HP has issued a refresh to the Photosmart M line with the new M547. The upgrade purports to improve on the already solid M537, but we're seeing more in the way of tradeoffs than enhancements. While the M547 does offer a slight bump in megapixels--from 6.0 to 6.2--and supports larger-capacity SDHC flash cards, buyers will have to compromise with a smaller 2.4-inch screen and some degradation in picture quality.
At 3.8 x 1.5 x 2.5 inches and 4.8 ounces without batteries (6.4 ounces with batteries), the M547 felt solid without weighing us down. The 2.4-inch QVGA screen was bright indoors but tended to wash out in very bright sunlight. The interface is simple and lacking in manual controls, but that shouldn't be a problem for most bargain hunters. The Power and Shutter buttons occupy the top of the camera; Delete, Flash, and a mode switch sit atop the LCD screen. Zoom, Menu, Back, and directional buttons occupy the right side.
The 3X optical zoom proved fine for indoor shots and close-range outdoor shots. HP's Steady Photo feature worked superbly even when we were intentionally shaking the camera during our test shots. On our tests, most pictures were sharp, but colors were inaccurate, especially in less-than-optimal lighting conditions. Pictures taken at the normal and best setting (6 MP) were subject to a slight bit of noise and artifacts; the medium setting (4 MP) produced much better results.
Like the M537, the M547 supports multiple scene modes, including Close Up, Steady Photo, Theatre, Landscape, Portrait, Action, Night Portrait, and Sunset. The Close-Up mode greatly reduced red-eye, and when it did show up, we were easily able to remove it right on the camera. Action mode made catching a diving shortstop mid-frame easy and accurate, but even with the Night Portrait and Sunset settings engaged, low-light conditions produced noisy shots. We would have preferred manual ISO settings; instead, the M547 automatically switches among four levels depending upon the shot (100/200/400/800).
The Burst mode worked well. We were able to snap two to three pictures per second until our memory card was full, and the half-second shutter time proved quick enough to catch a fleeing rabbit from under some wooded brush. The M547 comes with only 16MB of built-in memory, but HP's support for SDHC cards means you can pop in an 8GB card for more space.
The M547 uses ordinary AA batteries as well as rechargeable NiMH batteries, so while you can't plug into an AC adapter, you can grab some AAs at the drug store in a pinch. Lack of a lithium-ion battery is an acceptable tradeoff for the low price.
Video certainly isn't this budget digicam's strong suit; it records low-res 320 x 240-pixel footage at only 24 fps. You can't change the 4:3 ratio, which looked awkward on a widescreen laptop. Video was also grainy and choppy on our tests and didn't compensate well for quick movements. On the plus side, transferring videos to a laptop was easy using the included Photosmart Essential software.
While the M547 keeps the same rock-bottom price point as the M537, many of the "upgrades" simply weren't necessary. If you're in the market for a quality budget camera, we still recommend the M537 over this one.
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