In my last column ( Reviews, May 2002), I took a look at 4-megapixel digital cameras for shooters who wanted high-resolution images and were willing to pay for the privilege. This time around, I examine three lower-priced 2-megapixel cameras aimed at the general photo enthusiast.
Each camera reviewed here is unique. Fuji's FinePix 2800 Zoom is a low-cost camera with a long zoom lens, the only one in its class. Minolta's Dimage X has garnered quite a bit of attention with its tiny size and one-of-a-kind lens system. And Nikon's slim Coolpix 2500 uses an interesting variant of the company's well-known rotating lens system.
These cameras are designed for the casual photographer, so you won't find manual-shooting modes, lens-attachment options, autofocus aids, external-flash support, or other bells and whistles. However, they will allow you to take good snapshots for prints as large as 5 by 7 inches. All of the cameras work with OS 9, OS X, and iPhoto, although there are a few issues with OS support; read on for more details.
Fuji FinePix 2800 Zoom
A major request from digital-camera users is a low-cost camera with a big zoom lens. Priced at $399, the FinePix 2800 Zoom has an f2.8 lens with a 6Yen optical zoom. It comes with a 16MB SmartMedia card, a USB cable, and Fuji's mediocre FinePixViewer software. As far as batteries go, you're stuck with disposables: instead of rechargeables, Fuji gives you four AA alkaline batteries.
The FinePix 2800's main event is its zoom, which is equivalent to that of a 38mm-to-228mm lens on a 35mm camera. The lens has no image stabilization, so you'll need a tripod, or a very steady hand, for shots taken at full telephoto, but overall the images are sharp throughout the zoom range.
Unlike most digital (and film) cameras, which provide an optical viewfinder to look through when you frame your picture, the FinePix 2800 uses an electronic viewfinder in addition to a regular-size, 1.6-inch LCD on the back of the camera. The electronic viewfinder is a tiny LCD that displays what your lens sees; the benefit of this is that you see the exact field of view of your intended image, something you don't usually get with optical viewfinders. It drains the battery much more quickly, however, and seeing a scene can be hard when lighting isn't perfect.
Although the FinePix 2800 has no manual controls, you can adjust the exposure compensation and annotate images with a voice caption. It can also record as much as 60 seconds of video with sound.
The FinePix 2800 Zoom has very good photo quality for a 2-megapixel camera, with great color accuracy. Overall, it's a great value for people who want a little more zoom, and I have very few complaints about it beyond its lack of rechargeable batteries.
Minolta Dimage X
In the looks department, the $399 Dimage X is a knockout. Square in shape, it's much thinner than any other camera with an optical zoom. And while nearly every other digital camera has its lens elements arranged in a linear fashion from the front to the back of the camera, Minolta puts a prism directly behind the lens and runs the elements along the length of the body, perpendicular to the lens. This is what allows the camera to be so thin.
The Dimage X uses Secure Digital cards and includes a skimpy 8MB card, along with a rechargeable battery and a charger. Minolta's Dimage Image Viewer software does a lot, but it's not OS X native (it runs in Classic) and it's fairly clumsy.
The f2.8 lens has a 3Yen zoom with a 35mm equivalent of 37mm to 111mm. Like the Fuji camera, it has limited manual controls, although it lets you save images as uncompressed TIFFs and annotate them with voice captions. Its movie mode can capture 35 seconds with sound.
The Dimage X starts up faster than almost every other camera I've tested, and overall operation is snappy. One downside is poor low-light focusing (due in part to the lack of an autofocus illuminator).
The Dimage X falls short of other 2-megapixel cameras in the most important area: photo quality. Photos from the camera remind me of frame grabs from a camcorder; they have a soft, fuzzy quality. The photos aren't bad--there are just better options available, especially if the camera's tiny size doesn't grab you. Combine this with a poor bundle and not a lot of features, and the Dimage X isn't up to par.
Nikon Coolpix 2500
While not as small as the Dimage X, the $379 Coolpix 2500 has a small, colorful body that looks more like a fashion accessory than a camera. Unlike earlier Coolpix cameras, which had a rotating lens on the end of the camera body, the 2500 has a lens on the inside. You rotate the lens by sticking your fingers into the space between the lens mount and the camera's body, turning the lens as you go. It's not elegant, but it works.
The camera comes with a 16MB CompactFlash card, a rechargeable battery and charger, a NikonView 5 image viewer, and ArcSoft's PhotoImpression image-editing and -browsing software. NikonView 5 is OS X native and much improved over version 4, but it's still sluggish and buggy. For image-editing purposes, however, the OS X-native PhotoImpression is very good.
The f2.7 lens has a 3Yen zoom, equivalent to that of a 37mm to 111mm on a 35mm camera. Nikon adds a scene mode to help you out in various situations (fireworks, beach and snow, and night portrait, for example). And a Best Shot Selector feature lets you take a maximum of ten shots (you simply hold down the shutter-release button) and then chooses the sharpest shot for you. But the Coolpix's movie mode is limited to 15-second silent movies.
The 2500's most glaring omission is an optical viewfinder. You use this camera's LCD as a viewfinder, which puts more strain on the battery and makes it hard to frame a picture outdoors in bright light. Fuji's approach, the electronic viewfinder, is better than relying solely on the rear LCD for taking pictures.
The Coolpix takes very good pictures in most situations, producing sharp and properly exposed images with accurate colors. One area where I had problems was with flash portraits, which showed a lot of red-eye, even when I chose the red-eye-reduction feature. The camera also automatically boosts the ISO sensitivity in low-light situations, resulting in much noisier pictures.
Weighing In on the 2-Megapixel Market
If you want an inexpensive "big zoom" camera, the Fuji FinePix 2800 Zoom is really your only choice, and it boasts very good image quality to go with its long lens. Minolta's diminutive Dimage X, while stylish, suffers from image-quality problems that other 2-megapixel cameras don't have.
If you're looking for a small camera, the Nikon Coolpix 2500 is a good buy, with nice image quality and a better battery than the Dimage's.
Cameras with higher resolutions have the "wow factor" going for them and draw a lot of attention, but a 2-megapixel digital camera can be the perfect solution if you're looking for simplicity; the ability to take quick, easy snapshots; and low cost. In addition to the cameras reviewed here, other small cameras to consider are the Canon PowerShot S200 and S330, the Olympus D-520Z, and the Sony DSC-P71.