The appeal of the ultra-compact, 12.4-megapixel Kodak EasyShare M381 camera lies in its simplicity. It has a 5x zoom, 76mm (3-inch) LCD, and fairly consistent 'smart capture' auto mode, but little else to offer. Available for around £100, the M381 is a sound choice for casual snapshooters. Other types of user will want to keep looking, even among Kodak's other M-series models.
Cheap but comfortable
Available in black or a bluish grey, the M381 is small enough to slip into a trouser pocket or small handbag. The body is comfortable to handle, but the plastic controls have a decidedly cheap feel. On top are a tiny mode dial and flash, power and shutter-release buttons. The back has a thumb rocker for the 5x zoom, a vertical row of buttons ('delete', 'menu', 'info' and 'play'), a four-way control pad, an 'OK' button for setting and menu navigation, and Kodak's 'share' button, which lets you tag photos as favourites, as ones to upload to a favourite Web site for sharing, or both when the camera is connected to a computer.
Kodak's menus are attractive and generally easy to navigate. None of the shooting options are obscure. Should you come across a setting you don't understand, however, a press of the 'info' button brings up a text description of what the feature does.
For its price there are a couple things missing from the package that you can find on competing models from both Kodak and other manufacturers. There's no optical or mechanical image stabilisation, for one -- only electronic blur reduction. Also, the 35mm-equivalent lens is narrow. Wide-angle lenses are easy to come by in its class. It doesn't do high-definition video capture either, but that's less of an issue than the other absent features.
Kodak's smart-capture auto mode is one of the highlights of the M381. It integrates scene and face detection, optimised (and conservative) auto ISO, and a broader dynamic range, among other things, so you truly don't have to worry about a setting to take a decent picture. This mode also applies Kodak's 'perfect touch' technology to help improve detail and contrast.
There's a program mode if you want to take control over ISO, focus, light metering and sharpness, or use the colour effects. There are 18 scene modes to pick from, including 'snow', 'beach', 'text', 'fireworks' and 'backlight', but nothing too unusual. The mode dial also has spots for 'sport' and 'blur reduction' modes that boost the ISO and shutter speed, as well as 'panorama' (shoot two or three photos and the camera will stitch them together) and a basic 'movie' option.
The M381's shooting performance is mixed. The time from start-up to first shot is rather long, at 2.6 seconds. Shot-to-shot times are very good, though, at 1.1 seconds without the flash and only 1.5 seconds with. And, although the camera's burst mode is limited to three shots at a time, it takes them quickly, at 2.1 frames per second. The biggest issue is shutter lag in bright conditions, at 0.6 seconds. It does well in dim lighting, however, at 0.7 seconds.