SAN FRANCISCO (10/06/2003) - WHAT'S HOT: Toshiba Corp.'s PDR-M700 joins the small faction of digital cameras equipped with a 10X optical zoom lens (the Olympus Optical Co. Ltd. C-740, Olympus C-750, and Fujifilm AG FinePix S5000 are others). The long lens is especially useful in view of the camera's modest resolution of 3 megapixels: It can bring subjects in close, minimizing the need to crop shots later. The PDR-M700 is the first camera we've seen that combines a 10X zoom with a 2.5-inch LCD. This jumbo display makes framing shots easier (especially in bright light), and it displays menus in large, easy-to-read text. Toshiba kept the menus fairly simple, and because the number of buttons and dials on the camera body is small, the PDR-M700 is easier than most digital cameras to pick up and use. The multilingual (and consequently a bit thick) manual has nicely printed, clear illustrations and big, legible text.
WHAT'S NOT: The long lens, pop-up flash housing, and large hand grip/battery compartment increase the PDR-M700's bulk. And with its gray plastic finish, it's not the most attractive model we've seen, either. We tested this model with two high-capacity CRV3 batteries, which most cameras do very well with, but the PDR-M700 lasted for only 264 shots, or 1.5 hours of life. That's about 35 percent below the average for all cameras, regardless of battery type, and much worse than the average for cameras using two CRV3 cells. The eye-level electronic viewfinder is small, dark, and grainy; even the main LCD works better outside. Unlike with some other cameras that have electronic viewfinders, you have to press a button before you can use the eye-level viewfinder. Likewise, you must press a button to pop up the flash: It won't automatically pop up on its own in low light.
WHAT ELSE: Using any camera with such a long zoom requires either a steady hand and fast shutter speed or a tripod to get a sharp image when shooting at extreme telephoto. The camera comes with a wireless shutter release (not something we see often). Even less common is the microphone port, to which you can attach an external microphone. We're not quite sure why you'd want to use this, except for capturing movies with improved sound--but in any case, the manual doesn't discuss it. If you forget to remove the lens cap when you turn the camera on, you'll see an alarming "LENS ERROR" warning on the LCD; a simple "Please remove the lens cover" reminder would be much friendlier. The camera offers only stepped manual focusing. In our output judging, the PDR-M700 scored near the average for all cameras we've tested. A flash shot looked too dark, with a brownish cast, and a cropped-and-magnified shot could have been sharper. But the camera captured pleasing color, and uncropped shots looked sufficiently sharp in an 8-by-10-inch enlargement.
UPSHOT: A long zoom lens and a big LCD make a very attractive combination, and the M700 is a fine camera overall; but the competing Olympus C-740--also equipped with a 10X zoom--is more sophisticated and offers nearly five times the battery life, for only $50 more.