutter delay. It's barely noticeable, and the lag probably won't come into play when you take posed shots. But when the action is fast, or when you're waiting for a precise moment, the delay is bothersome.
You'll also experience a delay when you're using the M381's 5X zoom. When you first press the zoom toggle on the back of the camera, there's no delay, but if you make adjustments and zoom in and out, you'll encounter a delay after you press the buttons, as if the motor were still catching up to your commands.
The M381's Video mode is limited to 640 by 480 resolution, with no support for 720p video. You can use the zoom when you're shooting a video, but it stutters--a lot. In some instances, the zoom stutter can seem like a neat effect, but if you want to zoom in smoothly, you're better off physically moving closer.
Macworld's buying advice
Because it's so fully automated, easy to use, and affordable, the EasyShare M381 is a decent point-and-shoot choice for anyone who doesn't want to have to deal with camera settings. It has a few usability quirks and it lacks excitement, but it takes a decent still photo with little work on the shooter's part.
[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]