Get the picture

Nowadays digital cameras don't cost a fortune and, says George Cole, things look set to keep getting better

Digital cameras are one of the most useful computer add-ons a school can buy. No bigger than a 35mm compact camera, the latest models offer a range of useful features combined with simple, point-and-shoot recording. Most recording media used by digital cameras is re-usable, so there's no problem if students make a mess of their shots. However, since cameras offer features like autofocus and exposure, messing it up is pretty unlikely.

Recent developments in the sector have made the products even better to use and there are a couple of interesting developments in the pipeline. Many digital camcorders now double as cameras but you cannot beat a dedicated camera for quality, versatility and portability and prices have fallen so that you can now buy a quality camera for around pound;250-pound;300. Digital cameras record images by converting light into an electrical signal using an image chip covered with light-sensitive cells - pixels. Like a newspaper photograph, the more pixels the sharper the image. Some digital cameras now have image chips of more than 4 megapixels (1 megapixel equals 1 million pixels), but a 2.1 megapixel chip will give sufficient picture quality for most schools, even when images are printed at A4 size.

The past year has seen 2.1 megapixel cameras move from top-of-the-range to mid-range and become more affordable. In fact, it's estimated that 90 per cent of digital cameras sold this year will offer photo-quality images; the cheaper ones are good for web-page images but their quality can't compete with ordinary prints. Manufacturers have also improved the process of transferring images from the camera to a PC, where they can be edited, printed out, emailed or posted on the Internet. Most cameras use USB connectors, which are fast and easy to use, but the majority store images on memory cards and many PCs now have built-in card readers that can accept a card straight from the camera.

Kodak's DX 3600 digital camera uses a docking cradle to move images from camera to computer. This is linked to the computer and when the DX 3600 is placed in the cradle the images are automatically moved to the PC. The Windows XP operating system is designed to detect when a digital camera is connected to a PC and then automatically transfer images - at least that's what it says on the label. We can also expect to see digital cameras using wireless technology such as Bluetooth to make the transfer process even simpler.

Also expect to see a growing number of cameras using two new(ish) memory cards: Memory Stick is about the size of a strip of chewing gum and Sigma SD9 is a stamp-sized card. This new generation of cards not only store more images than other cards, but Memory Stick and SD9 card readers are being built into many devices such as PCs, PDAs and audio players.

Sanyo, Olympus and Hitachi have developed a data storage disc called IDPhoto, which looks like a mini floppy disk. An IDPhoto disk stores the same amount of data as 700 floppy disks so you can get a vast number of images on one card - up to 1,600. It sounds good, but schools should be aware that Sanyo is the only company with an IDPhoto digital camera (it costs pound;1,000) and there are few signs of other companies offering models. And most PCs do not have come fitted with IDPhoto card readers - yet.

Picture quality could improve considerably if an invention by US company Foveon takes off. It has developed an image chip, X3, which it says offers colour images three-times sharper than those of conventional chips. Its image sensor also allows digital cameras to store high-quality video images. The first commercial digital cameras with X3 image chips could arrive before the end of the year.

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