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The Latest on Digital Cameras


The Latest on Digital Cameras

STATE OF THE ART: All This, And They Take Pictures, Too

Published: December 9, 2004

EVERY occupation entails answering certain frequently asked questions at parties. If you're a jeweler, it may be, ''Do you ever give discounts to friends?'' If you're a therapist, it's, ''Can I ask you about this hypothetical guy I know?'' If you're a dermatologist, it's, ''Will you just have a quick look at this thing on my back?''

And if you're a technology columnist, it's, ''What digital camera should I get?''

Since 2001, I've conducted semiregular roundups of the latest digital cameras. (To prevent the FedEx boxes from burying my entire front yard, I limit the survey's entrants to those with a street price under $300.)

Over the last four years, the cameras have blossomed. Crude point-and-shooters have become attractive, compact wonders with full manual controls and circuitry that's fast enough to capture full-TV-screen movies with sound.

The resolution has shot up, too. Four years ago, $300 bought a 2.2-megapixel camera, enough resolution for 5-by-7-inch prints at best. Today, a $300 camera gives you four, five or even six megapixels, enough for poster-size prints. (More practically, more megapixels means the freedom to crop out unwanted background or family members and still have enough pixels left for, say, a decent 8-by-10 print. More megapixels does not mean better color, contrast or clarity, as you'll find out shortly.)

Some things, alas, haven't changed. You still don't get a reasonably sized memory card with your purchase; that's an extra $40 to $80. (Many cameras in this bracket now come with a few megabytes of built-in memory, which is useful if you're ever caught without a free memory card. But it fills up after about four shots of the Christmas tree.)

This year's respondents included Canon, Casio, Fuji, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung, Sony and Vivitar. Several of them sell a number of cameras in this price range. So I asked each company to submit only one model: whichever one takes the best pictures.

The lessons of this year's roundup are clear. First, thin is in. The manufacturers figure that making a camera microscopic makes it more fashionable -- and makes it more likely that you'll have it with you when one of life's photo ops pops up.

Second, thin can't win; shrinking a camera's guts inevitably compromises its photographic prowess. This year, the two cameras that take the best pictures happen to be two of the biggest, although they're certainly pocketable. (For sample photos, see the slideshow at

Unless noted otherwise, all of these are four-megapixel cameras with 3X optical zoom, a proprietary rechargeable battery and a built-in, self-closing lens cap. Alas, all of them suffer from shutter lag, an infuriating half- or one-second delay between the time you mash the shutter and the time the camera focuses and snaps. (Half-pressing to prefocus is the only surefire workaround.)

NIKON COOLPIX 5200 -- As it turns out, there's no correlation between the size of a camera and the number of megapixels it captures. Nikon's latest is petite (3.5 by 2.3 by 1.4 inches), but it captures 5.1-megapixel photos.

This metal-clad, beautifully sculptured $287 model is great for capturing movies and close-ups, even from two inches away. Few cameras offer as many canned settings for fireworks, beach/snow, sunset, and so on, although that may be to make up for the absence of manual controls (manual focus, shutter speed and aperture adjustments).

The color and exposure of the 5200's photos are excellent, and the camera even includes an autofocus assist lamp: an important feature that prevents a digital camera from flailing pathetically when trying to focus in dim light. The Nikon's irresistibility is diminished only by a longish startup time, a shortish battery life and an unfortunate barrel-distortion effect (bowed straight lines) when you're zoomed out.

SAMSUNG U-CA4 -- Here's another camera that's so small, it could easily hide in a magician's palm. Its plastic case (4 by 2.1 by 1.2 inches) comes across as just the tiniest bit gimmicky, thanks in part to the pointless seven-color L.E.D. on the front. Another liability is its memory card format: Memory Stick Duo, which costs twice as much as, say, a Compact Flash card ($81 versus $40 for a 512-megabyte card).

But in good light, especially outdoors, the photographic quality of this new $280 model rivals the best cameras here. (In dim light, graininess is a minor problem.)

CASIO EXILIM ZOOM EX-Z40 -- Not to be outshrunk, Casio offers the slimmest offering of all: less than an inch thick. It's loaded with distinctive features, too, like a calendar that shows how many photos you took on each day. The self-timer can fire off three successive shots, maximizing the likelihood that a family photo will come out right. And thanks to the Best Shot feature, you can flip through a set of professional sample photos (fireworks, food and so on); the camera makes the proper settings based on your selection.

None of that really matters, though. Alas, this $239 Exilim took some of the poorest pictures of this bunch. Its photos exhibit ''noise'' -- grainy, multicolored speckles -- in almost every indoor shot, which is certainly an Exlimiting factor.

PENTAX OPTIO S50 -- Separated at birth? That's what you'd conclude if you saw the Casio and this fractionally thicker rival, new from Pentax, side by side.

The guts are plenty different, though. The Pentax ($207) shoots five-megapixel shots, not four. And it uses two AA batteries (or a disposable CR-V3 battery), which beats special proprietary slab batteries any day.

The photographic news, alas, is not so good. Dark areas of indoor shots are grainy, and even outdoor shots aren't as sharp as they should be. There's something going on with the camera's screen, too: its image freezes disconcertingly when you half-press the shutter button to focus, then blacks out entirely for a second after you take the shot. (Pentax should find out who makes the Nikon's sensational screen.)

SONY CYBER-SHOT DSC-L1 -- If you really want to get small, grab a magnifying glass and check out this new all-metal micro-model (3.7 by 1.7 by 1 inch), soon to be available in a choice of colors. It looks like an energy bar that was fortified with a tad too much iron.

Sony packed a surprising number of features into this $270 nanocam, including most manual controls, full-screen movies, an autofocus assist lamp and -- a Sony exclusive -- a minutes-remaining battery display. (Surprisingly, the minuscule battery's life isn't too shabby.) There's even a continuous autofocus option that drains your battery even faster but reduces shutter lag because the camera is always focused.

On the other hand, you can't connect the camera to a TV. There's no eyepiece viewfinder; you have to frame all your photos using the 1.5-inch screen. And most disappointing, the photos are generally slightly soft and video-camera-like.

OLYMPUS D-590 -- This $255 pointer-and-shooter is beautiful and very compact (3.9 by 2.3 by 1.4 inches), although why its on-off switch is on the front, where you can't see it, is a mystery known only to those on Mount Olympus. In a quest for simplicity and cost savings, the designers also omitted manual controls, an autofocus assist lamp and even an eyepiece viewfinder. Note, too, that this camera requires the world's most expensive and incompatible memory card format: xD cards (about $85 for 512 megabytes).

The D-590 is a cute camera, for sure, and its controls and menus are simple and clear. Bonus points to Olympus for permitting instantaneous scrolling from shot to shot during playback. (Most other cameras either make you wait a second or kill that time by throwing up a temporarily blotchy low-res photo.)

But the proof is in the pictures. And they're very good.

VIVITAR VIVICAM 4000 -- Vivitar swung for the fences with this new model, the only six-megapixel one in this group. The $294 camera includes a two-inch screen, a compact all-metal body (3.7 by 2.5 by 1.4 inches) and an array of manual photographic controls.

All those megapixels mean you can make gigantic prints. But they also mean that you wait a long time between photos when you're reviewing them -- and, of course, you need a big card to hold the much larger photo files (an SD card, about $50 for 512 megabytes). Fortunately, the picture quality is excellent, making this the camera to buy if you feel that more megapixels is better.

HP PHOTOSMART R707 -- This Hewlett-Packard camera runneth over with fresh thinking. An Image Advice screen offers practical suggestions for improving muffed shots. An Instant Share button lets you designate e-mail buddies by name; when you return to your Mac or PC, the photo is sent automatically. And the manual resembles a beautifully written guide to photography rather than the instructions for a VCR. All that, an autofocus assist lamp and 5.1 megapixels for $257.

The R707 even offers a small advance on the shutter-lag front. If you're taking a second or third shot of the same subject, you can skip the usual half-press to focus first. The R707 uses your most recent focus and exposure settings. Presto: no shutter lag.

The photos don't have the clarity or the vividness of, say, the Canon or the Kodak, and there's a bit of grain in the dark areas. Note, too, that this camera captures movies only in quarter-screen size, and it can't show your pictures on TV without the optional charging dock.

PANASONIC LUMIX DMC-LC70 -- From its description, you might conclude that this $245 camera isn't worth the silver plastic it's clad in. It has no speaker, so you can't hear your (quarter-screen) movies. Its two AA batteries don't last long. Its screen is tied for smallest: 1.5 inches. The macro mode can't take photos any closer than a foot away. The manual is so poorly translated, it can double as a parlor game called Guess the Original Meaning.

In fact, this camera has only one thing going for it: spectacular pictures. They're crisp, clear, rich and free of grain even in low light.

Are they worth the sacrifice? Probably not; other cameras offer similar quality without giving up so many features (read on).

KODAK EASYSHARE DX7440 -- The fun begins with what may be the best screen on any digital camera. It's not only bigger than any of its rivals (2.2 inches), but it is also brilliant, even in direct sunlight. Then there's the only 4X optical zoom lens in this group, an extremely desirable feature that brings you 25 percent closer to your subject.

Other goodies include optional lenses for telephoto or close-up work; full-TV-screen movies, limited in length only by the size of your memory card; continuous autofocus; and absolutely gorgeous, rich, vivid photos.

The relatively bulky DX7440 (4 by 2.7 by 1.6 inches) is the only camera here that lacks PictBridge, a technology that lets the camera plug directly into today's photo printers (no computer necessary). There's no manual focus and no autofocus lamp, either.

But one look at this camera's terrific photos and almost all is forgiven.

CANON POWERSHOT A95 -- This ugly duckling will never be mistaken for a fashion accessory. It does, however, take deliciously sharp, color-accurate five-megapixel photos -- tied with the Kodak for the best picture quality in this roundup.

Talk about granting a photographer's wish list: this model's screen flips out and rotates so that you can shoot a parade over people's heads or shoot the baby on the floor without throwing out your back. The A95 accepts Compact Flash memory cards, which are available in larger capacities, and for less money, than any other format. It takes four rechargeable AA batteries (or, in a pinch, even drugstore alkalines) instead of expensive, proprietary ''brick'' batteries -- and they last far longer than the batteries of any other camera here.

The A95 is bigger than most (4.0 by 2.5 by 1.4 inches), and its full-screen movie mode can capture only 30 seconds of choppy 10-frames-per-second video. But that's picking nits on an outstanding piece of gear.

FUJI FINEPIX E510 -- Is there an echo in here? The E510 seems to have been modeled on Canon's A95. Same basic size and shape, right down to the bulging front-edge grip (although the E510's sharper edges give it a more styled look). Same five-megapixel resolution, AA batteries, manual controls and accessory lens option -- all good stuff.

What differences there are, though, will bum you out. No autofocus assist lamp. Those overpriced xD cards. Movies that are limited in length and size. The screen is slightly bigger (two inches), but doesn't flip or rotate, and it freezes annoyingly at the moment of prefocusing.

Weirdest of all, the flash is concealed. Each time the camera needs it, an icon on the screen tells you to press the flash-opening button, an exercise that gets old fast. Then you have to close the flash unit manually when you're done. On this point, Fuji's engineers must have had a bit too much of that new-camera smell.

The FinePix's photos don't compare with the Canon's, either. They exhibit the same sort of softness as that Snickers bar Sony cam.

THE BOTTOM LINE -- You certainly can't complain that you don't have choices this year. In their obvious efforts to differentiate their wares, the camera companies have come up with an enormous range of options.

Several will make some shutterbugs (or lots of them) very happy someday. If you want your camera tiny and head-turningly fashionable, choose the Sony. If you're a straight-ahead snapshooter who has never used a manual control in your life, consider the Nikon or the Olympus. And if you don't mind a bit of sluggishness in the name of massive megapixelage, look into the Vivitar.

There is, however, another group: camera buyers whose top priority is -- perverse as this may sound -- taking great photographs. If there is a Santa Claus, he'll bring them the Canon A95 or the Kodak EasyShare DX7440. Probably by no coincidence, these are two of the largest cameras in this roundup; you can't exactly conceal either one in a clenched fist. Either one, however, will snuggle easily into your Christmas stocking, your coat pocket and your life.

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