High-performance digital cameras are appearing thick and fast at the moment. Take the innocent-looking Fuji MX-2700 (reviewed issue 21) and the Sony CyberShot DSC-55E (reviewed issue 22, p95): both are slim and sexy, yet boast resolutions of over two megapixel and features by the truckload. They also have digital zooms, which
are in fact normal fixed lenses that give the impression of zooming by cropping and enlarging the image. Sneaky stuff.
Enter Fuji's brand-new MX-2900 Zoom, which joins Nikon's CoolPix 950 (Labs tested issue 25, p75), and Canon's older but still excellent PowerShot Pro70 (Labs tested issue 25, p71) in boasting a genuine optical zoom lens that doesn't sacrifice resolution in the process. Both Fuji's and Nikon's optics are very similar, boasting 3x zooms that are equivalent to lenses on a conventional 35mm film camera of 35-105mm and 38-115mm, respectively. Canon's PowerShot Pro70 features a 2.5x/28-70mm lens. Fuji also sells an optional 0.8x converter, which transforms the MX-2900's zoom to an equivalent 28-84mm.
At the business end of things, the MX-2900 boasts a massive 2.3 megapixel CCD, which translates into an 1,800 x 1,200 maximum image resolution. Like the MX-2700 before it, Fuji continues to lead in this field, beating the 1,600 x 1,200 maximum resolution of Nikon and Sony, and the 1,536 x 1,024 of the Canon Pro70. But while high resolutions might sound impressive, they don't necessarily translate into high-quality images. The problem is that you're looking at more than 6Mb for a single 1,800 x 1,200 24-bit image, so a certain amount of compression is needed to fit more than one image on the supplied 8Mb memory card.
Most digital cameras apply JPEG compression, but some do it better than others. Fuji's earlier MX-2700 may have boasted the industry's highest resolution, but it suffered from a fixed level of compression that compromised the ultimate quality of the image. Canon's Pro70 may have a comparatively low resolution, but it excels in terms of quality thanks to its better handling of compression.
Fuji's MX-2900 solves the MX-2700's compression problem by offering three levels of JPEG compression and an additional raw, uncompressed mode that supplies TIFF files. However, at close examination, the three JPEG settings still seem to suffer from more compression artefacts than the other cameras mentioned above, with a fractional loss of detail. The raw TIFF files were also marred by what appeared to be slight noise on the chip, which is just visible even on pictures taken under bright conditions.
At the 1,800 x 1,200 resolution, the supplied 8Mb SmartMedia card can squeeze in up to 8, 17 or 35 images at fine, normal or basic JPEG compression settings, respectively. You can also take 640 x 480 pictures, or convert the large ones down to 1,280 x 1,024 during playback.
Of course, the bigger the file size, the longer it takes to get the images out of the camera and on to your PC. Images taken at the fine setting with the least JPEG compression took around three minutes to suck through the supplied nine-pin serial cable into the supplied PictureShuttle software or standard TWAIN driver. Raw uncompressed images took an excruciating 15 minutes each. This is no particular criticism of the MX-2900, but we wish more manufacturers would follow the example of Kodak, Ricoh and Sony in fitting fast USB ports to their high-resolution cameras. Impatient Fuji owners may want to invest in an optional SmartMedia to USB or floppy disk adaptor.
Photographic enthusiasts are well-catered for with the MX-2900. The manual mode offers seven white balance settings, exposure compensation from -0.9 to 1.5EV in 0.3EV increments, a choice of F4 or F8 aperture, shutter speeds between three seconds to 1/1,000th of a second, five flash brightness levels, three metering modes, and continuous shooting in 640 x 480 at 3fps (frames per second) for nine frames. There's a self-timer, a slow flash sync, macro setting down to 25cm, an external flash hotshoe, red-eye reduction and even manual focus adjustment. The camera can apply five levels of image sharpening and four special effects if desired. Digital Print Order Format (DPOF) is also supported for ordering prints directly from the memory card. Fully automatic and aperture priority modes are provided for users who prefer the easy life, while enthusiasts of slide show presentations will welcome the composite video output.
You can frame your shot using the optical viewfinder or the 2in polysilicon display. We prefer using the displays as they show you exactly what you're getting and don't suffer from parallax effect. However, like so many other digital cameras, the MX-2900's display is rendered useless in direct sunlight, despite a brightness adjustment. Sony's 55E features a transflective display, which works very well outdoors, and also saves power by allowing you to switch off the backlight. The MX-2900 could do with such a feature since ours ate through its rechargeable battery in a relatively quiet morning.
Don't get me wrong, the MX-2900 is a great camera, but one that's matched or beaten by the competition. The image quality is very good, but not quite up to the Sony 55E or Nikon 950. The feature set is excellent, but then so is the Nikon 950's. It does carry a retail price that's $200 less than Sony's 55E, and $250 lower than Nikon's 950, making it fair value for money, but we'd still recommend these other models.