New Old Stock AOL Photocam Find
I was recently browsing through eBay looking at old digital cameras with the theory being too buy an earlier example than my 2.1 megapixel Mavica. For my younger readers, 2 megapixels is actually quite a lot and marks the first time it was worth switching from film to a digital camera as you weren't sacrificing too much quality, at least not for photos you'd primarily be looking at on your screen and uploading to the internet. So I decided to try and find an earlier 640x480 pixel model that was in some way interesting. 640x480 cameras were available in some form from the early to mid 90's, like the Apple QuickTake models but back then you'd have to part with $750 to get one. Prices did come down rapidly as the number of pixels went up, and by the mid-late 90's you could get a 640x480 model for about $200 - $350 depending on the manufacturer and features.
I did consider grabbing a used early Mavica but as I already owned one floppy disk based Mavica already it didn't seem worth it. The QuickTake was interesting due to its shape, which had me considering other unusually shaped digital cameras but nothing really stood out. Then I came across a listing for a brand new in sealed box, AOL PhotoCam. No it wasn't an interesting shape, and there's nothing special about it's removable media. I bought it purely because it was brand new and was by AOL who were a big deal in the late 90s. Although heavily criticized by geeks like me, they were by far the most popular ISP of that era, famous for sending millions of free signup CD-ROM's through the mail and providing simplified access to the internet for the non computer literate public. It appears that AOL offered cut price digital cameras to its members as a sweetener, and back then a digital camera was still a fairly unusual and high tech item. At $200-$250 this was a very low to average camera, both in terms of price and performance, but this and similar cameras would have been far more common than the state of the art $1,000 ones from big name brands. So what did you get for your $200 back then? Let's take a look!
The camera itself is quite large as compacts go, although not much bulkier than similar cameras. on the market at the time. It runs on 4 AA batteries, has 2MB of memory built-in so no need to buy an expensive memory card initially but there is a compact flash card slot which can accept 32MB cards.
The box includes a wrist strap and a nice AOL branded case whereas most big name camera manufacturers sell those as expensive extras. There is a 9 pin serial cable for connecting to the PC as USB was extremely rare at this time. There is also a composite video out cable to connect the camera to your TV or VCR to show your photos on the big screen, and as digital cameras back then ate batteries at an unbelievable rate, they also included an AC power adapter, yet another costly extra for many big name cameras. Finally there is an easy to understand full color printed manual and a CD-ROM which contains a TWAIN driver and a copy of MGI PhotoSuite SE for editing your photos.
So what's the camera like in use? Well, let's get the bad things out of the way first... It takes several seconds to power on, a few seconds to save each picture, it eats batteries and the screen is of low quality. But every single one of those complaints can be aimed at any early digital camera, even ones costing many times more. So if we refrain from comparing to modern cameras it's only faults are due to the age of the technology. As a camera of its time it's perfectly acceptable.
Now on to the good... As long as there is enough light the photos are perfectly respectable given their limited 640x480 resolution. Dynamic range is poor, as is overall sharpness, but I suspect a big brand camera with a higher quality lens wouldn't do much better as the sensor is likely the limiting factor at this low resolution, not the lens. In fact, In fact, wandering around Times Square in New York City early one morning, where the tall buildings block out much of the sky and light, I was pleasantly supplied by the results which are much better than the earlier cameras like the first Sony Mavicas which were based on video camera technology and needed to scan two frames off the sensor to get the full resolution which often left horrible interlacing artifacts. At the time no digital camera would get close to the quality you'd get from any 35mm compact film camera, but remember that you'd have to wait to finish an entire roll of film and then wait again for it to be developed (either a few days to save money or within an hour if you were prepared to pay more) and even then you'd need a scanner at home to get the files into your computer or pay an additional fee to have them on Kodak Photo CD from the processors. The convenience offered by this camera at that time at least for snapshots or when speed was more important than quality, made this camera a reasonable buy for the average consumer who just wanted to email a few snapshots over the early Internet. High end models costing $1,000 may have offered double the horizontal and vertical resolution, but the quality still wasn't earth shattering, and you'd likely resize the images down before emailing them as emailing even one of these low resolution 80KB pictures with the 56K modems of the time would take 30 seconds or more.
The camera has very little purpose today, literally any form of digital camera from $10 keychain models to the worst cell phone will provide better results than the Photocam. But if you mess around with old Windows 95 hardware like I do there's something to be said for using a camera of the period to get the full experience and easily get images into those machines as you may be surprised how convoluted a process it can be to do so from modern cameras, remember you have no USB, WiFi or Bluetooth and good luck finding.a cable to connect your iPhone to a 9 pin serial port!
1997 me would have loved this camera as I already had a homepage back then and with zero ongoing cost I'd have taken many more photos than I did with the film camera I actually owned at the time. As a wise man once said, the best camera is the one you have with you and actually use, and I would have taken this everywhere...Sample Photos (straight from the camera, no retouching or adjustments):