With the Kodak DC40 and a PC or a Mac, you can shoot, download, and E-mail color pictures in no time flat

Nine in the morning. Roof Beam Construction Inc. Boss Jane says: "Get out to the worksite and tell me what you see. Better yet, E-mail me some pictures. Either way, by this afternoon I gotta know if we're on track, or it's going to cost us."

Off to (road) war again. You grab the laptop and the digital camera and head for the door. On site, you shoot the shopping center that is going up, download the pics to the notebook, and E-mail them with comments to the boss. She reviews the photos on-screen or prints them out, and then takes informed corrective action.

Just one scenario, but you get the idea. Fast execution, near-instant review, and easy transmission: those are the hallmarks of the digital camera, or "digicam." Under what other circumstances can you take a color picture, proof it, and send it to someone far away -- all in five minutes and using only battery power?

I used the well-rated Kodak DC40 (Eastman Kodak Co., 800-23KODAK, $679) to figure out where a digicam shines and where it fails to meet expectations. The jet-black camera is very light and about the size of a thick paperback. It comes with viewing software, instructions, and a cable to connect it to a computer's serial port. Like a modern fixed focal-length point-and-shoot camera, the digicam has a built-in flash and lens cover. The user only has to frame and shoot; the camera takes care of all other mechanical functions. However, it differs from a modern point-and-shoot camera in two important ways: You can take up to 48 high-resolution or 99 low-resolution pictures before you have to download or erase files. And you can review the pictures anytime on a PC or a Mac.

To do the latter, you simply connect the camera to a computer using the proprietary cable and view the pictures with the bundled utility PhotoEnhancer for Windows. The image you get is a digital file, which can be readily saved, converted to a variety of graphic formats, graphically altered, embedded in a document, or transmitted. In contrast, conventional film has to be developed, and the pictures must be scanned into a computer before they can be manipulated in any way.

PhotoEnhancer for Windows controls both the pictures and the camera. It enables you to download, view, manipulate, save, and print the pictures, as well as to erase the images and to change the imaging resolution. It also performs less essential functions, such as saving pictures as TIFF or BMP graphics; rotating, softening, and cropping images; and adjusting color and contrast. It occupies only 10 MB of hard-disk space. You can count on using about 100 K for each image saved in the Kodak format and about 1 MB for each TIFF-formatted picture.

The digicam is unbeatable if your primary photographic need is to take pictures and quickly send them electronically. It's also very handy if you need to embed pictures easily and quickly in documents. But if you're not in a hurry, the camera's benefits are less apparent. Its most glaring shortcoming is image quality: you won't get perfect color matching, and you certainly won't get definition. The digicam hits the wall at 756 x 504 pixels -- not a huge problem if you take its image as is, but a serious limitation if you want to enlarge the image to zoom in on a certain spot. For example, a group picture at the holiday office party looks OK in 4- x 6-inch format from a color printer. But when you enlarge the shot, the boss's face turns into an unrecognizable collage of fuzzy squares.

Other shortcomings include a high price tag and the lack of an optical zoom. Although there are screw-on lenses that will give your digicam wide-angle or telephoto capability, their power is limited -- and who wants to mess with 1950s-style screw mounts anyway? Of course, Kodak's answer is that you don't need an optical zoom because you can enlarge the picture digitally. Not true -- unless you're after some weird mosaic effect. The bottom line is that your legs are the zoom.

But these are minor quibbles. What ultimately determines the digicam's worth is how fast you need the pictures. What makes it so hard to resist is that it offers instant gratification. It is truly a tool for the 1990s.

David Abrahamson (dabrahamson@cis.compuserve.com) is a major in the U.S. army, stationed in Japan.