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So much for the clever technical stuff; what you really want to know is how well it all works. Fortunately the answer is ‘pretty well’. The R717 is a third-generation product from a major company and is developed from a successful product line, so it’s no surprise that it is a well-made and well designed camera. It has a strong moulded plastic body over a metal chassis, and the front plate is brushed stainless steel.
The overall design is rather square and blocky, but the clean lines and simple logical design lend it an attractive elegance. The control layout is broadly similar to the M417, with the buttons blending into the shape of the back panel. Despite this the controls are easy and comfortable to operate, and the sculpted shape of the front panel and indented thumb grip on the back make it comfortable and solid to hold. The 1.8-inch LCD has a resolution of over 130,000 pixels and a nice fast refresh rate in normal mode. There is also an optical viewfinder, albeit a rather small one.
Start-up time and overall performance are no better than average, but no worse either. The camera starts up from cold in approximately three seconds, and the autofocus system takes no more than about a quarter of a second to achieve a lock in good light. For when the light’s not so good there is a built-in AF illuminator.
The R717 is unashamedly a snapshot camera, so the lack of manual controls will come as no big surprise, but to make up for it there are 12 shooting modes accessed by repeatedly pressing a labelled button on the top panel. Modes include action, landscape, portrait, stitched panorama, beach, snow, sunset, museum, document copying and aperture priority. This latter mode offers just two aperture settings, maximum and minimum, so it can’t really be called a manual exposure setting.
So far so impressive, but finally we come to picture quality. This proved to be the Achilles’ Heel for the M417, and sadly it is also for the R717, although it doesn’t have to be. In default mode the camera has an alarming tendency to apply full noise reduction and image sharpening to every shot, resulting in a certain loss of detail. Fortunately saturation, contrast, sharpness and colour are all menu options, so you can tweak the picture to some extent. What you can’t tweak is the lens distortion produced at wide angle. Blur creeps in from the corners and edges of the picture, caused by inaccuracies in the lens design. HP would be wise to sign another deal with one of the big optics companies, as it did with Pentax a few years ago. With a decent lens on it this would be a top-notch camera.
High tech but easy to use, the HP R717 is capable of turning in some top-quality shots under ideal circumstances, and copes better than most with unusual lighting. Its relatively low price should make it a competitive choice in the high-end compact market.