This Month in Digital Cameras
This year's Photo Marketing Association (PMA) show brought a flood of new digital cameras to market -- and made it clear that choosing a digital camera isn't getting any easier. Camera companies keep cranking out models with strikingly similar features, making it more difficult for consumers to find the cameras they want.
The PMA show also demonstrated that 3.2 megapixels is now the entry point for most camera manufacturers, as is a 3x optical zoom lens -- six of the ten cameras I looked at this month have both those characteristics.
The best camera of that bunch is the Canon PowerShot A70. What defines this camera is its full suite of manual controls, including shutter speed, aperture, focus, and white balance. Add an autofocus (AF) illuminator, a nice movie mode, and support for both conversion lenses and an underwater case, and the A70 is way ahead of the competition, especially with a street price of $399.
Two other nice cameras -- and the only others in the 3.2-megapixel class that have an AF illuminator -- are Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-P8 and DSC-P72. The P8 has a few more features than the P72, such as control over sharpness and saturation, and it's slightly smaller, with an all-metal body (the P72's body is plastic). Also, the P8 uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery while the P72 uses two rechargeable NiMH AA batteries. As a result, the P72's battery life is almost twice that of the P8. The trade-off here is really between size and battery life. Both cameras support add-on lenses and an external flash, and you can buy an underwater case for the P8. The cameras have a movie mode that is among the best we've seen; it allows you to record 640-by-480 videos (with a 16-fps frame rate) until the memory card is full. And both use the Memory Stick Pro, though they can also use regular Memory Sticks.
Another good camera in the 3-megapixel class is the Olympus Stylus 300. What makes this point-and-shoot camera stand out is its weatherproof (but not waterproof) metal body. It's easy to operate and its picture quality is good, although it could really use an AF illuminator. Olympus's other new camera, the D-560 Zoom, has the same feature set as the Stylus 300 but doesn't have the fancy body. It's a decent enough camera that provides good-quality images.
Nikon's Coolpix 3100 is a good camera with a unique scene-mode feature. Instead of just letting you flip to a scene mode (for example, portraits, landscapes, or sports shots), the 3100 goes one step further by putting gridlines or other aids on the LCD to help you compose better shots. In some cases this feature is overkill, but beginners should find it helpful. The Coolpix 3100 also has a manual white-balance mode, which is rare for a camera in this price range. Its image quality is good, but the pictures were a bit too noisy for my taste, and it really needs an AF illuminator.
This month's 4-megapixel camera is a great one: Canon's PowerShot S400 Digital Elph. The latest camera in Canon's Elph line features a stunning all-metal body with a special coating on the front and top to prevent scratches. The S400 is strictly a point-and-shoot camera, though it lacks the scene modes found in the other cameras reviewed here. Its movie mode is good but not as good as that of the A70. Photos are sharp and free of noise, and surprisingly, red-eye wasn't a problem.
Of the three 5-megapixel cameras in this month's roundup, the best is Canon's PowerShot S50. The S50 is almost identical to the PowerShot S45 ( ; April 2003), but with a 5-megapixel CCD and black metal body. The S50 has a full suite of manual controls, an AF illuminator, a good movie mode, and excellent photo quality -- even a bit sharper than the S45's. The S50 doesn't support any lens or flash attachments, red-eye can be a problem, and the camera's four-way controller is a little quirky, but the rest of its features make up for those minor faults.
While not quite as nice as the S50, Minolta's Dimage F300 is worth considering. The F300 is similar in size to the S50 and has comparable features, with a few exceptions. The F300 uses AA batteries instead of Canon's proprietary battery, and it has a tracking autofocus mode, which keeps moving subjects in focus. Its image quality isn't as good as the S50's -- images are definitely noisier. It lacks an AF illuminator, and its software bundle is unimpressive.
Kyocera's 5-megapixel Finecam S5, about the same size as the Canon S400, is mediocre in all respects, unfortunately. It has few manual controls and lacks an AF illuminator, and its images were noisier than average (severe red-eye was also common). The camera's pop-up flash is awkwardly positioned, and its Secure Digital card exhibited sluggish write speeds. The Finecam S5 isn't a bad camera, but it can't handle the fierce competition in the 5-megapixel category.
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