When it was first announced at the end of 2003, the HP Photosmart 945 was at the cutting edge of digital camera design, with a 5 megapixel sensor, Adaptive Lighting Technology that balanced the contrast between darkness and light, an 8x optical zoom equivalent to 37-300mm on a 35mm camera, and a competitive price tag. Nearly one year on, in a rapidly changing market with 5, 6 and 7 megapixel cameras now common-place, how well does the HP Photosmart 945 stand up to the competition? Read my review to find out if this camera still deserves your attention
The HP Photosmart 945 has a 5.3 megapixel, 1/1.8 inch CCD that delivers 5.08 megapixels. There are 2 image sizes available (2608 x 1952 (5 megapixel) and 1296 x 976 (1 megapixel)), which can be recorded as JPEGs in 3 different compression settings, giving a total of 6 different image settings. There are no RAW or TIFF formats. The camera features a Fuji Photo Optical 8X optical zoom lens that is equivalent to a 37–300mm lens on a 35mm format camera. There is also a 7x digital zoom should you feel the need to use it. The camera uses Secure Digital (SD) memory cards.
This camera offers a range of selectable exposure modes, with auto, aperture-priority and shutter-speed priority, as well as a number of scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Action). Sadly there is no fully manual mode. The HP Photosmart 945 has 3 exposure metering modes (centre-weighted (default setting), spot, average) and there are 2 different types of focusing available (Autofocus / Manual Focus). The aperture range is f2.8 – f11 and the shutter speed range is 16 sec. – 1/2000 sec. There are 3 ISO speeds ranging from 100 to 400. There are 4 different White Balance settings to choose from (Sun, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent), plus a Manual setting. The camera offers exposure compensation in ± 3 in 1/3 EV stops, but there is no autobracketing of either exposure or white balance available.
The HP Photosmart 945 has a normal shooting mode (single-shot), self-timer, self-timer – 2 shot mode and a burst mode, which allows you take up to 6 shots at roughly 0.5 second intervals. There are 3 different colour modes on offer - colour, black and white, and sepia. The built-in flash offers a range of different modes; Flash Off, Auto, Auto with red-eye reduction, Flash On, Flash On with red-eye reduction, Night, Night with red-eye reduction. The working distance at ISO 100 at the wide angle lens setting is: 2.4m, and at the telephoto setting 2.2m.
To compose your images, you can use the LCD monitor or the electronic viewfinder. The HP Photosmart 945 has a 2 inch colour TFT LCD monitor which has 180,468 pixels. There is also an electronic SLR-type microdisplay viewfinder with diopter control. The HP Photosmart 945 can record movies with sound at one setting; 320x240 pixels at 30 frames per second. This is recorded in the Motion JPEG format, a type of AVI format that can handle images and sound as a single file, and can be played back by QuickTime 3 or later. As well as recording movies, the HP Photosmart 945 also doubles up as a voice recorder, allowing you to attach an audio clip to an image that you have taken.
The camera's dimensions are 123mm (W) x 85mm (H) x 85mm (D), and it weighs 300g without batteries and storage cards fitted. The camera is powered by 4 x AA size alkaline batteries or 4 x Ni-MH rechargeable batteries.
Finally, the standard box kit contains a 32 MB Secure Digital (SD) memory card, 4 AA photo-lithium batteries, neck strap, CD containing HP Photo and Imaging software, user manual, USB cable, USB host cable to printer, warranty card, hp 8881 dock insert. You will need to invest in a few more SD Cards to store your images on, as the supplied 32Mb can only store approximately 12 images at the default 5M file quality setting. You will also have to budget for some rechargeable batteries and a recharger, as the supplied batteries don't last very long. HP have also been rather mean by not including either their camera dock or an A/V cable to connect the camera to a TV. This is because they want you to purchase the optional Photosmart 8881 camera dock, to "further enhance your experience" as the first page of the manual states! In my opinion they should have included this in the basic kit. The camera has a 1 year warranty.
Ease of use
Upon first sight the HP Photosmart 945 reminded me of the Fuji FinePix S7000 that I have previously reviewed, with a big lens that dominates the overall design, large hand grip and solid, well-built construction. The HP Photosmart 945 is is definitely not in the pocketable category of digital cameras, so you will need to carry it round in a camera bag. What can only be described as the chunky hand-grip on the right of the camera makes it very comfortable to hold with just one hand, although you will probably want to use your left hand to steady the camera, especially when using the telephoto end of the 8x zoom lens. Both the handgrip and lens are finished in a leatherette kind of plastic finish, making them easy to grip. The viewfinder protrudes both above and behind the camera, looking a little like a periscope! It seems awkward at first but actually works well, keeping your nose and face away from the LCD screen at the rear of the camera when you look through it.
The HP Photosmart 945 is quite a heavy digital camera, weighing 300g without batteries and storage cards fitted, but I think this actually counts in its favour, as it has a reassuring balance to it without being too heavy. Although it's not the smallest or lightest camera around, the HP Photosmart 945 instantly feels intuitive to hold and use. The zoom button is well positioned in a slightly raised area just where your right thumb naturally sits, although I felt it was a little on the small side. The exposure mode and aperture/shutter speed dial is positioned on the top-plate of the camera, with the small silver Flash release switch to one side. A nice touch is the ability to keep rotating the exposure mode dial in any direction to select an option.
HP have done a good job in designing a camera that doesn't have too many buttons and switches to confuse the new photographer, yet still feels accessible and quick to operate. There are around 15 external controls in total, but all of them are clearly labeled and most are common to mid-range digital cameras. If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the comprehensive and easy-to-follow manual before you start is a good idea. For more experienced users, a quick look through the manual for the few functions that are not so self-explanatory is all that's needed.
As well as the useful manual, HP have added something to the Photosmart 945 that I have never seen before on any other digital camera - a context sensitive help option built into the menu system. It perhaps doesn't sound like much, but if you're using a menu option for the first time and you're not quite sure what it means, having the option of reading an explanation in clear English (or whatever language you choose) on the camera's LCD screen is a great idea. You may not use the help system when you are more familiar with the camera, but in those first few weeks it could mean the difference between successfully taking a photo or not.
The menu system of the HP Photosmart 945 couldn't really be more straight-forward, as there is only ever a maximum of one menu with one submenu - when the camera is set to Auto, for example, pressing the OK button on the rear of the camera accesses the Capture menu. At the bottom is the Setup option, which opens the Setup submenu. All other options on the Capture menu deal solely with one setting, such as White Balance and ISO Speed. There is a useful symbol next to each menu option to help indicate what it does, and this combined with the help system ensures that the HP Photosmart 945 menus are extremely easy to access and use.
So the HP Photosmart 945 is easy to hold and operate and has a simple to use menu system, but what is it like to actually operate and take a photo? The start-up time from turning the camera on to being ready to take a photo is respectable enough at around 1.5 seconds, whilst it takes a similar amount of time to zoom from the widest focal length to the longest. Focusing is generally quick in good light, although the camera does tend to hunt for a second or two when the lens is at a long focal length indoors or in low-light situations. Both the refresh rate and visibility of the LCD screen are perfectly acceptable, and images are stored quickly, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card. In continuous mode it takes around 1 second per shot to process each of the 5 photos that you can take - the camera doesn't allow you to do anything else until all 5 shots are processed. All in all the HP Photosmart 945 is about average in terms of operational speed.
Once you have captured a photo, the HP Photosmart 945 is a little disappointing when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can scroll through the images that you have taken, add an audio clip to each image, delete an image, zoom in and out, and view info about the image. And that's about it. The HP Photosmart 945 shows its age by not having a histogram function, either before taking a photo or after, so evaluating the exposure of a photo can only be done by you looking at it onscreen. This is a feature that is now found on many low-end digicams, so the Photosmart 945 loses out in this respect. Also missing are nice-to-have features like locking images so that they can't be deleted, marking images to be printed using PrintBridge, and any options for manipulating images in-camera. The features that the Photosmart 945 does have work well enough - it is the omission of certain options that are now wide-spread that let it down.
On the whole the HP Photosmart 945 is a very well-built, easy to use digital camera that successfully mimics the feel of a 35mm film or digital SLR. The menu system is well-designed and very clear with a great Help function, perfect for both the beginners and more experienced photographers alike. Performance is fine when taking a photograph, although not so great when it comes to reviewing it. A very good attempt by HP to make a camera that is accessible to everyone.
The HP Photosmart 945 produced images of average quality during the review period. The 5 megapixel images were quite soft straight out of the camera and ideally require some post-processing before they can be printed up to A3 in size. Noise is fairly controlled well at the slowest ISO setting of 100, but it becomes very visible at ISO 200 and 400. The HP Photosmart 945's best performance is with chromatic aberrations, which do appear in the form of purple fringing in high-contrast scenes, but are well-controlled in most situations. Macro performance was average, allowing you to focus 10cms away from the subject. The Digital Flash option worked well, brightening up the shadow areas to reveal more detail. Overall only an average performance in terms of image quality from the HP Photosmart 945.
The HP Photosmart 945 is a digital camera that promises a lot and delivers on some of those promises, but not all. For every great feature that the camera offers, there seems to be another one that isn't so well implemented. The extensive Help system and Digital Flash are innovations that are exclusive to HP and that really make a difference. On the other hand, the high levels of noise at ISO 200 and above and the poor playback options only serve to annoy and make you forget about what HP have got right. The HP Photosmart 945 also lacks a few crucial features which its target audience will probably miss - auto-bracketing of any kind (exposure or white-balance), a remote control or lead, and a rather meager supplied box kit instantly spring to mind. So can this one year old camera hold its own in what has become a very crowded marketplace? Well, the attractive prices on offer do go some way to making up for what the camera lacks, and it undoubtedly has some great features, so I would answer yes, if you can live with the shortcomings. The HP Photosmart 945 was ahead of its time in some respects when it was originally announced, and it hasn't quite been superseded yet.