Wi-Fi Photos, Anyone?

The Wi-Fi digital cameras have arrived. Nikon recently began shipping its CoolPix P1 and P2 models (only narrowly beating Kodak to the punch). Both Nikons feature integrated Wi-Fi for sending pictures from camera to PC, as well as to a PC-connected printer, or directly to some printer models equipped with an optional USB/Wi-Fi adapter supplied by Nikon. The P1 ($550) is an 8-megapixel camera, the P2 ($400) a 5-megapixel model.

coolpixp2.jpgWe mainly looked at the P2 as a Wi-Fi device, but it’s also a pretty decent little camera. As for the Wi-Fi features, they work reasonably well, though we did encounter some temporary setup problems. On the whole, however, the P2 is a success.

Test pictures were generally sharp and properly exposed. The camera is attractively tiny &#151 3.6 x 2.4 x 1.5 inches and weighs only six ounces. Yet it includes a 3.5X zoom lens (equivalent to 36-126mm on a 35mm camera). The lens retracts into the camera when it’s powered down, closing the integrated lens cover.

The P2 also has a huge 2.5-inch LCD that covers most of the back surface. To make room for it, Nikon opted to do without an optical viewfinder. Other makers of consumer digicams have done the same. It seems most people prefer to use the LCD for composing pictures anyway, but it would be nice to have both options so you can preserve battery life by not using the LCD.

Like most consumer cameras, the P2 offers a fully automatic, idiot-proof mode. It also provides a generous selection of 16 scene modes &#151 programmed settings for special shooting situations such as portrait, beach/snow, close-up and so on. Unlike many cameras in this category, the P2 also lets you take partial manual control, setting either the aperture or shutter speed manually, while the camera selects the other.

The controls are intuitive and easy to use, especially if you’re used to Nikon digital cameras, some of which have same basic approach. Despite its featherweight, the P2 feels generally well constructed and solid. The one exception is the mode dial on the top surface, which is somewhat delicate.

The Wi-Fi transmitter is built into the camera on the left-hand side, and includes a blue LED that lights when the radio is in use. The P2 comes with Nikon’s Wireless Camera Setup Utility software (as well as PictureProject, an entry-level PC/Mac photo editor and picture organizer). Setting up the camera and host computer for wireless is relatively easy with the right computer, though we almost immediately ran into problems.

We have an 802.11g network based on a Buffalo Technology AirStation. Our main computer, a desktop, is in the same room as the router, and they’re connected by Ethernet cable. Our other computers are connected wirelessly. This is a fairly common home-office, Wi-Fi network architecture.

We started by trying to set up the main desktop system as the host for the camera. It didn’t work.

After installing the wireless setup software on a PC, connecting the camera to the PC with a USB cable and turning the camera on, a setup wizard launched on the PC screen. A message said, “In order to use the wireless features of your camera with this computer, the computer needs a wireless networking interface.” Did this mean the PC had to have a wireless network card installed, or only that it had to be connected to a wireless network? It wasn’t clear.

At the next step in the wizard, where the wireless utility software looks for the attached camera, it wouldn’t recognize the P2 even though it was plugged into a USB port and turned on. After several failed attempts, the only conclusion was that this was happening because the main system lacked a wireless network card.

We installed the Nikon wireless utility on one of our wireless laptops. This time, the setup procedure worked flawlessly. When we called Nikon technical support, the agent confirmed that the host PC does require a wireless network card. But that wasn’t right, either.

The next day, with exactly the same computer configuration in place, we again tried to set up the main desktop system using the Nikon wireless software. This time, it worked. It probably had something to do with changes made in the camera after we successfully set up a profile for the wireless laptop the day before. The Nikon software this time presented a dialog where we could enter network settings to create a new profile for the desktop PC and the printer attached to it.

The camera would not successfully connect when we set it in Wi-Fi mode and selected either the profile for the desktop PC or its printer. The camera software consistently returned a “Failed to connect” message. A Nikon product manager pointed out a footnote we had missed in the manual relating to firewall port settings. We added the ports to the Windows Firewall settings, and the camera connected.

In an uncomplicated configuration, as when we set up the camera with the laptop, the procedure works simply and well. The software recognized the P2 and automatically created a wireless profile for the computer, filling in the network information correctly &#151 presumably taking it from the Windows Wireless Connection Settings. Configuring a printer was as simple as selecting one from the list of printers attached to that computer.

With the setup process complete, we took some test shots, then turned the mode dial on the P2 to Wi-Fi. The camera software displays a list of computer and printer profiles you’ve set up &#151 you can have as many as nine. We selected the printer we’d set up and clicked OK. Outside on our deck, about 30 feet from the wireless hub &#151 and obliquely through exterior and interior walls &#151 the connection failed. When we walked inside closer to the hub, it connected.

Nikon says it has achieved solid non-line-of-sight connectivity at up to 60 feet and line-of-sight connections as far away as 300 feet. Our home office is full of 2.4GHz gear that may create interference. Other Wi-Fi devices show similar, though not quite as pronounced, downturns in connection strength in the same locations where we were having trouble connecting the camera.

Once connected to the printer wirelessly, the camera software presents the PictBridge menu. PictBridge is an industry standard for bypassing computers and printing directly from a camera, whether wirelessly or over a USB cable. Using the four-way rocker switch on the back of the P2, you select paper size, images to be printed (or all images) and press OK to start printing.

The software doesn’t let you arrange multiple images on a page or size pictures &#151 if you select default or Letter and you have letter paper in the printer, it will automatically fill the page with the picture. This is what happened the first time we printed. If you want to print in 4×6 size on letter paper, you have to select 4×6 paper size.

Wirelessly transferring pictures to a computer is even simpler than printing. Set the mode dial to Wi-Fi and select the computer profile of the computer to which you’re sending the images. Once connected, the camera software presents a six-item menu. If you select Easy Transfer, it will send all images it hasn’t sent before, setting up a new numbered subfolder in the PictureProject subfolder in the computer’s My Pictures folder. You can also transfer only pictures from a certain date, ones you’ve previously marked or ones you select now.

If you select Shoot and Transfer from this menu, the P2 connects to the computer and switches back into shooting mode. Now when you take a picture, the camera automatically transfers it to the computer wirelessly right away. If you select PC Mode, you can use a program such as PictureProject on the PC to manage the transfer of pictures. The P2 appears as a connected storage device in Windows Explorer, so you can also copy images from the camera to a folder on the PC using Explorer.

Bottom line: For a first cut at a Wi-Fi camera, this one is pretty good. A better radio and antenna would be nice, though that may require compromises on size and weight. Better documentation on how to set up a host PC connected by Ethernet to the wireless hub would also be welcome.

Adapted from wi-fiplanet.com.

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