Despite the claimed demise of the PDA, there's no denying that they remain the only truly pocketable way to manipulate data on the go. This is of course changing slowly with the latest generation of mobile phones now offering similar levels of personal information management, but where the mobile phone will always suffer is in the prerequisite demands for them to be small and light, something that ultimately means smaller screens and slower, less efficient data input methods.
With modern PDAs sporting relatively speedy processors stretching all the way to 400MHz and beyond, they now offer the kind of speed and flexibility that seemed so unlikely just a few short years ago. Also, their flexibility with regards data input allows them to effortlessly handle a variety of options including the on-screen keyboard, snap-on thumb boards, handwriting recognition, voice recognition, graffiti and even projected “virtual” keyboards. In most cases though we're missing one increasingly important input technology, one that's been championed by the mobile phone for some time - for which the PDA with its generally larger screen is considerably better suited - a camera.
Some of the costlier PDAs are now beginning to appear with integrated cameras, but very often the price premium is prohibitive. HP's answer is an SD slot based removable camera designed specifically for use with its popular iPAQ range of PocketPCs, and it's one of these I'll be looking at today.
The merits of a camera for your PDA are obvious. From the estate agent wanting pictures to supplement his or her notes to friends and family just wanting to share memories, PDAs have the power, the screen quality and the storage expandability to be, in some respects the ultimate digital imaging platform. HP supplies all the software you’re likely to need to be able to share or print your images and to carry out some fairly basic image manipulation such as red-eye removal.
However, the problems are similar to those that differentiate the games console from the PC, in that a dedicated camera with its specially designed circuitry will always offer an advantage. While a camera may feature components added purely to increase sensitivity, to reduce noise, to balance colours and colour temperatures and maybe a lot more besides, an add-on camera may well find that it has to achieve some of these simple tasks, if it wants to rival the image quality of a typical digital camera.
As it stands, the Photosmart Mobile Camera is a well constructed unit with an articulated lens able to swivel a touch over 180 degrees. If we disregard the actual SD slot interface, the camera section measures a mere 50mm wide by 27mm high and 20mm deep (12mm if we ignore the lens). Although made from plastic it feels reassuringly rugged for such a small device that weighs just over 31.1g.
The small, ruby-tinted lens sits in a larger 12mm diameter barrel which must be rotated through a full 360 degrees in order to switch it from regular mode to macro mode. Being a focus-free device, regular mode is merely an infinity setting while macro mode proved to offer focussing down to a rather disappointing 9in or so. Even the worst dedicated digital cameras can manage better than this and it’s perhaps better to think of macro as more of a close focus option than a true macro setting.