Picture-taking ain't what it used to be–and we're not talking about the switch from film to digital. Snapping and processing digital images has been evolving quicker than you can say “cheese.” In the old days–just a few months ago–you had to run a cable from your digicam to a PC or Mac, download your pics, fiddle with them on the computer screen and then, maybe, print them. Today, you have other options.
Nikon's new Coolpix P1 ($600) and P2 ($500) digicams, for example, dispense with cables–and let you send pictures from your camera to your computer or printer wirelessly over a home (or business) Wi-Fi LAN. And with Lexmark's new P450 photo printer ($300), which delivers on four-by-six-inch paper, you can dispense with a computer altogether.
Like many consumer photo printers, the P450 can read camera memory cards and print directly from them. Unlike any other photo printer, however, the Lexmark has a built-in CD burner. You can copy pictures from card to CD, wipe the card clean, take more pictures, print and repeat. All without going near a computer.
As for the Coolpix P2, the five-megapixel takes sharp and well-exposed pictures. The P1 has the same features, including manual controls, but a higher-resolution eight-megapixel sensor. While not the smallest digicams available, they are conveniently tiny–91-by-60-by-39 millimetres–and weigh only 170 grams. The 3.5-times optical zoom lens retracts when the camera is powered down, closing the lens cover. One flaw: no optical viewfinder. On the plus side, the sharp, clear LCD viewfinder is big (6.4 centimetres) and shows up well in bright sun.
Connecting to a wireless laptop is a snap. The included software automatically sets the camera up on the network and creates “profiles” on the camera for a computer and an attached printer. With a little help from Nikon, I was also able to connect to my main PC, which is linked to the wireless router by Ethernet cable. You can set up as many as nine computers and printers on the camera.
Wi-Fi “ad hoc” mode lets you directly connect two wireless devices over the air. That's useful when you're travelling and want to transfer pictures to a laptop for archiving. A $70 printer adapter from Nikon makes any printer wireless, as long as it has a PictBridge USB port. The adapter worked well with the Lexmark P450, automatically setting the printer up on the camera.
Transferring and printing are a cinch. Set the camera's mode dial to wireless and select options from the menu that pops up on its LCD. One option is to send each picture to your computer wirelessly as it's taken. Nikon uses the industry standard PictBridge interface for direct printing from cameras. It lets you select both images to print and paper size, but you can't arrange multiple images on a page or control many other printer settings.
Printing and transferring go a little slower than with wired connections, but what wireless may lack in speed it makes up for in convenience. Nikon says the camera will connect wirelessly at 20 to 30 metres from the access point, depending on obstructions. In my testing, in a home rife with radio interference, the range was more like 10 to 12 metres, but still acceptable.
When it comes to printers, the Lexmark P450 is clearly pitched at consumers who are sold on digital photography but not comfortable with computers. The P450 is all you need for photography, aside from a camera. It's also small enough–with a footprint of about 28-by-24 centimetres–that it will fit almost anywhere, and is very easy to use.
You can take the memory card out of a digicam and stick it in one of the slots in the front of the printer (they accommodate virtually any format camera card) or plug a PictBridge-compatible camera into its USB port–or, as noted, use a Nikon adapter to print wirelessly from a P1 or P2.
Five big, clearly marked buttons on the P450's top surface let you navigate through menus on the 6 cm LCD screen–to display and select images for printing or transferring, make image adjustments (such as enhance, zoom, crop or fix red-eye) and select basic print settings such as paper type and print quality.
The P450 produced excellent prints. Enhanced prints often looked as good as, or better than, photo-lab output. I did occasionally notice bronzing, in which light shimmers off the picture's surface in dark areas where ink is densely applied. The cost per print for paper and ink cartridges can be as little as 35¢ (more for enhanced).
Downsides? The P450 is slow, taking over four minutes to produce an enhanced print, almost three for a regular one. The new Epson PictureMate Express ($180), a competing printer, output enhanced prints of the same images in just over two minutes, regular prints in under two. Also, the ink is still slightly tacky when enhanced prints come out of the P450, making them easy to damage if carelessly handled.
The P450 can only burn CDs, not DVDs, and in our testing it was excruciatingly slow. In one case, it took more than 13 minutes to burn 18 files of about three megabytes each. Bottom line: the Lexmark P450 is a great idea, but execution is less than perfect. The Nikon wireless cameras: definite keepers.