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 first thing I want to point out, is that despite AOL proudly proclaiming that this camera was designed by AOL exclusively for its members, it is simply a re-badged DC-600 (or DC-620 if you bought the AOL Photocam Plus model which had more on-board memory) by the OEM company "Pretec" and was sold under that brand as well as Mirage, Claxan, Premier and possibly Praktica. The kit as supplied is quite well featured with everything you need to get going, even the batteries which surprisingly are high quality Duracell Ultras, although the 22 year old ones in my box had leaked...

 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. 

TWAIN was the standard used by software to communicate with many imaging devices, so by providing a TWAIN driver the camera was instantly compatible with any image editing software that supported scanners, which is to say most software. Flash drives that would appear on your desktop for drag and drop copying via USB were not a thing yet with USB largely being used to connect keyboards, mice and printers. This sadly means you can't connect this camera to the USB port on your modern computer and expect to be able to transfer photos even if you find the right cable...

 

From the front the camera looks like any other low end compact but it's worth noting the lens is offset to one side with the optical viewfinder closer to the middle. The closer an object is to the camera the more likely you are to chop a part of it off if relying on the viewfinder due to parallax error. It's worth noting that some early digital cameras did not have. flash, unlike the Photocam.

The top panel contains the majority of the buttons, all of which are very squidgy and lifeless. The power button and the play/record mode button are on the right, with the latter letting you switch between photo taking mode and viewing the saved images. The 4 buttons grouped on the left allow you to view additional information on the screen, turn the screen on and off (useful to save battery if you're comfortable relying on the optical viewfinder), erase an image or quickly see thumbnails of all saved images instead of scrolling through them. The switch on the right switches focus between distant and close objects. 

A flap on the left hand side opens up to reveal the ports. The top is a 3.5mm composite video out for connecting to a TV or VCR via the supplied RCA cable, beneath that is the 6V DC in jack for the included AC power adapter (the camera does not recharge batteries). Finally we have a 3.5mm jack labelled digital which uses the included cable to connect to a 9 pin serial port and below that we have a USB port for connecting to Windows 98 computers although the cable is not included in the box.

 

Underneath the camera is a slot for a Compact Flash card (up to 32MB) for expanded storage, and the battery compartment which takes 4 AA's. There appears to be a screw hole for a tripod but it's smaller than any I've seen and it won't fit on the head of my Manfrotto. There is also what looks like an adjustment wheel of some sort but this is not mentioned in the manual. It has a "sun" icon next to it so I'm guessing it may be some sort of calibration adjuster for the exposure?

The rear of the camera sports a power-on "ready" indicator which is useful as the camera does take a few seconds to power up. The rear screen is low resolution and quite washed out, not unusual for the time. The menu button on the right allows you to access the camera settings with the two buttons below being used to scroll through the menus or photos depending on what you're doing at the time. These two buttons double as self timer and flash on/off overrides when in picture taking mode.

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):

 




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