Letters from Somnolescent July 13, 2019

Cammy vs. the PhotoCam

by mariteaux

The AOL PhotoCam

I’ve long liked early digital cameras. There’s a really specific era of 95-98 or so where digital cameras were, by some measures, atrocious, and by others, absolutely fantastic. Their bad CCDs, chunky design, and inconsistent featureset makes them fascinating and a topic of my obsession for a few months now. I would absolutely take pictures out and about with one, they’re that appealing to me. Having drooled over a few of LGR’s long enough, I decided I wanted an early digital camera of my own.

I am still looking. Here’s my misadventure for your amusement.

So first thing’s first, I decided on what I would need out of one of these cameras, since I didn’t just want a non-functioning piece of plastic:

  • It needed to take CompactFlash (CF) cards. CF was an early standard for consumer flash memory that usually found its niche in digital cameras of the time. Nowadays, they’ve been totally supplanted by SD cards or internal storage. More importantly for me, I only have legacy-free PCs without serial ports around the house, and early USB cameras were often too new for what I wanted. Thus, external memory would be preferred.
  • It needed to shoot in 640×480. Megapixel counts rose sharply towards the new millennium, and the murky quality of the images fell off. I don’t want mere low-end images, I want pictures that are noisy, with artifacted colors and weird low-light problems. Shit for the time even.
  • Preferably, it came in a more traditional body, or had some way of me carrying it around hands-free. I just really like the look of a chunky camera with a lens sticking out of it. A lot of early digital cameras tried experimenting with designs that just aren’t terribly appealing to me. Aesthetics matter.
  • Obviously, it needs to work.

The problem comes down to that first one. CF started getting added to cameras in 1998 and onward, which is just out of the tail end of the time period I’d like to get from. Now, I wasn’t necessarily opposed to using another form of media, but as you’ll soon see, I’m basically locked into the CF ecosystem at this point.

I’m sure a few will immediately point towards the Sony Mavica line, a curious batch of cameras that later shot JPEG on 3.5″ floppies. These were pretty perfect, but really, only the FD5 fit the bill, the earliest of the floppy Mavicas. Later ones just look like weak modern cameras—again, not really what I want. I spent long nights picking through the Digitalkamera Museum, which is an indispensable resource for still cameras (like the earliest Mavicas) and early digital cameras alike, looking for the perfect camera for me.

And then came the AOL PhotoCam. First, though, a little history.

Pretec DC-600, the OEM PhotoCam

The AOL PhotoCam was a rebadged Pretec DC-600. A common tactic of the time was to get OEMs and proper camera manufacturers to do their thing, and then to rebrand the front with a better known name, or the name of a company not commonly associated with the camera business. Apple did this with the QuickTake line of early digital cameras, with the 100 and 150 being manufactured by Kodak and the 200 being manufactured by Fujifilm.

So good ol’ AOL, being who they were in 1998, launched a service with Kodak called “You’ve Got Pictures!”, providing anyone the ability to get their film rolls turned into digital prints along with their standard physical prints. The user simply provided whoever was developing the roll their AOL screen name, and the pictures would be available through the traditional AOL portal. On launch, this service was available at over 30,000 locations.

But what if you didn’t wanna wait the 48 hours for the prints?

AOL wasn’t gonna leave consumers hanging, no sir, and marketed two purely digital cameras along with the service. Initially, it was the PhotoCam and PhotoCam Plus, as mentioned a rebadged Pretec camera with the only difference being the onboard storage. (AOL later, or perhaps earlier, released an “AOL digiCam”, which, despite being readily available online second-hand, I can find literally nothing about. Even the aforementioned Digitalkamera Museum has failed me on this.) It shot 640×480 and took CF cards, and it’s AOL branded. That was it, I thought, that’s the one.

At first glance, there were two listings available on eBay, which I should mention, I’m still rather new to. One (a Plus, even) was up for a reserve bid of $15 and free economy shipping, and it came with the camera itself, the power cord, the manual, and an AOL-emblazoned “leather” carrying case. All in all, a pretty damn good deal, especially given eBay’s extra $5 off they just randomly gave me.

I was getting fillings by the time the auction was over, but I won it, and the thing was due to arrive the 5th. Beyond hype.

And that’s where this falls apart.

The exact listing text

The guy who listed this thing didn’t actually say if it was working or not, only that it was in “used” and in “good condition”. Yeah, I’m sure people are already calling buyer beware, but hear me out. eBay has an option in the “item specifics” where you can list it as “for parts or not working”. This is distinct from “used”; used is, and I quote:

Used: An item that has been used previously. The item may have some signs of cosmetic wear, but is fully operational and functions as intended. This item may be a floor model or store return that has been used. See the seller’s listing for full details and description of any imperfections.

This person, I’d argue, listed it as fully operational without explicitly saying it was. The “good condition” bit in the description is also pretty negligent, and I’ll get into why in a moment.

So why didn’t you get in contact with the seller?

Ah, see, there we get to the fun part. My own naivete when it came to buying second-hand used electronics made me trust what the listing implied, and not “everything is not working unless explicitly said to be working”. Nevertheless, I ordered it. I even ordered a 32mb CF card (the largest the PhotoCam will take) and a reader for the thing, also set to arrive the 5th. I eagerly watched the package ship from New Jersey to my doorstep, and that takes us to the day I got it.

Everything the camera came with

I unboxed the thing. It came carefully wrapped in bubbly goodness, smelled terrible, and looked to be in good shape at first blush. Came with everything the listing said it did, and I got ready to install the 4 AA batteries the thing takes.

And found the battery door wouldn’t stay closed.

Yeah, the battery door was limp, and despite clicking into place, refused to stay closed, batteries installed or not. Worse yet, even with batteries inserted and my thumb forcing it closed, the thing refused to turn on.

I grabbed the wall adapter and tried that, both with and without batteries. It still didn’t turn on.

Yeah, so now I’m sitting on this camera and trying to figure out what to do. I’ll probably ship the shit back, complain at the guy, and call it a day. The other listing is still around, but I’m not really sure I want to justify more money and annoyance on what’s basically a cute curiosity right this moment, especially given that the shipping outweighs the camera itself. The other one’s merely a PhotoCam, but given that I’m not using the onboard storage, this isn’t an issue anyway.

I guess I’m not totally attached to this specific model, but boy, does it check all the boxes for me. In the hands, it feels great. It has the AOL logo prominently on the top and front. The manual is a curious read. The specs are perfect, the time period is perfect…and I’ll probably break and get the other one anyway. Not sure if my heart could take a second one going bad, though, so I’ll be talking to that similarly-ambiguous seller and getting specifics if I do.

Manual scan (for AOL members only)

One silver lining, if you can call it that, is that I now really like CF cards. This one’s only a 32mb, but the reader is great and I like that they’re basically chunky SD cards. Would I dump more money on higher-capacity cards and back up to them? Likely not, SD is a much cheaper alternative and this reader does those too, but the whole thing’s made me appreciate removable flash storage a little more. Given my last little tech failure, I might just start relying on them.

And please, think of your pal Cammy when you list stuff on eBay—if you didn’t actually test the fucking thing, do tell me.

About mariteaux

Somnolescent's webmaster with way too much to write about and a stack of CDs he'll never finish.

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