Wednesday, May 17, 2023

HP Photosmart 215 - A 23 year old Digicam

 A few weeks ago, I found this HP 215 digital camera in a local thrift shop for ONE dollar. Typically, I used to see cheap point and shoot 35mm cameras for that price. For a dollar, I just figured that I’d take a chance that it still worked. 
One dollar bargain!

door opened to reveal USB slot, CF card, and 6V connector

that little wheel to the left is used to access the menus.
There is a 64 MB card in the CF slot.

 A few facts about the HP Photosmart 215 It was introduced in 2000, and has a 1.3 megapixel resolution with a fixed 43mm equivalent (to 35mm) f/2.8 - f/8 lens. In 2000, it was early years in the digital photography takeover of traditional film cameras, and at 1.3 megapixels, there is no way any serious photographer was going to buy this camera. However, computer users love the new shiny objects, and the HP 215 was marketed as part of the computer culture, promising instant photos that could be shared/printed as needed. Using 4AA cells, the camera was inexpensive to operate, and it came with a 4MB CF card. You can find the online manual on HP's site.

 The first HP Photosmart camera was introduced in 1997 with VGA resolution (640 x 480 pixels). So, the 215 is an improvement, but just barely. In 2000, a consumer-level 1.3 MP camera was considered to be low-end, but usable enough to make 4x6 prints, and of course, Hewlett Packard produced a suite of accessories with the Photosmart name - printers and scanners to match up with their Windows-based PCs. It wasn’t until at least 3MP cameras became widely available that the 35mm point and shoots were in trouble. For the snapshot audience, 1.3MP wasn’t too awful, and the HP 215 retailed for around $200, and I can just imagine folks saying how much less they would be spending on film. I recall having an Apple Quicktake that had less than 1 MP - I think the images were 640x480 pixels. For putting up images on the new World Wide Web, those were fine. I see them now as postage-stamp sized shots that can never be made better - unlike a film negative or transparency. Hewlett Packard continued selling HP Photosmart cameras into at least 2007, but their printers continued on after that. The Photosmart Cameras were always at the low-end, but they were affordable snap shot digital cameras. 

 The HP 215 is quite boxy-looking, and there are few controls. The lens is fixed at one focal length, but the auto-focus allows one to also use macro mode - 4” to 3 feet.  Normal mode is about 2 feet to infinity. To begin use, you insert 4 AA cells and a Compact Flash (CF) card. The first time I used the camera, I had a hard time examining the images from the computer until I reformatted the card in the camera. Import was just dragging and dropping the images to a folder on my desktop (Mac Mini, late 2012, running Mac OS X Catalina). I found the optical viewfinder to be relatively useless due to parallax at anything closer then 20 feet. So, I used the rear LCD screen to frame my image before pressing the shutter button. There is a significant, several second delay in writing the image to the CF card at full 1.3 MP resolution. The camera shows it age in the menu access and controls as well as the small LCD screen. But hey, this was the year 2000, and anything with a color LCD display was high-tech. Operationally, it takes a while to get used to the slowness of the camera, and the strange click wheel for accessing the camera settings. Once I loaded the images onto my computer, I was really a bit surprised at how good most of them turned out. Granted, they are only 1200 x 1600 pixels, and you really can’t crop them the way you can a 20 MP image, but if you only wanted to make small prints or put images up on the Internet, they are not bad. Of course, the color response and sharpness isn’t as good as modern digicams or even my iPhone, but for a dollar, I can’t complain. As you can see from the images below, the results are actually pretty good.

I get that young people may be interested in using these “vintage” digicams, and 1.3 MP may be lower than you’d want to go. The camera reminds me a bit of a “Digital Diana” that I owned around 2010. I did a little search on eBay, and was surprised to see the HP 215 cameras sold from $2.99 to $22.99, depending on what was included. If you want to make 4x6 prints, you could get by with one of these, and who am I to judge? 

 Going by what was available at the time - a Nikon D1 SLR with 2.7 MP sold for $5000 in 2000. That was the camera that basically took over the news industry, as it was good enough for newspaper printing. The 'best” digital camera for 2000 was the Nikon Coolpix 990, with 3.3 MP, an ingenious tilt/swivel camera that accepted a variety of accessories, and it retailed for about $900. I used a Coolpix 990 extensively, well after it was produced, and it was an amazingly good digital camera. At the other end of the spectrum was the kid’s Jam Cam with 640 x 480 pixels that retailed for about $60. So, in 2000, the HP Photosmart 215 was a good buy for the casual snapper that was going to be happy with making small prints or sharing images via email.  I think if you want to experiment with lo-fi digital, this camera would be a good place to start!

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