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Hybrids try, but they can't do it all

Digital video has long been a feature of digital still cameras and some of the latest models of digital camcorders -- notably the Canon ZR 70 -- have made an effort to pump up their still-image capabilities. But in the coming months, new hybrid gadgets will be appearing in the market that will straddle the line between camcorder and camera. One of the newest of these hybrid products is the Gateway DV-S20 digital camcorder.

If you've been waffling between buying a digital camera or a digital camcorder, a hybrid device like the DV-S20 may seem like an answer to your agony, but the fact is this gadget is no substitute for a decent digital camera or bytecorder.

That's not to say that the Gateway hybrid doesn't have some attractive features -- mostly in the form department. It's deliciously compact at 3.54-by-2.56-by-1.22 inches -- smaller than a box of Arm & Hammer baking soda -- so it's easy to have on hand when an unforeseen but memorable moment pops up.

Its LCD swivels through 270 degrees, which lets you obtain creative angles for your shots without contorting your body to get them. However, the display, which measures 1.5 inches diagonally, is on the small side. It's also not very bright. And it washes out in sunlight.

I liked the vertical format of the camera and found it easy to hold in one hand. You must be careful, though, not to cover the light sensor, flash, or lens at the front of the camera with your fingers. A rubber grip with raised dots at the front of the camera will help you align your fingers properly.

Most of the camera's controls are conveniently located on the back of the camera. Buttons for adjusting the zoom, activating flash modes, and setting the self-timer are arranged around a button for triggering video. Below that cluster is the shutter release for still photos, an "OK" button for choosing menu items, a button for paging through the contents of the camera and a "trash" button.

Below the controls is a compartment for attaching the camera to a computer through its USB port and a single jack for exporting images and clips to a TV, VCR, or any device with composite inputs.

On top of the unit is a button for calling up menus and turning the device on and off.

Moving the camera's contents to a PC running Windows XP was remarkably easy. Simply connect the USB cable included with the unit and an XP "wizard" will effortlessly guide you through the upload. Software for working with images and video is included with the unit.

With the unit's 64 MB of internal memory, you can take 91 stills at a resolution of 1600-by-1200 pixels and "super fine" compression; 137 at "fine" compression and 183 at "normal" compression. A range of 366 to 732 images can be captured at the lower resolution of 800-by-600 pixels.

On the video side, the unit's internal memory will hold five minutes of super fine video at 320-by-240 pixels; 10 minutes at fine compression and 18 minutes at normal compression. The unit's storage capacity can be increased by buying optional SD memory cards.

When shooting both stills and clips, the camera is noticeably slow in writing to its internal memory, and shutter lag is a problem. Light changes raise havoc with the camera's automatic white balance scheme. Images and video shot in bright sunlight get washed out and colors change madly as a subject moves from bright light to shade.

The camera, which runs on two AA batteries, doesn't work well in low light conditions. Even if you're using the flash, what you'll be capturing is a guessing game because the LCD is so dark. And you can forget about shooting video indoors when the sun goes down.

After being impressed with several of Gateway's consumer electronics products, I'd have to say I'm disappointed with this one.

Sure, for $200 bucks you can't buy a digital camera and a digital camcorder, but if you're really serious about preserving memories as images or in video, you'll either choose between one kind of camera or another, or cough up the lettuce for one of each. Hybrid devices may eventually supplant the need for that, but right now they're more a novelty than a single substitute for a camcorder and camera.

John P. Mello Jr. is a freelance writer. He can be reached at jpmello@cox.net.

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