Desktop darkroom

You've bought a digital camera, or you're about to make the leap - no film, no negatives, no fuss. But there's another side to digital photography: the downloads, the tweaking, the printing, the archiving.

Sound complicated? It isn't, if you know the ropes and have the right tools. We show you the simplest and best ways of transferring your pictures to a PC, enhancing them, and sharing them online.

So, take that digital camera to the footy, to your sister's wedding, and to your next family barbecue. And read on for a bonanza of tips telling how to make the most of your desktop darkroom.

Transfer

Nearly every digital camera comes with the cable and software you need to transfer your photographs (which are usually stored on an included CompactFlash or SmartMedia card) to a PC. Using the bundled cable consumes a camera's battery power, and the process can be tedious - if the cable is too short, for example. For an easier and faster method that doesn't drain your camera's battery, invest $80 to $220 in a memory card reader.

Many card readers plug into a desktop's USB or parallel port and behave like any other external storage drive. Cable-free card readers are also available: for example, you can insert a FlashPath floppy disk adapter right into a computer's floppy drive. Another cable-free option is a PC Card adapter that allows you to plug a memory card first into the adapter and then into a notebook's PC Card slot.

After a card reader is installed, Windows assigns a "drive letter to the reader (except in the case of floppy adapters, which retain the floppy's A: drive designation). As a result, you can easily access stored images on your CompactFlash or SmartMedia memory card through Windows Explorer and other standard applications.

Almost every memory card reader we evaluated outperformed a USB cable hookup from a digital camera to a desktop system. Most of the readers transferred digital photos at speeds ranging from one-quarter to one-third faster compared to using the camera's bundled USB cable.

The PC Card adapters performed the best, but only by an eyelash. The only exception to the memory card adapters' speedy results: FlashPath floppy disk adapters for SmartMedia cards were far slower at the task than any other transfer method.

For this card reader evaluation, we tested 13 readers with various interface and media combinations. In determining our top choices, we looked for speedy transfers and a reasonable price. If your digital camera uses CompactFlash memory cards and your PC has a USB connection, we recommend using the $88 SanDisk CompactFlash ImageMate (www.sandisk.com). If your USB port is on the front of your PC rather than on the back, go with Microtech's $106 ZiO (www.microtechint.com), a compact, cable-free reader.

If your camera stores images on a SmartMedia card, try the $83 SmartMedia USB Reader from Lexar Media (www.lexarmedia.com). If you need to handle both CompactFlash and SmartMedia, consider using Microtech's $215 CameraMate USB or Lexar Media's $169 Universal Digital Film Reader USB.

Finally, if you use a notebook, the fastest, most convenient option is to use a PC Card adapter. Check out the $25 SanDisk PC Card Adapter for CompactFlash. SmartMedia card users can obtain the Olympus PC Card adapter for a steep $178.

- Melissa J. Perenson and Grace Aquino

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