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October 1998

Kodak DVC323 Digital Video Camera

Eastman Kodak Co.
Worldwide Marketing, Digital & Applied Imaging Division
901 Elmgrove Rd
Rochester, NY 14653
Ph.: 888-375-6325
Web site: www.kodak.com

Price: $149

Ratings (0-5)
Installation: 5
Documentation: 5
Features: 4
GUI: 4.5
Operational Testing: 3
Overall: B-

Are you looking for a video camera for your PC? Kodak's DVC323 USB camera is a good choice for the family or business user who values features and cost ahead of performance. This 8-ounce successor to the DVC300 offers a number of enhancements over its predecessor. (The DVC 300 was a CTI´┐Ż magazine November 1997 Editors' Choice award winner.) The new version features a 25-percent improvement in video quality (was: 24 fps; is: 30 fps), a 25-percent reduction in cost (was: $199; is: $149), and improved video compression and circuitry (in the form of a new digital ASIC chip). USB makes the new camera easy to install, and the included PictureWorks Live software has new features as well, including an updated GUI.

Anyone who's experienced a Windows/USB peripheral installation will appreciate the hype. The primary advantages of 1.5 MB/s USB support are the allowance for hot swapping of peripherals and support for up to 127 connections through one port. It even works (sort of).

Our Windows 98 test PC did recognize the camera as soon as we plugged it in, and it automatically updated the drivers, but we did have to reboot. Hot swapping didn't seem to work at all when we later tried to uninstall and reinstall the camera. We had to remove all references to the camera in the device manager and reboot before it worked again. Fortunately, our computer didn't crash and flash the "Blue Screen of Death" like Bill Gates' did at the April 1998 COMDEX demonstration when he attempted a USB scanner installation.

System requirements for the camera include a Pentium PC with Windows 95 version 4.00.950B (OSR2) or later; a CD-ROM drive (or access to one over a network); 16 MB of RAM; and 13 MB of hard disk space. To record and play video, you'll also need a microphone and speakers, and to engage in a video conference, you'll need a connection to your organization's LAN or the Internet. Additionally, the DVC323 comes with PictureWorks NetCard, Microsoft NetMeeting, Kai's Power Goo SE, and White Pine's CU-SeeMe. All of these programs install with simple wizards.

The documentation for the software packaged with the DVC323 is average, but then, so is the software. What's of greater importance is the manual for the DVC323 unit itself, and we're pleased to tell you that this manual, albeit slim, is excellent. We immediately noticed that it uses photographs to describe connecting the USB plug and to note the camera's parts. This is a great feature, because most end users have probably never installed such a device before. There are ample screen shots, there is a terrific troubleshooting portion, there is a decent "read-me-first" card, and the actual book is well organized and refreshing to look. It may be thin, but a concise manual can be as healthy as the 500-page tomes that line our bookshelves.

Like its former incarnation, the DVC323 sports a nearly 10-foot long cable and a removable tripod base with a non-slip rubber pad. The camera itself is very sturdy, it comes with a one-year warranty and it appears as if it would survive a fall if the family dog bumped your PC. The camera also features a manual focus knob and a manual shutter button, so users can remove it from the tripod and carry it a few meters (it's also useful for taking pictures of children, extra-tall people, and the like). There are three viewing field ranges - 20, 30, and 42 degrees horizontal - and the tripod tilts 60 degrees. For photography buffs, shutter speeds range from 1/10-1/500 of a second, and the 6.2-millimeter lens offers an f/2.5 aperture, adjustable from five inches to infinity.

Other useful features include AutoSnaps, for taking pictures at regular intervals, and a "save special" option within PictureWorks Live, which lets users save images in formats designed for use on the Web, as screen savers, or as Windows desktop images. PictureWorks Live is also a basic image-editing program with a good GUI. While not quite as useful as Adobe PhotoShop, PictureWorks Live is as least as useful as (and in some ways better than) Microsoft's default image editor. PictureWorks NetCard lets users send customized video mail through standard e-mail methodologies as .AVI files, which should run on any up-to-date Windows machine and even on some Macintosh computers. Power Goo is a tool for editing and distorting images and for making slide shows, NetMeeting and CU-SeeMe are the leading products for free video conferencing, whiteboarding, and other such collaborative applications.

To reiterate, the DVC323 is an inexpensive, features-oriented camera for both stills and video images, but it isn't the best camera for raw video performance. There are three resolution settings, the best and worst of which each make sacrifices: The choices are 30 fps with low sharpness; 20 fps with medium sharpness; and 10 fps with high sharpness. A single 24-bit color 640x480-pixel photograph takes up about 900 KB, and a 10-second color video at 160x120-pixel resolution video with a medium frame rate uses about 620 KB.

Using the enclosed software is as easy as installing it. The software is mostly primitive, but the respective GUIs are mostly good, and for the family/SOHO scene, they might even be useful. We did have two technical issues, however. First, about 75 percent of our attempts to take a photograph resulted in the error message "The picture could not be taken, please try again." While Kodak technicians worked to find the cause and cure for this problem, we found another issue.

A pencil-thin vertical line of varying color consistently appeared about a quarter inch from the left side of the preview window, regardless of which mode we were in (photograph or video) or of which size window we used (there are two sizes). At first, we thought this was a scratch on the camera lens, but it appeared too precise to be true. Kodak technicians tell us it's a defect of our particular unit, which, in Kodak's defense, was a beta and demonstration unit given to us at a trade show - we can't hold Kodak responsible since it was essentially a used product.

A third problem was with the video's preview window losing frames. The DVC323 would flawlessly record for several minutes, then inexplicably freeze and/or drop frames, and it seemed that no amount of settings or exposure tinkering on our part could solve the problem. Sometimes the camera worked fine for an hour; other times it wouldn't work fine for any more than 30 seconds. The manual's troubleshooting section suggested adjusting the graphics acceleration in the operating system, but this didn't fix our problem; in fact, it even worsened it in some cases.

Eventually, Kodak technicians shed light on our camera problems. The inability to successfully take pictures at will and the lost video frames were actually the same problem - traffic in the USB caused information to cease before it ever reached the PCI board. The camera uses about three-quarters of the USB's bandwidth, a figure that dynamically decreases as more isochronous devices are added - but our system had no other such devices. Kodak's engineer said the problem stemmed from either the operating system, the particular PC we were using, or a combination of the two, but not with their camera. To check this, we tested the camera on another Windows 98 PC (which had a slower processor), and it worked fine -- no error messages, no lost frames. Both PCs had the same brand of network card, eliminating the conflict possibility. So, the problem was something in the first PC. Again, the Kodak technician explained that system-to-system difficulties are common with USB cameras. We think this is something that Microsoft and Intel should work on together. The vertical-line problem was more easily addressed: This was due to a defect in the camera's sensor, which Kodak developed a software fix for. However, this fix didn't ship until the retail versions were out, and ours was a beta.

PictureWorks Live doesn't save the camera settings when you exit. Some people may see it as a feature - after all, consecutive photographs with a real camera rarely transpire in the same exact environment and conditions, so saving the previous session's setting may be pointless. That may have been Kodak's design philosophy, but then, a camera attached to your PC probably won't be taken from place to place like a regular camera would be. For a product tethered to a ten-foot radius, users should be able to save their settings for lighting, speed, frame rate, and such.

We would also like to see an additional quality setting. As we explained above, the best of the three camera modes yields the slowest frame rate. But if a user happens to have a lightning-fast PC that can handle the system requirements, then the user should be able to select a setting for the 30 frames per second rate and the sharpest image. If a user paid for the best PC, their software shouldn't make it a waste.

Another great feature would be auto-focus, which should be an easy task for a company like Kodak. The DVC323 price of $149 is already a bargain, and we would certainly pay another $10-$20 for auto-focus, along with a lens that has a wider range. The DVC323 could also use a smaller physical case, as the DVC323 is larger than most of its competitors.

Our testing reinforced our hunch. That is to say, as Kodak may have intended, the DVC323 is good for non-power users and for users on a budget who want plenty of features. PictureWorks Live, PictureWorks NetCard, and NetMeeting are all valuable inclusions. Perhaps Kodak could replace some of the software with auto-focus and not have to increase the price. What we'd really like to see is more performance stuffed into the same package. In its current state, the DVC323 isn't improved enough from the 300 model that we'd run out and buy one as an upgrade, but if you have nothing, the 323 should be considered. Not everyone needs the raw performance of a Vicam or Intel USB camera, which cost more and are harder to find on the shelves. The DVC323 is also a good choice to resell with a larger CTI or IP telephony solution. Unlike the 300, however, the 323 needs to perform better and become more reliable before it earns another Editors' Choice award.


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