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Fujifilm Real 3D W3

October 31st, 2010
Fujifilm keeps 3D photography going in its second generation.

Fujifilm often likes to stake a claim in areas where its rivals haven't gone before, and 3D is no exception; the company is still the only one to have a mainstream 3D camera. The FinePix Real 3D W3 is building on a formula with 720p 3D video and 3D output over HDMI, but are the improvements enough to justify $500 on what's still bleeding edge technology? Our Real 3D W3 review should answer that question. Design and the '3D' display

If you've used the original Real 3D W1, the W3 will seem mostly like a mild revision. It's more rounded and sleeker looking, but the body is largely the same formula, with two very compact 3X lenses and a flash in between. For the most part, this works: it's a thick body and won't fit in a small pants pocket, but it's easy to hold, the controls fall easily to hand, and the sliding lens cover is simple to flick up or down. Fujifilm has quite smartly put in dedicated 2D/3D and movie recording toggles, so you can change your photography format no matter what settings you're already using. A parallax slider is present to adjust the 3D effect; you'll read more on this later.

Our main complaints for the design are simply the lack of hardware controls in what's supposed to be a high-end compact camera. The mode dial's vertical position isn't all that easy to thumb through and sometimes results in overshooting the target; it really needs to be up top. More importantly, there's no dedicated dials for any other settings, such as ISO sensitivity or exposure compensation. Most point-and-shoot cameras don't have these, but when your camera is priced in the same territory as a Canon PowerShot G12 or a Nikon Coolpix P7000, the omission is fairly glaring.

The ports are a mixed bag like with other modern Fujifilm cameras. The W3 likely has the first instance of a mini HDMI 1.4 port; apart from providing a straightforward connection to a TV, it opens the door to viewing your photos and movies much like you would a 3D Blu-ray movie. The caveat, of course, is simply having the TV itself. We didn't have one on hand, so be prepared to spend the typically $2,000-plus it takes to get a 3D set with glasses if this is a regular feature. Moreover, Fujifilm still hasn't given up on its proprietary port for both analog video and USB. While it's convenient for consolidating ports, it's a genuine problem if you ever lose Fujifilm's cable. You won't have the option of reusing another USB cable from a third-party in a pinch. Especially for a camera this large, we'd much rather see extra space used up for a standard RCA output and a mini USB jack.

There's also no microphone input, but in this case it's excusable: partly because of the 3D, there are two microphones for a stereo effect built into the camera. Storage is very direct SD card storage.

The large 3.5-inch display is arguably the centerpiece of the camera and is still unique in being the only mainstream screen to show 3D images without needing glasses. However, it's not as impressive as the true, pop-out effect 3D that the Nintendo 3DS should have. Fujifilm is using the same trick that you might find for 3D and "magic" images from cereal box prizes or other novelty cards: tilting the W3 left or right will show you the image from the left or right lens. That's not to trivialize it, however; it's a good way of seeing what each lens produced independently, and a quick left-right rocking motion will produce a reasonably convincing simulation of the depth of the scene. You'll occasionally get awkward moments where it appears to be blending two disparate images together.

The screen's main limits are simply for direct 2D performance. The resolution is merely adequate for the size, and it's not an extremely vivid recreation of the colors. Outdoor visibility also tends to vary, as it's fine most of the time but can be very hard to see in bright sunlight. It's not unusual, just not exceptional.

3D shooting and the export problem

At its most basic, the Real 3D W3 makes 3D shooting no more complicated than 2D. Most modes can shoot in 3D, and in many cases it's just a shutter press that works. We liked that you can still shoot 3D in more advanced but conventional modes, such as aperture priority or full manual. You can't change settings individual to each lens, but that would ruin the 3D effect.

What's most impressive is simply the level of control over the 3D effect itself. Fujifilm has gone to significant lengths to make sure that knowledgeable photographers can fine-tune it. At a minimum, it's relatively easy to go into playback mode and either expand or constrict the parallax effect using the slider. Gauging what's required if anything is tricky, but it's there and it works. More interesting to us was the Advanced 3D mode. If you like, you can either take the two shots manually to alter the stereo separation or set them to go off automatically at a fixed interval, such as 1.5 seconds apart. Even if many of us won't ever need that control, it's an appreciated level of concern for what's still a very new field of photography.

Videos can record in 3D, too, and they can even shoot in the same 720p as if you were shooting in 2D. You can't individually adjust each lens, since each has to have the same zoom and sensor behavior, but it's simple to activate. Regardless of the mode, you're always aware whether or not the result is going to come out in 3D. It's possible to save every photo or video in a standard format like JPEG or AVI, so you won't be stuck without a usable copy of the shot.

Below: the two shots (in JPEG) that compose a final 3D image

The first problems creep up simply by virtue of the lenses. While the 35mm equivalent minimum distance is good for 2D photography, Fujifilm lists a 75mm baseline length on the lenses for good reason. Get too close to a subject and the 3D effect is largely ineffective. As such, most 3D shots will be mid-range. You're just as likely to lose the effect at long range, since the stereo separation becomes negligible. Much of this is an unavoidable reality of stereoscopic 3D, but we'd really like if Fujifilm could find a way to allow for near-macro 3D shots. Face detection also won't work in 3D, which could be very handy for getting a 3D family portrait without having to refocus.

More important is just the matter of getting the 3D images off the camera. Fujifilm is using rare MPO and 3D-AVI formats for the actual 3D, so it's not possible to just import the images and see them in 3D on a computer in any app or to post them to the web. In fact, the choice locks out certain computer owners altogether. We primarily use Macs, and the software Fujifilm includes with the W3 makes no mention of supporting either MPO or 3D-AVI. Short of manually stitching together a 3D image with specialized software, it won't work. And again, without a 3D TV, it's not possible to preview the images beyond the camera itself. Using this camera in 3D mode is akin to being stranded on an island with tremendous wealth. You could theoretically enjoy what you have, but the sheer isolation renders much of the benefit null and void.

2D shooting and image quality

Ironically, we found the real advantage of the W3's dual lenses and sensors was in traditional 2D photography. While it can work as a regular point-and-shoot, it works best when you exploit the lenses to shoot two different images. Our favorite was the dual-zoom mode in Advanced 2D; you can zoom into a subject as you normally would but still get a minimum zoom, wide-angle image in case you missed something or prefer a landscape shot. In other instances, you can change the ISO sensitivity and color balance for each. If you're still new to manual settings or know that you're not a great judge of settings, this can be a good way to experiment without missing an important shot.

We like that Fujifilm still provides a reasonable level of manual control for 2D shooting. Veterans if they like can adjust both aperture and shutter speed as well as more refined details like exposure and metering. The absence of corresponding physical controls, however, is a definite pain. While the menus are very easy to navigate, having to dip into a two- or three-step menu to change common settings isn't what you expect in a high-end compact camera.

Bottom two shots: simultaneous zoom and wide-angle shots. Notice overbright highlights on the photos

What's less than thrilling is the image output itself. Fujifilm can produce some genuinely good quality: we're enamored with EXR models in particular, since they can bring out natural images and generally look good. The W3 just didn't measure up. Most obvious, for us, was a strong tendency to blow out shots. Some turned out fine, but we saw tremendously overblown highlights outdoors at what should have been a reasonable ISO 200 in auto or aperture priority modes, and even slightly overbright images at ISO 100. Either the official sensitivity ratings aren't accurate or the camera is prone to clipping highlight detail very quickly. We've taken shots with many other cameras in similar lighting levels that were much better exposed.

Many of the common problems with very small point-and-shoot sensors and their lenses also crept up. Outdoor shots were fairly free of purple fringing (chromatic aberration), but we had a genuinely hard time getting shots that weren't overly soft or low contrast, even in environments where it shouldn't have been an issue. Noise isn't a major issue, but it does creep up sooner than in other cameras in this price range owing to the smaller sensors.

Movie capture does fare better. Compared to some 720p-capable cameras, the 2D video is relatively high bitrate and doesn't show many compression artifacts, although it's clear it's not one-for-one lossless footage. The main issue is again just the sensor quality. It's still overexposed, and there's a mild amount of judder as well as slow exposure adjustment. Having said this, it's better image quality than some cameras we've seen, where excessive compression has negated the advantage of HD. It's clear you're shooting at a higher resolution here. Audio quality is good, too, thanks to the stereo microphones picking up a wider audio field.

Low-light photography is really not the focus of the camera, but we'll say that the flash is adequate, if unspectacular. The ISO 1,600 sensitivity ceiling is also a clue that it tends to get very noisy at its higher settings. Both are par for the course on compacts, but we'd hope for more with the W3.

Wrapping up

In using the W3 during testing, we couldn't help but keep thinking of it as portable lab: it's a set of experiments bundled together in a single camera. There's enough here to test and play with that just seeing what works can be fun in itself. If you have a 3D TV, a 3D-enabled Windows computer or both, you'll have the unique treat of seeing your own content produced in 3D. Fujifilm has also produced a fairly well-built and well-designed camera.

The dilemma here is just the steep price and what it represents. As much as we were hoping this would be a high-end camera with 3D as just one of the formulas, Fujifilm's design is much more like a $200 camera with $300 extra to accommodate all the extra equipment necessary to make it 3D. Apart from a good amount of control over using the two lenses, there hasn't been much attention paid to the overall quality. What's the advantage of shooting in 3D if most other aspects feel like steps down?

This wouldn't be as much of an issue if it weren't for the ecosystem surrounding the camera. Right now, taking advantage of the Real 3D system requires spending thousands of dollars to see the images in their intended format, and publishing it requires specific apps. For this camera to be worth the investment, you need to already have a 3D TV or computer display in your home. It's certainly unlikely that most anyone will buy a desktop LCD or TV just to use the W3. We're not going to say that 3D won't work out over time, but it's far too early to jump in.

At $500, buyers would be better served by getting a Canon G12, Nikon P7000 or even the entry-level DSLRs that are now approaching the price range. If you're shopping within Fujifilm's own range, the F300 EXR, F80 EXR and HS10 are all good choices for day-to-day shooting. You'll miss out on 3D, but you'll be happier with more of your results and get more flexibility and control over the final shot. Being on the bleeding edge can sometimes be exciting, but with cameras like the Real 3D W3, sometimes you're just left bleeding.

- Still the only real 3D camera on the market.

- Significant manual control over 2D and 3D.

- Glasses-free 3D viewing.

- Clever use of dual lenses for simultaneous shots.

- Reasonably good 720p video and stereo sound.

- Side-by-side capture of 2D with 3D.

- Lackluster image quality; leans to overexposed, soft images.

- Seeing 3D requires an expensive TV or desktop display.

- 3D formats don't work with Macs or most software.

- Too expensive compared to equivalent 2D cameras.

- Poor in low light.