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.
Generally speaking, photo quality from cameras in this price range drops off above ISO 200, so it's not a surprise that it happens with the M381. What's odd is just how much it drops off at ISO 400. Noise reduction hits hard, dramatically softening fine detail and shifting colours that were otherwise very good at ISO 200 and below. Things get worse as you go up in sensitivity to ISO 800 and ISO 1,600. In other words, don't consider this camera for low-light or indoor shots without a flash. The files appear to be very compressed, too, averaging less than 2MB per photo. That's about half the size of a typical 12-megapixel photo, and there's no adjustment for quality in the camera.
Colours are generally very good at ISO 200 and below. They're accurate for the most part, although blues and violets look pumped up slightly. The auto white balance is good, but it's rather warm under fluorescent lighting. Also worth noting is that the camera's perfect-touch system, while very reliable overall, will occasionally over-correct, washing out photos. Thankfully this shows on the display, so you can always opt to take a shot in program mode and apply the perfect-touch adjustments in playback.
The M381 shoots VGA video only, which is behind the 720p HD movie modes on some of the competition. The quality is fine for quick clips for posting to video-sharing sites. You don't get use of the optical zoom, though -- only the digital zoom.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time (flash)||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The Kodak EasyShare M381 has its good points -- mainly that the smart-capture auto mode is good for put-it-there-leave-it-there photographers. The 5x optical zoom is welcome, but the competition pairs it with a wide-angle lens and optical image stabilisation. It's also not the most polished camera for the money. That said, if you just need a reliable auto mode for shooting in bright conditions or with a flash, the M381 is certainly an option.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet