Aiptek Palm Cam Trio and Pen Cam TrioReview date: 24 August 2000.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
At the moment, a base model digital camera costs $AU500 or so. A quite nice one costs $AU1000 or so. A "prosumer" high-end one that can really compete with film cameras'll set you back $AU2000.
So what do you get for $AU120?
The Aiptek Palm Cam Trio, that's what.
$AU120, for US readers, is little more than $US70. And high-tech gear's more expensive in Australia than it is in the USA, anyway, so you're really talking about $US60 for this thing.
If the cutesy translucent-blue-and-cream case isn't for you, Aiptek also make a "Pen Cam Trio", which has the exact same giblets in a different shaped case. The Pen Cam costs $AU148.50.
Basically, these things are Universal Serial Bus (USB) webcams with memory. They've got low resolution (352 by 288 pixel), low cost, colour video sensors - complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) instead of the more expensive, lower noise, higher sensitivity Charged Couple Devices (CCDs) used in higher resolution cameras - but they've got a block of RAM in there too, and batteries, so you can unplug them from the computer and take pictures on the run.
Come back, plug the USB cable back in, and the camera runs like an ordinary tethered webcam, except you can download what you shot as well as take new pictures and (silent) video.
The cameras are Windows 98 only, like a lot of cheap USB gizmoes.
In the box
The Aiptek cameras each come with a couple of AAA batteries, a USB cable, a little desk stand and a software CD.
The Pen Cam also comes with a second clip you can hook onto the back or front of the camera, presumably to put it in a pocket facing forward; the Palm Cam comes with a rather nice wrist strap, which looks capable of keeping safe a much heftier camera than this one.
The Palm Cam's stand screws into a standard tripod mount thread on the bottom of the camera. Any half-decent real tripod is likely to cost more than the Palm Cam itself, but you can still put it on one if you like.
The Pen Cam stand is a cup you park the camera in. There's no tripod thread, just a hole that a split pin pops into.
The software bundle's surprisingly good, for such cheap cameras. You get the Palm Cam Manager (or Pen Cam Manager - the only difference is the name) software, of which more in a moment, but there's also Ulead PhotoExpress 3.0 SE, which is the cut-down fewer-features version of this OK consumer image editing package, but a heck of a lot better than nothing.
There's Ulead Photo Explorer, a perfectly all right image organiser-and-manager (which you can download for nothing, but this is the "full" version that doesn't show you ads), and Ulead Cool 360, too, for making panorama pictures out of lots of separate overlapping shots.
You also get Cyberlink's VideoLive Mail Plus for sending video clips via e-mail. And Microsoft's NetMeeting as well, but you can download the full version of NetMeeting for free anyway, so that's not much of a plus.
And there's the usual manual in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format, as seen with umpteen other cheapo gadgets made cheaper by not having to have a paper manual in the box.
Apart from the shape, the only real difference between the Pen and Palm cameras is the USB connection. It's a standard Type B USB socket on the Palm Cam; the Pen Cam has one of the teeny micro-size connectors, and comes with an appropriate cable.
Webcams aren't renowned for multi-megapixel image sizes, and Aiptek's products are no exception.
The 352 by 288 maximum resolution of the Palm and Pen Cams is also known as CIF, Common Intermediate Format. This resolution at 30 frames per second is a standard videoconferencing video mode, but many webcams, including the Palm Cam, can't actually capture that high a frame rate. Nine frames per second is the best the Aiptek cameras can officially manage in CIF resolution.
You also get Quarter CIF (QCIF), which is 176 by 144, for a quarter of the data rate at a given frame rate. Compressed QCIF video is small enough to be transferred over a modem link, and the Aipteks can do 20 frames per second in this mode.
There are, according to the specs on the side of the boxes, two versions of each of these cameras, one with two megabytes of RAM and one with 8Mb. These cheap ones are the 2Mb models. Aiptek cameras both have eight megabytes of internal memory, which is quite respectable for an entry level camera, and, you'd think, would give them lots of image capacity.
When I first reviewed this camera, Aiptek's spec page for it was for an 8Mb model, which can store 80 CIF pictures and 320 QCIF ones, and up to 40 seconds of QCIF video, or up to 32 seconds of CIF.
The stats for the 2Mb models are less exciting. They can hold 20 CIF images, or 80 QCIF ones.
The cameras can grab video because their built-in compression is fast enough that they can dump about 14 frames per second into their memory. In video mode, you just hold the shutter button down and listen to a string of beeps as the camera grabs frames in a burst.
That 14-or-so frame per second rate seems to be the only capture frame rate the Aiptek cameras support in untethered mode, so I'm not sure where the quite lengthy video clip capacity figures Aiptek quote come from.
The cameras capture at 14 frames per second whether you've set them to CIF or QCIF, and so a QCIF movie lasts about six seconds, and a CIF one lasts about a second and a half. I can't see how the 8Mb cameras wouldn't be able to manage only four times these numbers, not the 6.7 and 21.3 times that Aiptek quote for QCIF and CIF respectively.
When you transfer the image data to your computer, the frames come over as ordinary stills, but there's a simple button in the Manager software to save a block of images as an ordinary Windows AVI file, in ascending or descending order. You tell the Manager what frame rate you want the AVI to have, from 1 to 15 frames per second; set it to one frame per second and you've got an 80 second video in QCIF mode, but it's not a very exciting one.
The cameras take less than 17 seconds to squirt a full load of frames up the USB cable to the PC. If you're not making movies, images are saved as plain 24 bit BMPs.
Inside, the Palm Cam seems well enough made, for what it is. The black thing to the left of the lens is the speaker.
The Pen and Palm cameras only have two buttons - an on/mode-change button on the back next to a two-character LCD display, and a shutter/select button on the top. You press the back button to pick the capture mode you want, you press the shutter button to confirm the selection and take pictures. There's an internal speaker that emits confirmation beeps. Leave the camera alone for about a minute and it automatically powers down.
The interface is easy to use, since there are only two resolutions to worry about, and not much else. Apart from CIF and QCIF still and video modes, there's only a 10 second timer and "CL" setting, to erase all of the camera memory.
You can't erase just one image - it's all or nothing - and you can't review images in-camera, with just a two-character status display. But you can mix CIF and QCIF images in one session, along with bursts of video frames, up to the maximum storage.
For this money, you don't get no-power-needed Flash RAM storage. You get ordinary memory that needs battery backup to retain its storage. The cameras always draw a little current from their two AAA cells; flatten or remove the batteries and you lose the memory contents.
Aiptek include a warning note that says you can only expect two weeks of standby life from a set of batteries in the cameras, which might be true of the cheapo carbon-zinc AAAs that come in the box (hey, at least the batteries are included!), but you'd do better with alkalines.
The cameras draw about 1.5 milliamps (mA) from their batteries when they're turned off. Alkaline AAAs have a capacity of maybe 800 to 1100 milliamp-hours (mAh), so they should be good for 600 hours of standby time - 25 days.
If you actually use the camera, of course, battery life drops. The cameras both draw about 50 milliamps when they're on with the memory empty, but the draw rises as you fill the storage, and tops out at more than 300 milliamps with the memory full.
300mA is getting a bit high for even Alkaline AAA cells, so you won't get full capacity; Aiptek quote two hours of actual shooting time, which might actually be accurate for alkalines, or might be a carbon-zinc figure. Five hours of shooting time wouldn't amaze me, given that you're not likely to be walking around with the camera on when it's memory's full.
You can use rechargeable nickel-cadmium (NiCd) or nickel metal hydride (NiMH) cells in the Aiptek cameras as well; if you get good rechargeables, they ought to last about as well as carbon-zinc cells.
In tethered mode - connected to a computer via USB - the cameras are powered from the computer, and don't flatten their batteries. In this mode, they act like a normal webcam, ignoring their internal memory, and you can use them to grab long video clips or do time exposures or anything else that your Windows 98 PC can do with a webcam.
Add a separate microphone connected to the appropriate input on your sound card and you can record talkie video clips, properly use videophone-ish software like NetMeeting, and so on.
The field of view of both cameras is a generous 54 degrees - not really wide angle, but good enough for indoor pictures without bumping into walls as you try to fit everything in.
Cheap webcams tend to deliver washed-out images and have lousy low light sensitivity. The Aiptek cameras are perfect examples.
Here's my Olympus C-2500L's opinion of my multicoloured test target of the moment, a Hoberman sphere folded up. I took this picture without flash, but with a 500 watt halogen flood pointed at the ceiling, so the subject's illuminated a lot more brightly than it would be in a normal night-time indoor setting.
You could buy about 20 Palm Cams for the price of the C-2500L (this shot is massively scaled down); it's here to show you what the target actually looks like.
Here's the Palm Cam's opinion of the thing (this is cropped, but not scaled; click for the full image, which just includes the white dropsheet around the target). I've JPGed the Palm Cam's BMP output, but the quality difference is practically impossible to see.
Now, it's possible to wring considerably better results out of a Palm Cam than this, using a bit of post-processing. With a quick level adjust and a bit more saturation, the above picture looks like this:
...but you can't get away from the fact that this ain't no premium camera. It's not rubbish, mind you - I've seen much worse image quality from webcams.
In low light, the CMOS image sensors in the Aiptek cameras are as crummy as everyone else's cheap CMOS sensors. Here's the Hoberman sphere again, now lit only by the 100W bulb in the middle of the room:
This isn't too bad a result, by webcam standards, but it's hardly suitable for publication.
If there's not enough light, the Aiptek cameras just refuse to take a shot at all. If I stood so the subject was in my shadow, I couldn't photograph it, even though there was still more than enough light to read by.
The cameras set their gain on a frame-by-frame basis, and seem perfectly happy to make big, disturbing changes from frame to frame, as they try to guess how bright the image is. No big deal for separate shots, but unsightly in video clips.
On to the daylight samples.
Here's my C-2500L's idea of an outdoor, sunlit scene.
Teeny little cheap fixed focus lenses such as are used by the Aiptek cameras are renowned for funky distortion effects on distant targets; they're not good at landscape shots.
The circular distortion artefacts in this Palm Cam image (click for the full size version) are typical.
This full-size QCIF shot (that's all you get at this resolution!) shows what might be some crunchy scaling, but it's hard to tell when you've only got QCIF's 25,344 pixels in total.
As you'd expect from the identical hardware, the Pen Cam takes pictures that look exactly the same as the Palm Cam ones. Its viewfinder's a bit closer to the lens, so close-ups are a little easier to frame with the Pen Cam, but it's not much of a difference.
If you need a camera with half-decent image quality and you've only got $AU120, forget digital. Get a basic 35mm camera and save up for a scanner, or find a place that'll put your pictures on Photo CD. Or do without.
You don't have to spend a ton more money to get surprisingly OK pictures - I'm a big fan of the UMAX AstraCam, which I review here. For less than $AU280, the AstraCam delivers remarkably acceptable results, and comes with everything you need. But you could buy a Palm Cam and a Pen Cam and have change from $AU280.
If the rather questionable image quality of a webcam's good enough for your purposes, the Palm Cam in particular is a pretty nifty little item.
If you're looking for a digital camera you can give to the kids, the Palm Cam fits the bill. Its image quality is good enough for fun 'n' games purposes, there are no expensive memory cards, the plug-and-go USB connection and driver software is simple enough that even quite little kids shouldn't have much of a problem, and the whole thing's cheap enough that you're not going to have to tell your broker to sell the lot if the camera happens to meet a terrible fate.
And the video clip mode might be silent and brief, but being able to make a forward or reverse video with a click of the mouse is still likely to amuse the small ones for quite a while.
Tethered webcams are a pain if you want to photograph something in a different room; these things solve the problem. And they're not much more expensive than tethered cameras with similar image quality.
They're not for everyone, but they might be for you.
This review's old; Aus PC Market don't sell any of these cameras any more. They do still sell this little one, though!