Fuji Finepix M603
Review Date: 20th November 2003
Ease of Use
The most immediate and striking thing about the M603 camera is the massive 2.5 inch LCD screen that dominates the back of the camera. It makes composing pictures and movies very easy, which is a good thing as there is no optical viewfinder. The large LCD is a little difficult to use in bright sunlight, but attaching the supplied lenshood to the camera helps to cut down on unwanted reflections. The LCD only has 118,000 pixels, which for such a large screen is quite low, making the display appear more pixellated than other cameras. But then again most other cameras have a 1.6 or 1.8 inch screen, so I'll forgive Fuji on this count.
The M603 is a very similar camera in use to the Olympus µ[mju:] 400 Digital camera that I reviewed a few weeks ago. It's a camera that you can pick up, play around with and work out how to use the main functions within an hour, and then learn about the rest by reading the well-written user manual. The camera's menu system is clean and uncluttered, helped by the fact that there are only ever a maximum of 6 menus at once, with a smaller number of options for each one.
The M603 is potentially slightly more complex than other digital cameras, simply because it can record movies as well as still images. The Fuji designers have avoided any problems, however, by using a single switch which selects the three basic modes; Still, Play and Movie, and a single button to turn the camera on and off. The only downside to this approach is when the camera is turned on and you change from Still or Movie mode to Play mode, the lens automatically retracts into the camera body. When you change back to Still or Movie mode, you have to wait for the lens to extend again. You can't view the images that you have taken unless the camera is set to Play mode, so this can get very annoying if you want to regularly review your images.
The various buttons on the rear of the camera are a little on the small side and may be fiddly to operate if you have large hands. Even the 4-direction button which sits in the middle of the camera is small; I found that operating it using my thumbnail was easier than using my thumb itself.
Apart from the 6 controls on the back, there is only the zoom switch and shutter release button to comment on. One thing that initially confused me is that optical zoom and digital zoom are both operated by the same switch. When you zoom in and out, a vertical bar appears on the left side of the LCD with a horizontal mark at the middle. A small square indicates what zoom setting the camera is currently set to, with optical zoom shown in the bottom half of the vertical scale and digital zoom at the top. I didn't realise this and thought that the horizontal mark at the middle just indicated the middle setting on the 38-76mm zoom; consequently some of the sample images were taken using the digital zoom, rather than the optical. As digital zoom negatively affects image quality, I think Fuji should have separated to two types of zoom, not combined them in the way that they have. It may give the M603 a greater zoom range, but it does so at the expense of image quality at the longer zoom settings. Worse still, there is no way to turn digital zoom off.
The rectangular shape of the M603 means that at first it is a little uncomfortable to hold. I found the best method was to support the top-left hand corner of the camera with my left hand and the bottom of the camera with my left hand thumb, then operate the zoom and shutter release controls with my right hand. There is a a hand grip at the back of the camera, but I tended not to use it.
The M603 on the whole is well constructed, being built of a mixture of brushed aluminium and a few plastic parts. It certainly looks very stylish and will no doubt impress your friends, especially when they see the lens cover slide across and the lens automatically extend out of the camera body. Less impressive, however, is the very flimsy cover for the memory card slot, which I'm convinced will snap off at some point in the camera's lifetime. If you buy a big enough memory card, I guess you won't have to remove it from the camera too often, but even still this is still really acceptable in my view.
There are a number of different accessories supplied in the Premium kit that I reviewed which help to make the M603 even easier to use than it already is. The PictureCradle is a very similar idea to Kodak's EasyShare system, or the HotSync cradle that my Palm handheld device uses. The PictureCradle connects to a USB port on your PC via the supplied USB cradle, and to the mains power view the AC adaptor. Then you open the sliding cover of the USB connector on the bottom of the camera and place it into the PictureCradle. The camera automatically starts recharging its battery, or you can press the button on front of the cradle to begin transferring images from the camera to PC. A simple and neat way of getting your images onto your computer.
The other accessory that I liked was the supplied LCD lens hood, which clips onto the top of the M603 and helps to shade the LCD from bright sunlight, making it easier to see and compose images. As the LCD is so large, you'll probably find yourself using the hood a lot of the time. The only slight downside is that the camera doesn't fit into its case with the hood attached. Less useful in my opinion is the hand-grip supplied with the camera, which I think is meant to turn it into a mini-camcorder. I fitted it to see what it was, had a quick go, then put it back in the box.
Ultimately the M603, despite being able to record images in a large number of different ways, is a simple camera to understand and operate, due largely to the fact that there aren't too many parameters that the user can directly control. Switching from Auto to Manual mode only gives you an extra three options to set (white balance, ISO speed and exposure compensation). I can't help feeling that despite this simplicity, there a few fundamental flaws that make it more complex to operate than it should be. The integrated optical/digital zoom is top of my list of dislikes, closely followed by the extending/retracting lens when you switch from Still or Movie mode to Play mode, and the poorly designed memory card cover.