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Canon Digital Rebel XT

Note (April 2011): I last updated this section in August 2006. The camera is now five generations out of date, but it continues to serve me well. The other cameras and prices I mention are, of course, equally out of date. Nikon, Pentax, and Sony now offer cameras fully competitive with the latest Digital Rebel; and Canon’s 60D has replaced the 30D. The 12-megapixel Digital Rebel XSi/450D replaced the 10-megapixel Digital Rebel XTi/400D in the spring of 2008. It in turn was replaced by the 15-megapixel Rebel T1i/500D in the spring of 2009. In February 2010, Canon announced the 18-megapixel Rebel T2i/550D, which remains available as the second-tier Rebel model after the Rebel T3i/600D came out in February 2011.

Although rapid obsolescence is a “key design feature” of all digital cameras, I suspect even those fortunate individuals who have unlimited funds don’t always keep their equipment current. A camera can continue to serve its owner perfectly well, even years after its manufacturer has discontinued and officially deprecated it as a “legacy” product. The only question is how long a camera designed to be competitively priced and effectively “disposable” will last before something breaks down and forces an upgrade. And all the successors to my superannuated camera retain the crippled A-DEP mode.

Note (August 2015): I replaced my Digital Rebel XT with an SL1 in June 2014. (Although the Canon USA Web site includes only a bundle with a kit lens, it is possible to buy the body alone, as I did.) My old camera was still fully functional, but the SL1 was on sale at an irresistible price. After 8 years of evolution, the SL1 has a greatly improved user interface that fixes nearly all the annoyances I mention in this review. The self-cleaning sensor is also a helpful feature. And despite the much greater density of photo sites on the same size sensor (18 megapixels rather than 8), the SL1’s raw files have noticeably less noise. ISO 400 is the new 200; and image quality is maintained up to ISO 1600.

Canon addressed the deficiencies of the A-DEP mode by removing it from their entire line of cameras. As with the earlier replacement of the more useful DEP mode with A-DEP, I have to assume the decision to “vaporize” A-DEP was made for marketing rather than technical reasons. (It’s easier to tout special settings for pictures of kids, food, and candlelight.) As part of the now-obligatory video capability, the SL1 has the ability to magnify any part of an image on its much larger and sharper LCD in “real time.” Used with depth-of-field preview, that feature partially compensates for the absence of a depth-of-field mode, although it’s not at all convenient. The SL1 also displays raw files in full resolution, which is a great help in assessing image sharpness after shooting.

Canon claims the SL1 is the world’s smallest and lightest DSLR. But its dimensions and weight are very similar to the Digital Rebel XT! The Rebel cameras seem to have gradually gained size and weight over the years. With the SL1, Canon simply restored the dimensions and weight its ancient ancestor had in 2005.

The $800 (body only) Canon Digital Rebel XT (called the 350D in Europe and the Kiss Digital n in Japan) is the camera that finally enticed me to “go digital.” There are numerous electronic and cellulose publications that provide all the technical details and pixel-peeping image comparisons you could ever want. So I’ll only discuss aspects of the Rebel XT that I consider noteworthy, and particularly those relevant to someone switching from a film SLR (in my case a 1998-vintage Canon Elan II).

As Nikon and Pentax do not (yet) have an 8-megapixel digital SLR in the $800-1400 price range, the main competition for the Rebel XT is Canon’s own 30D (and also Sony’s $900, 10.2 megapixel Alpha 100). Both use the current-generation Dig!c II processor and produce similarly-sized images of effectively indistinguishable quality (the 30D produces 3504x2336 pixels, compared to Rebel XT’s 3456x2304). Unlike the original Digital Rebel (300D) that was essentially a crippled version of the 10D, the Rebel XT has most (but not all) of the 30D’s features.

At the end of August 2006, Canon announced the Rebel XTi, the successor to the XT. It’s called the 400D outside North America, and the Kiss Digital X in Japan. Although the physical dimensions and layout are essentially unchanged, it has several very welcome evolutionary improvements. Enhancements include a 10.1 megapixel sensor (3888x2592), a larger and brighter LCD, the 30D’s nine-point autofocus, an RGB histogram display, and a sensor that vibrates to shake off dust. For the time being, the older XT remains available at a lower price. Since I haven’t seen the XTi/400D (it wasn’t yet shipping at the end of August 2006, when I wrote this update), I have slightly updated this section based on the published specifications.

The price difference of around $500 means the Rebel XT cuts some corners compared with the 30D. It’s more plasticky, and doesn’t feel as “substantial.” Its fastest shutter speed is only 1/4000 instead of 1/8000 and it lacks a terminal for studio strobe lights. More significant is a user interface that’s decidedly less elegant and convenient; in particular it lacks the 30D’s (and Elan II’s) “Quick Control Dial” on the back for easy exposure compensation. The Rebel XT’s LCD is significantly smaller than the 30D’s And in common with a long line of film Rebels, it uses mirrors instead of a pentaprism in the viewfinder. On the other hand, this corner-cutting makes the Rebel XT significantly smaller and lighter: 540 grams with battery (the XTi/400D weighs 556 grams) instead of 785 grams. For me that’s a genuine advantage for travel, which along with the lower cost is enough to outweigh (as it were) the 30D’s additional features.

Addressing Reviewer Complaints

Reviewers have criticized the Rebel XT’s user interface. I find it mostly adequate, though less than optimal in several ways. Four little buttons arranged in a circle (“cross keys”) select menu options on the color LCD; in image playback mode they select pictures and pan zoomed images. The buttons look and feel cheap and tinny. Without a Quick Control Dial, setting exposure compensation on the Rebel XT is genuinely awkward. You have to press and hold a button on the back of the camera while turning the “main dial” behind the shutter release. The same procedure adjusts the aperture in “full manual” mode. It’s difficult do this with one hand, and it requires moving the camera away from shooting position.

Like most digital cameras, the Rebel XT includes both a color LCD and a monochrome status LCD. To conserve power, the backlit color LCD turns on only when you’re playing back an image or making a selection from an extensive set of menus. The status LCD is packed with information about numerous camera settings; it’s continuously visible whenever the camera is powered on. Unfortunately, Canon made a mistake when they omitted the ISO (light sensitivity) setting from the status LCD. The only way to see (or change) the ISO setting is through a menu option on the color display. Canon at least provides a one-key shortcut to that menu option through one of the cross keys (the other cross keys are shortcuts to menu options for metering mode, autofocus mode, and white balance— all of which are on the status LCD). ISO is an essential exposure parameter on a DSLR, so it really belongs on the status LCD with the aperture and shutter speed. Unfortunately, the contents of the status LCD are “hard-wired” into the display, so a firmware update can’t correct this significant blunder. The XTi/400D solves this problem with a single larger display that shows the ISO setting as well as all the information formerly on the status display, except when a menu is active.

That color LCD is very fussy about the angle at which it’s viewed, making it less than useful for quickly judging a picture’s exposure. The most accurate display is when it’s exactly at eye level, but it’s often difficult to hold the camera at that angle. Too high and the display washes out, too low and it goes dark. The easiest remedy for this limitation is to set the image display mode to “full information.” That shows the histogram, which really is the best way to judge exposure. The XTi/400D’s display is supposed to have a wider viewing angle.

I find zoomed viewing on the LCD frustratingly awkward. When displaying images, the buttons on the upper right corner of the camera’s back that normally lock exposure and select focusing points zoom a displayed image in and out. The lower right corner of the zoomed image consists of a tiny thumbnail of the whole image with a square indicating the zoomed area; there’s no way to switch this thumbnail off. When you’re done viewing a zoomed image, you have to press the zoom-out button repeatedly or hold it down until the view is completely zoomed out before you can move to another image. Hold it down too long and you get “thumbnail mode.” Another annoying but probably unavoidable problem with the LCD monitor is its location. If you’re shooting outdoors and have slathered your nose with an appropriate layer of sunscreen, the monitor will accumulate greasy marks because it’s right in front of your nose when your eye is looking through the viewfinder. But I suspect this problem isn’t unique to the Rebel XT.

Another common complaint is the (supposedly) dim, squinty viewfinder. In the store I compared it to the genuine pentaprism viewfinder of the 20D (the 30D’s predecessor). I was surprised that I couldn’t notice much difference between them, even indoors in fairly dim light. Compared to the Elan II, the Rebel XT viewfinder is indeed smaller and dimmer. But in actual use I can’t complain about it. It’s adequately bright, the informational displays are easy to see, and I have no problem composing pictures. The only time I notice that the viewfinder isn’t bright enough is when I’ve got a polarizer on the lens and the sun slinks behind a cloud.

Some people consider the Rebel XT too small to use comfortably. Yes it’s small— the two middle fingers (and fingernails) of my average-sized right hand tend to scrape and smudge the plastic over the lens mount because there’s not much clearance between the grip and the lens. But I don’t find it uncomfortable. And I did have to get used to holding the truncated left side of the camera (compared to the Elan II). But once I got used to it, I had no problems. I find it interesting that reviewers didn’t have similar problems with contemporaneous high-end fixed-lens digital electronic viewfinder cameras (such as the Konica-Minolta A200 or Sony FSC-828) that have a design very similar to the Rebel XT but are even smaller.

Autofocus and A-DEP

The Rebel XT’s autofocus system has seven focus points in a cross-shaped pattern (five horizontal, two vertical above and below the central focus point). But the 30D has nine focus points in a diamond-shaped pattern (as does the XTi/400D). What difference does that make? Not much. The Elan II has only three focus points. When I first got the Elan II and tried out the different focus points and automatic focus point selection, I quickly concluded it was a worthless gimmick. So I set it to use only the center point (which was all there was on the EOS 650 it replaced) and never changed that setting. I reached the same conclusion (and the same setting) just as quickly with the Rebel XT. There’s actually a good reason to use only the center focus point. On the Elan II and both digital cameras, the center focus point can respond to both horizontal and vertical lines, while the other focus points respond to only one orientation and require brighter light. However, automatic focus point selection (and a large array of focus points) might well yield a higher percentage of properly-focused pictures of sports, children playing, and other types of action shots that I rarely take.

The only true complaint I have about the Rebel XT (and with Canon’s consumer-oriented DSLRs) is that Canon replaced the very useful automatic depth of field (DEP) mode— a feature unique to EOS cameras since 1987— with the dumbed-down A-DEP version that’s far less useful and convenient. A-DEP automatically selects the near and far parts of the picture from among its seven focus points, and chooses an aperture to include everything between those areas within the depth of field. With DEP you have to select the near and far points manually. That may seem more difficult with the extra step, but it’s actually much simpler in practice.

With many real-world compositions, the near and far elements of the picture don’t align with any of the camera’s focus points. That makes A-DEP useless. The workaround I’ve found is to rotate the camera until at least one focus point aligns with what you intend as near and far elements. You probably will end up holding the camera at an odd diagonal angle. Press the shutter release half-way and verify that the camera has chosen those focus points. If it hasn’t, move the camera again and repeat. Then (with the shutter release still pressed half-way) compose the picture the way you want it. The old-fashioned DEP is much easier.

Decent Exposure

I’m amazed at how often the 35-segment evaluative meter provides accurate exposures without intervention (the Elan II has only six segments). I need to resort to partial metering or exposure compensation only in classic situations when it’s obviously needed, such as when a subject is backlit, or brighter or darker than average (think of a bright white building or a sandy beach, or a field of black Hawaiian lava). Like the Elan II, the Rebel XT also offers a center-weighted averaging mode. But I can’t think of any situation where it might be preferable to evaluative metering— or why Canon even needed to include it.

The Rebel XT uses the same hieroglyphic icons as the Elan II to indicate the metering mode. Center-weighted mode is clear enough; it’s an empty rectangle. But I have such difficulty remembering the difference between the icons for partial metering and evaluative metering that I pasted little labels on the Elan II’s mode selection dial after losing several shots because I confused them. There’s no place for little labels on the Rebel XT’s “status” LCD.

A digital sensor requires an approach to metering different from what I’m used to with color negative film. Color negative film has tremendous tolerance for overexposure; but when underexposed it shows its displeasure by going grainy and dull. So the strategy is to expose for the shadows (partial-metering on the darkest part of the picture if necessary) and let the film take care of everything else. A digital sensor is more like slide film. It reacts to overexposure with washed out highlights, and may even “clip” out all detail as the pixels reach saturation (i.e., each color has maximum value). But underexposure loses shadow detail in noise. The sensor has less overall exposure latitude than negative film, but much more than slide film.

If you’re shooting raw files, the standard advice is “expose to the right.” In other words, the desirable histogram is skewed as much as possible toward the highlights, but not so far that clipping occurs. The “full-information” display mode (the only one that shows the histogram) helps by blinking clipped areas of the picture. I still haven’t figured out what “exposing to the right” really means in practice, since the histograms of real-world images vary so much. A better approach, I think, is to look for a histogram with a full range of shadows, midtones, and highlights without “bunching” on either side— unless you deliberately want a high-key (bright overall) or low-key (dark overall) effect.

The Proof of the Pudding

While user interface and handling are indeed important, the real purpose of a camera after all is to capture images. The Rebel XT does a very good job of that. Its 8-megapixel sensor doesn’t resolve as much detail as a 4000 dpi scan from a Kodak Ultra Color 400 negative. But the difference is visible only at high screen magnification. The digital image is more than adequate for a very nice 12x16-inch print (roughly A3 size), the largest I can make with my own printer.

For years I’ve shot exclusively ISO 400 color negative film because it offered a near-optimal balance of image quality and convenience. But with the Rebel XT I’ve settled on ISO 200 for most outdoor shooting. I can see essentially no difference between ISO 100 and ISO 200, but noise becomes visible at ISO 400. That noise isn’t objectionable; the “digital grain” is finer than that of a scanned Ultra Color 400 negative. NeatImage can reduce it to invisibility. With this camera, ISO 200 seems to offer the best balance of image quality and convenience. I switch to ISO 400 if I need a faster shutter speed or more depth of field, at the cost of a bit more effort in post-processing. Image quality remains good but visibly noisy at ISO 800. But ISO 1600 is unacceptable without NeatImage, and there’s a definite loss of fine detail.

The Rebel XT has very elaborate controls for setting white balance. In addition to “automatic,” there are six presets for different kinds of light (represented on the appropriate menu by hieroglyphic icons, but Canon also provides an English translation when you move the selection bar over each one). If that’s not precise enough, there’s a screen that lets you use the cross keys to adjust the white balance on a Cartesian coordinate plane with Blue-Amber and Magenta-Green axes. Since I use raw files, I leave it on “Auto White Balance.” That does a fine job most of the time.

I use SanDisk Ultra II Compact Flash memory cards. Based on Rob Galbraith’s exhaustive testing of memory cards, it seems to offer an appropriate balance of cost and speed. Canon doesn’t support the “write acceleration” touted for certain high-speed cards, so those aren’t worth the premium price.

Canon bundles the Rebel XT with an extensive software suite, including two separate programs for processing raw files. I don’t use either of them, for the reasons I discuss in the review of the Pixmantec RawShooter Essentials raw converter, which I use alongside Adobe Camera Raw that comes with Photoshop CS2. The bundled image editing program is ArcSoft Photo Studio rather than Adobe’s ubiquitous Photoshop Elements. Maybe ArcSoft gave them a better licensing deal? The XTi/400D’s software bundle no longer includes ArcSoft Photo Studio, so you’ll need to buy an image editing program if you don’t already have one.

The Rebel XT is a fun camera to use. I enjoy the instant gratification of seeing the pictures hours after I took them (on my computer at home, or on a TV when traveling). I don’t miss the hassle of scanning negatives and cleaning the inevitable dust “hickeys.” I do give up some image quality going from a 22-megapixel scan to an 8-megapixel digital capture, but I think the advantages outweigh this loss. The user interface isn’t the best, but I think I can live with it.

Right now (August 2006), I think the Rebel XT offers the best value for money of available DSLRs, even though it’s still expensive. If you’ve been considering switching to digital, you may find (as I did) the Rebel XT sufficiently tempting to finally make the switch. It’s still a fine camera even now that the XTi/400D has rendered it obsolete (and seems to provide even better value for money).


Review Contents

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Pantone huey and hueyPRO

Note (August 2015): Pantone has discontinued the huey product line. But the discussion of color management, colorimeters, and calibration remains relevant. Other display calibration products work the same way.

Owners of the discontinued original huey can still buy the software upgrade that converts it to a hueyPRO. The hueyPRO software (version 1.5.1) was released in July 2009. I don’t know if it works with Windows 10, or with recent versions of Macintosh OS X.

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Color Management!

Color Management is possibly the most mysterious and arcane aspect of digital photography. There are numerous articles and Web sites about it, and it’s even the subject of several complete books. Achieving a “color-managed workflow” seems to be the Nirvana or Holy Grail of digital photographers.

To oversimplify things, a color management system keeps track of the various ways devices like monitors, printers, mini-labs, and printing presses render color. The software that implements color management— it may be part of an operating system or a program like Adobe Photoshop— makes the necessary adjustments to ensure that the appearance of your prints matches as closely as practical the color, contrast, and density you see on your monitor. It also allows “soft proofing,” which displays a helpful approximation of what a print made with a particular combination of ink and paper will look like. Because monitors, printers, and presses all generate their colors in completely different ways, it’s impossible for any technology to get them to match each other exactly. But color management strives to make all these devices render colors consistently and predictably, minimizing the costly and frustrating trial and error that making prints would otherwise require.

To work its sort-of-magic, a color management system needs quantitative information about how devices render color. That’s called a profile, and it needs one for each device. Photo-quality printers almost always ship with a set of profiles— one for each type of paper— that the manufacturer created with specialized equipment. As long as you use the manufacturer’s ink and paper, those profiles generally are good enough to give consistent results. But monitors are subject to so much variation— due to differences in video cards, room lighting, and settings— that the manufacturer’s profile (if one is available) is useless in practice. So you need a colorimeter and appropriate software to create a profile specific to your system.

The colorimeter’s only function is to measure the actual color a monitor produces. Then the associated software takes over. In addition to creating a profile for the color management system, it uses the colorimeter measurements to adjust the video card so that the monitor can produce a neutral color balance, at a standard color temperature (redness or blueness, measured in Kelvins or “K”) and gamma (contrast). That calibrates the monitor to a standard that works correctly with the color management system. Calibration also improves color rendition with programs like Web browsers that don’t use the color management system. The colorimeter software includes a program that loads those adjustments into the video card when you start your computer.

Enter the huey

Colorimeters have been available for calibrating and profiling monitors for many years. They’re often called “spyders,” because when in use most of them fancifully resemble a spider sitting in the middle of the screen, dangling on a “silk” wire (much as a computer “mouse” resembles a rodent). “Hockey puck” would actually seem more appropriate. But their use has largely been restricted to professional photographers and graphic designers because of their cost and complexity. The Pantone huey colorimeter, introduced in January 2006, promised to make monitor calibration and profiling much more accessible. Its list price is $89, and it also offers the unique capability of adjusting monitor settings to match ambient room light.

The huey resembles a marking pen or a large crayon (10 centimeters long, 15 millimeters wide, and roughly 10 millimeters deep). Attached to one end is a slender wire that ends in a USB plug. The package also includes a little stand for the huey; a USB extension cable; two swabs and a chamois for cleaning your monitor; a CD with software (a hybrid disk for Windows and Macintosh OS X); and a five-language “Quick Start Guide,” which is the only documentation of any kind that Pantone provides. The “Quick Start Guide” tells you to clean the monitor, install the software, and then plug the huey into an unused USB port. It also says to let the monitor warm up for 30 minutes, and that you get “best results” from doing the profiling in a darkened room. Unfortunately, the last two essential admonitions are buried so deeply in the multilingual fine print that some users will probably miss it.

The Windows software installer on the CD puts a shortcut and a PDF copy of the “Quick Start Guide” on the desktop, and also installs an icon in the system tray. When you start the software, it first asks you (in pictures) to click a radio button that indicates whether you’re using an LCD or a CRT monitor. There’s no support for multiple monitors. Then it displays a picture of the huey and tells you to attach it to the screen over the picture using an array of eight little suction cups (could some marketeer perhaps have proposed calling it Octopus?). When you click the “Next” button, the actual profiling begins. The software flashes 26 color patches on the screen while the huey measures how the monitor displays them. After about two minutes, the software tells you to remove the huey and put it in its stand.

You’re next asked to specify the “primary use” of your newly-profiled monitor from a list of “color settings” on a pull-down menu. The default is “Web Browsing & Photo Editing” (6500K, gamma 2.2— the most common setting for photo editing on a PC) but there are other options. “Gaming” (6500K, gamma 1.80) makes the screen noticeably brighter, while “Graphic Design & Video Editing” (6500K, gamma 2.40) dims the screen. There are also three “Special: Warm” (5500K) options and three “Special: Cool” (7500K) options, each with low, medium, and high contrast (gamma 1.80, 2.20, and 2.40, respectively). Pantone doesn’t actually identify those temperature and gamma settings anywhere in the sparse documentation or in the software. But if you go to Pantone’s Web site and drill down through the support database, you’ll get to this page that explains all the settings. They don’t make it particularly easy to find.

Finally, you can specify whether you want the software to adjust monitor settings to ambient room light, and how often to make the adjustment. You can choose intervals ranging from ten seconds to four hours. Then it creates color management profile (in the standard ICC format), installs it, and sets up the software to load the necessary adjustments into the video card at startup. The tray icon has a pop-up “preferences” dialogue that lets you adjust the color settings and room light monitoring parameters. You can also sample the room light manually whenever you need it. Four red LEDs on the front of the huey flash for a second or so every time it samples the ambient light.

Results

My huey arrived a week after I replaced my ailing six-year-old Mitsubishi 900u CRT with a new Dell UltraSharp 1905FP LCD monitor. The monitor lives up to its name, since the display truly is “ultra sharp.” But out of the box it was excessively bright even when I set the brightness to minimum. The color balance looked too cold (bluish) even though I set the monitor to 6500K, and a grayscale wedge had visibly greenish midtones and reddish highlights. Images looked overly bright and washed out, so using it for photography was out of the question. The monitor wasn’t defective, and I knew about these problems because various reviewers had mentioned them. (Regrettably, Dell has discontinued the 1905FP. The 1907FP that replaced it has better response time for fast action games, but with only six bits per color channel its display is much less suitable for photography.)

After calibrating the monitor with the huey, the overall color balance was noticeably warmer, and the grayscale wedge looked satisfyingly neutral. Images have the vividness and range of tones I expected— better actually than my old CRT. And some time spent in Photoshop taking several raw files from my camera through post-processing and printing provided convincing evidence that I had indeed attained a color-managed workflow!

The adjustment for ambient room light certainly works. It’s of questionable value for serious photo editing, since for that you really need a consistently dark room to judge color and contrast properly. But it seems helpful for less critical tasks like Web surfing. By default, the huey software periodically displays a reminder to re-calibrate the monitor. A monitor’s performance does drift with time, so this really is necessary for consistent color. Neither the “Quick Start Guide” nor the software provide any indication of how often it displays the reminder. That turns out to be every two weeks. You can disable the reminder, but you can’t change how often it comes up.

Pantone’s marketeers have struggled mightily to create a “colorimeter for the masses” that’s usable and appealing to non-technical people who have no concept at all of what color management is. Indeed, the huey seems exclusively intended for such users. Pantone provides absolutely no technical information or even specifications. There’s no documentation at all other than the “Quick Start Guide.” They don’t identify what gamma or color temperature it’s setting, or what the real difference is between those “color setting” presets. And if you had no idea what the huey actually does before you installed it, you’ll still have no idea afterward. There’s no explanation of anything beyond the step-by-step directions the software gives you while you’re creating a profile.

In practice, not having that information probably doesn’t matter. It won’t affect the results on your monitor and printer. But it can be frustrating to users who do know something about color management— a group that could conceivably include those who were newbies when they bought the huey, but who subsequently grow in their knowledge. (When Pantone introduced an enhanced “pro” version of the huey, they also created a complete PDF user manual that covers both versions and includes the relevant technical information. You can download it from an “undisclosed location” on their Web site.)

It’s easy to defend the marketeers’ decision to assiduously avoid anything remotely “technical,” on the grounds that it might intimidate the intended user. But I’m more inclined to suspect the dumbing-down is intended to maintain strict market segmentation. In other words, if you need real control over the gamma and temperature the colorimeter is setting, you need to buy a much more expensive one with software that provides this information and control (although the huey’s nine presets probably provide all the settings that even a professional photographer would ever need).

huey PRO

It seemed inevitable that Pantone would address the huey’s limitations and expand its market to more advanced users. In March 2007 they introduced the $129 hueyPRO. Physically it looks the same, although Pantone claims it uses “professional grade Optical Sensors.” And the packaging is green instead of red. The only apparent difference is its software, which provides a more “professional” user interface and some additional features.

Pantone offers a $40 software download that upgrades the original huey to a huey PRO. When I ordered it on their Web site, the e-commerce system saw my California address and charged me sales tax. California actually does not tax software delivered “over the Internet or by modem.” (But it would be taxable if they mailed it to me on a CD. Believe it or not, there actually is a rationale behind that seemingly arbitrary distinction.) Pantone is based in New Jersey, so it’s perhaps understandable (but by no means excusable) that their finance department would overlook that arcane wrinkle in an extremely convoluted “foreign” tax code. After several e-mails and phone calls, they admitted the error and refunded the erroneous charge. But I don’t know if they’ve corrected the Web site.

After completing the purchase, the Web site pops up a link to the appropriate Windows or Macintosh executable installation file. There are no instructions for installing the upgrade, but I thought it best to uninstall the old software first. When I ran the hueyPRO software for the first time, it informed me that I needed to “upgrade the sensor” before I could continue. It then opened my Web browser to a page that required me to log in to my Pantone account (which I had created a year earlier when I bought the original huey). From there I got to a page about “purchasing an upgraded sensor.” For a moment I thought I’d have to pay more money, and/or wait for Pantone to ship me new hardware. But it actually was a link to another file I was presumably supposed to download and run. I did that, and it duly reported that my sensor had been “upgraded.” (I suspect this process doesn’t actually “upgrade” or modify any physical capability of the sensor, but merely updates some identifying value in the huey’s non-volatile memory. It’s most likely a security mechanism to ensure that someone using the hueyPRO software with a huey has actually paid for the upgrade.) I’m only mentioning the details of this poorly-documented process so you won’t be surprised like I was.

So how does the huey PRO compare with the huey? The hueyPRO’s only genuinely significant feature is the ability to profile, calibrate, and load color corrections for multiple monitors. If your computer has two monitors, the extra cost of the hueyPRO is clearly worthwhile. (But on this page in their support database, Pantone admits that the colors displayed on two monitors calibrated and profiled with a hueyPRO won’t necessarily match.) The other enhancements seem more like cosmetic niceties than truly valuable features.

Before the calibration process begins, the hueyPRO software displays a target for manually adjusting the brightness and contrast controls of both LCD and CRT monitors. The huey only displays this target with a CRT monitor. This hueyPRO feature may have limited value, since many LCD monitors disable their manual contrast controls when using digital (DVI) video input.

The hueyPRO’s calibration process uses 29 colored patches instead of the huey’s 26. That’s supposed to produce a more accurate profile, but I have no way of discerning how much difference that makes in practice. You can also specify the name of the resulting ICC profile file; the huey software automatically gives it a cryptic default name. At best that might be marginally useful.

In both the calibration routine and the “preferences” pop-up from the tray icon, instead of the huey’s single pull-down list of “color settings” the hueyPRO has separate pull-downs for gamma (1.8, 2.2, and 2.4) and color temperature (“D55,” “D65,” and “D75”). The nine possible combinations are the same as those available with the huey— would anyone really need more than that?— but they’re identified by attributes rather than “primary viewing activity.” If you have dual monitors, the settings apply to both of them.

The slider for setting room light adjustment intervals is the same. But you can set the time for (optional) recalibration reminders to anything between 1 and 14 days; the huey’s reminder interval is a fixed 14 days, which isn’t documented. And finally, the help system includes a special “advanced” section. It reveals all the technical details about calibration and color management from which the original huey so carefully protects its “non-technical” users. A “secret” PDF file buried in the hueyPRO’s installed directory (C:\Program Files\hueyPRO\HueyPRO User Guides\English on my Windows machine) is a complete user manual for both huey versions. It contains all the material in the help file, including the “Advanced Help” section, plus a glossary and brief tutorial on color-managed printing in Photoshop. You can also download it from Pantone’s Web site.

The Verdict

I think the original huey is a very useful, cleverly-designed, and reasonably-priced tool for any digital photographer who wants consistent color and prints that match what’s on the monitor. It makes monitor calibration and profiling simple and painless, and it actually works. Even users more knowledgeable than the intended “complete novice” market segment are likely to find it an affordable and friendly way to get the benefits of color management. If you’re using two monitors it’s worth spending the extra money for the hueyPRO, but otherwise it doesn’t improve much on the original huey.

The original huey’s packaging contains the ominous warning that “chances are your monitor’s colors aren’t true.” Perhaps that didn’t persuade enough of the intended novices to buy a huey, so Pantone needed a dressed-up “pro” version they could market to more advanced users. But who knows? “Untrue monitor color” may yet become the 21st century’s answer to “morning breath” and “ring around the collar.”


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SmartDisk FlashTrax

Note (April 2008): SmartDisk discontinued the original FlashTrax in 2006, in favor of the newer FlashTrax XT. SmartDisk themselves went out of business in June 2007, apparently done in by the expenses of litigating infringement of their FlashTrax-related patents along with general undercapitalization. They sold their operation to Verbatim, which continues to produce and sell the FlashTrax XT. SmartDisk’s technical support base remains available. It includes the final firmware and documentation updates, along with the source code released under the Gnu Public License.

Note (August 2015): The entire SmartDisk Web site, including the technical support base, firmware, and source code, has disappeared. Verbatim’s Web site contains no information at all about the old Flashtrax products.

Data storage can be a significant problem with digital camera. If you’re using raw files with a 6- or 8-megapixel camera, it’s easy to generate tens of gigabytes of files while traveling. It’s too expensive for most people to buy that many memory cards. If you don’t mind schlepping a laptop computer (especially one with a DVD burner), transferring the files to it may be the best option.

No Perfect Solutions

When bringing a laptop computer isn’t practical or desirable, there are two alternative storage solutions. One is a stand-alone DVD burner. The other is a stand-alone hard disk drive. Both have a built-in memory card reader and enough computing power to transfer the data to a DVD, or to a directory on a hard disk. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

When I was contemplating getting a digital camera, I first considered a DVD burner. It seemed the safest option, since a DVD doesn’t have the risk of mechanical failure to which hard drives are all too susceptible. Then I looked at some DVD burners. They weigh around 680 grams. They’re around 200mm long, and the width of a DVD means they can’t be less than 140mm wide. Combined with the bulk of a supply of disks, they didn’t seem that great a solution after all, particularly in the Brave New World of air travel with its unlocked checked luggage and severe restrictions on carry-on bags.

The smaller and lighter portable hard disk seemed more practical, despite my reluctance to put all my (photographic) eggs in one (electromechanical) basket. These devices come in two varieties (and price ranges). The least expensive kind is bare-bones and plug-and-pray. Plug in the memory card, press the only button on the device, and wait for an LED (or perhaps an icon on an LCD panel) to tell you the transfer is complete. Then pray that everything transferred correctly, since there’s no way to know whether it did until you get home and connect it to your computer. The other kind is a fancier, costlier “multimedia center” that can display photos on a built-in color LCD screen. It may have other talents as well, such as playing movies and MP3 music.

Enter the FlashTrax

The SmartDisk FlashTrax (called the Innoplus PhotoTainer PT-300P outside the United States) is in the “multimedia center” category. SmartDisk’s brochure calls it “palm-sized,” but that’s only if you’re acromegalic. 143mm long, 92mm wide, and 32mm thick, it’s more like the size of a small paperback book. It fits nicely in my small camera bag and weighs 340 grams (half the weight of a DVD burner). A 9-centimeter (diagonal) color LCD screen flips up for viewing. Its proprietary user interface will be familiar to Windows users, but it runs under Linux on an ARM720 RISC processor. It’s available with a 20, 40, or 80-gigabyte hard drive (I went for the $430 40-gigabyte version). It’s not as posh as the Epson P-2000 nor as cool as the Apple iPod® Photo, but it does look like something out of Star Trek®.

I chose the FlashTrax mainly because of several features that I found attractive. First, the ability to see and view image files should provide some assurance that the files transferred correctly and remained intact. For further assurance, it can do a full byte-by-byte comparison of the contents of a memory card against the disk directory to which it was copied. Finally, it can display raw files from Canon (and other) DSLRs, making extra JPEG files unnecessary.

The FlashTrax works as advertised, but the implementation often leaves something to be desired. Flipping up the viewing screen reveals a uniquely mysterious set of control buttons. You really do need to “Read The Fine Manual” to know how to use them. The manual tells you all you need to know, but because it does that in six languages it’s too bulky to carry on a trip. If you don’t want to tear the manual apart, it’s best to memorize what you need; the controls fortunately become fairly intuitive once you’re privy to their secrets. You also need to study a supplement (mercifully provided only in English) that details the many features added in software updates since the manual was printed.

Copying a memory card is easy. Remove the rubbery cover over the card slot (permanently attached so you can’t lose it), insert the card, and firmly press the little button next to the slot. That overrides whatever mode the FlashTrax was in and begins to copy the card’s contents. You had best be patient because copying is slow. Not merely slow, but very slow. Extremely slow. Painfully slow. We’re talkin’ snails with severe constipation, folks. The bottleneck appears to be in the interface to the memory card, since copying files between the FlashTrax and a computer through the included USB 2 cable is satisfyingly zippy.

My routine while traveling is to copy the day’s gigabyte-plus of pictures at the end of the day. With the FlashTrax firmly placed on a table, I put in the card and press the button. Then I spend half an hour or so showering off sunscreen and grime, changing clothes, and perhaps reading the newspaper. That’s probably enough time to copy the files. Then I go into the GUI, select “Files” mode, move the menu scroll bar to the directory the FlashTrax just created (named with today’s date), select the pull-down menu option for “Full Verify,” and go back to reading the paper or planning the next day. Comparing the files and contents takes just as long as copying them.

When the copying and verifying is done, it’s time to review the pictures. The FlashTrax can display photos on its built-in screen, or on any television set with a standard RCA-plug baseband composite video input. Most television sets built in the 21st century include these inputs; many even put them on the front of the set for connecting camcorders. The FlashTrax ships with a video cable for this purpose, as well as a small infrared remote control that duplicates the control buttons.

Warts and Limitations

This display capability is good enough to review pictures while traveling, but it has some frustrating limitations. First, the claim that it can display camera raw files is only partially accurate. The software can’t convert the actual raw data. It can only display whatever JPEG thumbnail might be embedded in the file. Canon’s CR2 raw files include an undocumented 1536x1024 JPEG, which fortunately is adequate for this type of display. I suspect the camera itself uses the thumbnail when playing back pictures on its LCD. The FlashTrax doesn’t support the Adobe RGB color space, so if you want accurate color when reviewing pictures you should set the camera to sRGB (raw conversion software can produce Adobe RGB output regardless of the camera setting).

In “Photo” mode there are two ways to select images for viewing. One is a list of file names in alphanumeric order, with a scroll bar. Move the scroll bar over each name and you’ll see the file date and time, exposure data, and a little thumbnail image. This mode seems to have a bug: the thumbnail only shows half the image with Canon raw files. Press the button marked “Enter” to see the picture full-sized on the screen. In this full-screen display mode you can use arrow keys to move forward and backward among the files for a slide show.

The full-screen display has some annoying problems. Because the software apparently can’t read the orientation flag in a file’s EXIF data, the image always appears oriented horizontally. But you can manually re-orient each vertical picture— if you happen to remember that the button marked “Mode” rotates the image clockwise in full-screen display mode (it normally selects between viewing photos, playing music, manipulating files, or configuring the FlashTrax). The FlashTrax also displays too big a picture on every television set I’ve tried, so it crops the sides significantly. At least the manual includes a warning about this overscan. If you want to see the entire picture you can use the zoom controls to reduce the size of each picture. Strangely, one of the zoom settings correctly fits the picture to the screen. Pressing “Enter” displays a menu of options to show some of the EXIF data, a luminance histogram, or an RGB histogram.

It’s not difficult to work around the overscan problem. I use a Paint Shop Pro script that prepares finished “slides” for use with the FlashTrax. It resizes the width of horizontal pictures to 1152 pixels, or the height of vertical pictures to 864 pixels. It then sharpens the resized image, expands the canvas (with a black background) to 1280x960, and saves the result in a JPEG file for eventual copying to the FlashTrax. If that doesn’t perfectly compensate for the overscan (which varies between TV sets) it’s close enough. Since the picture has to be converted to 640x480 resolution anyway for display on a television set, that resolution is adequate. It also keeps the file size small, since the FlashTrax gets bogged down when decoding large JPEGs. A full-sized JPEG (3456x2304) file directly from the Rebel XT can take 20 seconds to display.

I attempt to mitigate the fragility inherent to hard disks by turning on the FlashTrax only when it’s on a sturdy surface like a table. A hard disk is most susceptible to catastrophic head crashes when it’s operating. When powered down it “parks” and secures the heads over an unused area of the disk platter, so it can take quite a bit of jostling. The bottom of the FlashTrax gets quite hot when the hard disk runs continuously, as when copying or verifying a set of files. That’s not surprising, since the hard disk in my desktop computer usually runs at around 45 degrees Celsius. I’m not sure whether the FlashTrax dissipates the heat adequately, but I have to assume the engineers knew what they were doing. Perhaps in an effort to save size and weight, the lithium-ion battery seems to have inadequate capacity and depletes quickly even when the FlashTrax is powered down. Since I always use the adapter/charger that hasn’t been a problem for me, but it could be a problem for campers, river rafters, and other outdoorsy types. That adapter/charger is nearly the size of the FlashTrax.

What Else?

The FlashTrax can also play MP3 music files, but I can’t say much about how well it does so beyond the fact that I’ve verified it works. I can’t see how it’s worth putting unnecessary wear on the hard disk, but I suppose it’s a useful marketing gimmick that doesn’t cost much to implement. If you haven’t plugged in a set of the ubiquitous Walkman®-type stereo headphones (not included), the FlashTrax plays the music on a tinny little built-in speaker much like the one in a telephone modem that lets you hear it make a connection.

All in all, the FlashTrax is an adequate if imperfect solution for storing digital images while traveling, with the additional helpful ability to comfortably review pictures on a television set with a remote control. The frustrating implementation of many features makes me wish there were a better solution. It tries hard to please but doesn’t quite make it. Still, it provides what I need.


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