Fujifilm FinePix A600|
Are 6-megapixel and a nice LCD enough in an entry-level camera?
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
The FujiFilm FinePix A600 is part of Fuji's A-Series entry level cameras. We previously reviewed the FinePix A400 and A500 that were introduced at the January 2006 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. We found those two A-Series models to be nice looking, competent, but very basic 4- and 5-megapixel entry-level camera from a very reputable manufacturer. We were impressed that Fuji sprang for Super CCD HR imagers for such inexpensive cameras, but didn't care for the tiny 1.8-inch LCD, the controls and the wimpy flash. Picture quality, however, was more than adequate, and so we cautiously recommended the duo to budget-minded consumers.
In the meantime, Fuji introduced two new A-Series models, the A600 and A700. Just like the A400 and A500, the newcomers share almost everything except for image resolution. The A600 is a 6-megapixel camera, the A700 packs 7-megapixel. Pricing for Fuji cameras tends to be all over the place, but as of late November 2006, the A600 and A700 were advertised for between $149 to $179. That's what the A400 and A500 were going for earlier in 2006, proving that amateur photographers are getting ever more for their money. Still, even at that price, do those entry level cameras offer enough? After all, the under-US$200 market is getting pretty crowded with rather impressive equipment.
Right upfront, for dedicated Fuji fans who seek an inexpensive entry-level camera, there's plenty of good news. For roughly US$150, they now get a camera with a 6 megapixel imager that uses Fuji's Super CCD HR technology with its octagonal pixel design that captures highlight and shadow detail better than conventional imaging sensors and delivers excellent image quality, good detail, and true-to-life colors. They also no longer have to put up with one of the weaknesses of the A400 and A500, that being their dinky 1.8-inch LCD with a minimal 77k-pixel resolution. Instead, the A600 comes with a perfectly nice 2.4-inch LCD. Resolution still isn't very high at 112k pixel, but the size of the screen more than makes up for it. It wasn't long ago that 2-inch screens were considered state-of-the-art in expensive digicams, so we've come a very long way.
And while the A-Series are meant to be entry-level cameras, they neither look nor feel cheap. Their bodies may be plastic, but they don't look it. Instead, they sport elegant design, using the same combination of powdercoat silver and gleaming chrome as all other current Fujifilm cameras. Design and execution are just fine, and the camera looks competent and businesslike. It's a "compact," measuring 3.7 x 2.4 x 1.2 inches and weighing 6.6 ounces. Yes, that's pretty small, but a good deal larger than those credit card sized ultrathins. You can stick the FinePix A600 into a pocket, but you'll definitely know it's there.
In terms of features, there isn't much. You get the standard 3X optical zoom, with the lens barrel motoring out about 3/4 of an inch when you turn on the power. There's a 5.2X digital zoom multiplier, but without any sort of image stabilization, there's not much you can do with it. We already mentioned the Super CCD HR imager, and that is truly a selling point. The camera uses the xD-Picture card format. No card is included, so until you pick up get a 512MB or larger card, you're limited to the A600's meager 12MB of internal storage. There is no optical viewfinder; those seem to have gone by the wayside on digital cameras during 2006.
Examining the FinePix A600
The A600 is a simple camera, and that'll be just fine with its projected target clientele. As a result, there are only very few controls. On top there is the shutter and a recessed power on/off switch. Seven tiny holes mark the onboard speaker. The left side houses the A600's connectivity with the outside world. There's a standard mini-B USB port, a standard audio-video jack, and a DC-in socket for an optional power adapter. This being an entry-level camera, there is no cover protecting those ports. The bottom features a centrally located plastic tripod mount and then the battery/storage card compartment. As is, the A600 ships with a couple of lowly AA alkaline batteries, good for perhaps a hundred shots on the standard CIP test. Open the door and the batteries fall out; there isn't a latch or anything to keep them in.
The back of the camera is where you find all the major controls. While simplicity was the main goal here, we wish Fuji's cost cutters had not been quite so drastic. As is, they combined the zoom rocker with the navigation function into one horizontal control consisting of a tiny up/down rocker flanked by two larger left and right buttons. Those are used to cycle through macro and flash modes, but since the arrangement is so uncommon, I constantly found myself pushing them when I wanted to zoom in and out. The only other controls are a playback button, Menu/Ok to get the onscreen menus and affirm selections, and Disp/Back to cycle through display modes and escape out of menus.
The A-Series uses an entirely different menu system than other Fuji cameras. In line with the entry-level orientation that stresses simplicity, the menus are designed to be friendly and unintimidating. The six major functions (Shooting modes, image quality., self timer, options, ISO, and continuous shooting) are represented by colorful round icons along the bottom of the display. Select one, and a scroll box shows up from which you can pick your selection.
The A600 are only seven shooting modes: automatic, manual, movie, portrait, landscape, sport, and night. In "manual" you get access to manual exposure compensation and white balance adjustment. While the menus are clean and friendly, sometimes you'd wish for more information. For example, how is one to know what fluorescent icon 1 means compared to fluorescent icons 2 and 3? A bit of textual onscreen information would come in handy.
Fortunately, like all Fuji camers, the A600 comes with a detailed, excellent 130-page manual. It explains all functions and capabilities well. Don't lose it.
Using the A600
Using the A600 is as simple as it gets. Push the on/off button to turn on the camera, and start taking pictures. The startup is a bit long, almost 3.5 seconds, and the autofocus isn't the fastest, but it all works just fine. To review pictures you press the green playback button. To get back into recording mode, you press the shutter halfway down. We'd prefer just one button to toggle between the modes, or one each for recording and playback, but this is how Fuji currently does it.
The 2.4 inch display makes taking pictures a pleasure, at least compared to the much smaller display of earlier models. When reviewing pictures, you can zoom in in 13 step and pan around. However, the fairly low 112k pixel resolution means you won't be able to see fine detail or reliably determine if a picture is indeed sharp.
Now we're getting to one of the weaker areas of the A600, and that is movies. Yes, you guessed it, you're limited to 320 x 240 pixel clips. You do get sound, but the maximum length of a clip is 60 seconds at the higher resolution. Worst of all, you're recording at a glacial ten frames per second. That is definitely no fun. You can zoom in, but only before you start recording, not during recording. This is all disappointing. Beginners like to have fun with movies, and an entry-level camera should take that into consideration.
On the other hand, there is absolutlely nothing wrong with the pictures themselves. The A600, just like the A400/500 models we reviewed earlier, takes above-average pictures. The macro mode lets you get as close as about four inches, and that's enough to have a lot of fun. Sensitivity is limited to just ISO 400 and the flash isn't very strong, so the camera works best outdoors, but you can also take more than acceptable shots indoors. As mentioned, it's best to stay away from the digital zoom as the lack of an anti-shake feature means blurry pics unless you use a tripod. And invest in a good set of rechargeable NiMH rechargeable batteries. Digital cameras and alkaline batteries are not a good match.
The FinePix A600 definitely fulfills its mission of bringing a nicely designed and executed 6-megapixel camera to beginners at a low cost. Fuji's "Super CCD HR" imager makes for satisfying, above-average picture quality. The 2.4-inch LCD is bright and large enough to see what you're taking a picture of, though in playback mode its fairly low resolution doesn't let you see fine detail. The controls are simple, but you have to get used to a somewhat unusual combination of zoom and navigation into one control. The slow, low-res movie mode will be a negative for those who love to shoot video clips. Overall, it may come down to price. If you get the A600 at a good discount, it's a nice beginner's camera. If you want to spend a few dollars more, there are, however, a good number of pretty strong alternatives in the below-$200 range.
Not so much:
- The Fuji Super CCD HR imager
- Large 2.4-inch display
- Nicely styled bodies, easy to use
- Standard AA batteries, onboard I/O
- Very simple to use
- Slow, low-res movie mode
- Somewhat confusing combination controls
- Screen is rather low-res
- No anti-shake limits use of digital zoom