Test Drive: Toshiba PDR-3300

By Eric Grevstad

Where’s the dividing line between casual and serious digital photography? Is it a price point – say, $300 versus $500? Is it point-and-shoot automatic versus manual exposure controls? Is it the 2-megapixel resolution that’s fine for 4 by 6-inch versus the 3-megapixel quality we consider the threshold for 8 by 10-inch prints?

At the risk of sounding silly, we’ve always secretly believed it was a lens cap: Amateurs like cameras with convenient, sliding lens covers, while pros have learned to use (and not lose) detachable lens caps.

But now Toshiba has screwed up our theory: The PDR-3300 is a high-quality, 3-megapixel, optical-zoom camera with manual as well as automatic controls – even a wireless remote control for self-portraits – but it has a built-in lens cover instead of a cap. And at $349, it’s priced not only below its predecessor (Toshiba’s PDR-M71) but below many less capable 2-megapixel cameras. Toshiba may not make distinctions between consumers and power users, but it seems determined to be your best digital-camera bargain.

Free Carrying Case, Weenie Memory Card
The coat-pocket-sized PDR-3300 (not to be confused with Toshiba’s shirt-pocket-sized, much pricier PDR-3310) measures 4.5 by 2.7 by 1.8 inches and weighs 10.2 ounces with four AA batteries and Secure Digital memory card installed. Our camera came with disposable Energizer E2 Photo Lithium cells; Toshiba rates them for 100 flash or 150 flashless shots and recommends you use either them or rechargeable NiMH instead of ordinary alkaline AAs.

In addition to the fancy batteries, you get a soft pouch or case as well as carrying strap, but Toshiba skimps big time on storage: the provided 8MB SD card holds only five shots at the camera’s best 2,048 by 1,536 resolution and least-compressed JPEG image quality.

Nine size/quality combinations – three modes apiece for 2,048 by 1,536; 1,024 by 768; and 640 by 480 resolutions – let you squeeze more shots onto the card, but bundling an 8MB card with a 3-megapixel camera is just silly.

The PDR-3300 also gives you six choices for recording video clips – two sizes (320 by 240 and 160 by 120 pixels) times three quality levels, yielding runtimes from 30 to 180 seconds – using Windows’ AVI rather than many cameras’ QuickTime MOV format. But your mini-movies will be silent, since the camera has no microphone.

Behind the silver circle of the lens cover – which means you must push not one but two top-mounted switches, the lens cover and power switch, to turn the camera on – is a Canon 2.8X optical zoom lens (F/2.9 to F/4.8, 7.5 to 20.3mm, equivalent to 35mm to 100mm in a 35mm film camera). A setup menu option lets you enable or disable an additional 2.2X digital zoom. Toshiba promises there’ll be an optional Tiffen Co. adapter to let pros attach other lenses and filters, as there was for the PDR-M71, but it hasn’t shipped yet.

Both the batteries and Secure Digital card are inserted via a door on the camera’s bottom; an awkwardly floppy rubber flap at the left covers AC adapter and PC/video ports, the latter fitting both the supplied USB image-transfer and NTSC/PAL TV-slideshow cables. Windows 2000, Me, and XP automatically recognize the camera as a USB external disk drive for drag-and-drop image transfer (the bundled CD-ROM offers a Windows 98 USB driver as well as ACDSee image-editing software); we enjoyed plug-and-play Win XP and 2000 transfers without the restarts or balks we experienced with Toshiba’s PDR-M25 earlier this year.

A built-in self-timer offers a two- or 10-second shooting delay after you press the shutter button. Alternately, with the self-timer active, the camera snaps a picture two seconds after you press the thumb-sized infrared remote control (which uses a CR2025 button battery); you can also use the remote to advance frames in playback mode.

The camera is a bit too plain or bar-of-soap-shaped to feel secure using one-handed, but the shutter and telephoto (zoom) buttons do fit nicely under your right forefinger and thumb. And instead of a four-way compass button, the PDR-3300 uses a mini joystick that we found a bit surer or more comfortable to steer through menus and push in to make selections.

The PDR-3300’s optical viewfinder has no diopter adjustment; we suspect only the most battery-thrifty will use it instead of the 1.6-inch, 60,000-pixel, reasonably bright and readable LCD monitor. Beside the monitor – controlled by a three-way (off/on/on with image-info overlay) button – you’ll find image-deletion, self-timer, and flash buttons; the last cycles through automatic, always-on, always-off, and red-eye-reduction modes. Flash range is rated at 2.5 to 9.8 feet, though we’d suggest you stay within six or seven.

A dial on top switches among setup, PC-transfer, playback, and movie, automatic, and manual shooting modes. In playback mode, you can watch a slide show or flip between single- and nine-shot thumbnail views; zoom and scroll around an image; and choose to rotate, resize, or resave it at different quality. Pressing the menu button lets you not only choose recording size and quality but switch from defaults to 100, 200, or 400 ISO; vivid, monochrome, or sepia color; and higher or lower sharpness and contrast.

Shooting in automatic mode, you can press the joystick to specify focus length – auto, macro (as close as 3.9 inches), 1 meter, 3 meters, or infinity – and choose among several “scene modes” – auto, portrait (foreground focus with red-eye flash), night portrait (with slow synchro flash), or flashless landscape, sports, or multi-exposure (taking 16 mini-shots in just over two seconds and saving them as one 2,048 by 1,536-pixel mosaic). We think these options strike a good balance between auto-everything and some consumer cameras’ obsessively specific “party/beach/sunset” modes.

Avid photographers, however, will find almost all the settings they could want in the PDR-3300’s manual mode, where the LCD shows everything from aperture and shutter speed to a brightness histogram. Here, in addition to the abovementioned flash and focus choices, a push of the joystick brings more detailed menus for multi- or spot (whole frame or center) metering and white balance (auto, daylight, cloudy, incandescent, or reddish or bluish fluorescent; the lack of a manual white balance preset is about the only expert omission).

For exposure control, you can choose automatic, aperture priority (seven settings from F/2.9 to F/8), shutter priority (29 settings from 1/1,000 to 15 seconds), or manual for both. You can also adjust exposure from -2.0 to +2.0EV in 0.5EV increments, or switch from single-shot to automatic exposure bracketing (capturing three shots at 0, -0.5, and +0.5EV) or burst mode (capturing three shots at 0.8 fps and letting you review and save some or all of them).

A Semipro Camera at a Sandlot Price
Last month, we gave a five-star review to Olympus’ comparable 3-megapixel D-550 Zoom, noting its lack of automatic exposure bracketing but saying we forgave it due to the camera’s low price. The PDR-3300 has exposure bracketing and a remote control, takes better closeups, and costs $50 less.

Indeed, this Toshiba compares favorably to cameras that cost much more – photo buffs will grouse about the lack of a TIFF image mode, just as amateurs will about the lack of sound in movie clips, and we think its movies are typically grainy (even at the best quality setting) and its flash is a tad weak. But we were delighted with its 2,048 by 1,536-pixel prints, with vivid colors in sunny shots and fine detail in indoor scenes. We think its menu interface successfully balances simplicity and detailed control (and yes, it reminded us when we turned the camera on but left the lens cover closed). We even like its thick, multilingual owner’s manual.

You can say the Toshiba PDR-3300 is a versatile 3-megapixel camera for the price of a 2-megapixel point-and-shooter, or just say it’s a top-quality camera priced low enough so you won’t begrudge buying a bigger memory card and set of NiMH batteries and recharger for it. Either way, you should put it on a very short list when digital-camera shopping – it’s the best value we’ve seen yet.

Pros: Gorgeous 3-megapixel prints for $349; exemplary mix of automatic and manual options; remote control for group shots

Cons: Nit-picking: No uncompressed/TIFF image mode, manual white balance, or sound in video clips; burst mode limited to three shots.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

Must Read

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.