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This Month in Digital Cameras

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Pentax Optio 555 Compact Camera

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  • Generic Company Place Holder Olympus Camedia C-5060 Wide Zoom Compact Camera

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  • Generic Company Place Holder Olympus E-1 Digital SLR Camera

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  • Generic Company Place Holder Nikon Coolpix 3700 Compact Camera

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  • Generic Company Place Holder Konica Minolta DiMAGE A1 Bridge Camera

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  • Generic Company Place Holder Sony Cyber-shot Pro DSC-F828 Compact Camera

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  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10

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  • Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 945

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There's a little something for everyone this month, with cameras that range from a compact point-and-shoot to a full-size digital SLR (D-SLR).

The only point-and-shoot camera in the group is the Nikon Coolpix 3700. This is Nikon's first camera to use Secure Digital (SD) memory cards, and it has an autofocus-assist lamp that helps the camera lock focus in dim light -- a feature rarely found on Nikons. Two standout features on the 3700 are a beautiful LCD and a voice-activated self-timer. Image quality is very good, though the automatic ISO boost can add visual noise to images. Red-eye is also an issue; this is common with compact cameras.

If you want a camera with a wide-angle lens, the Olympus C-5060 Wide Zoom is worth a look. It offers a 4x zoom lens that starts at 27mm -- you won't often see this in the digital world. Image quality is very good, but noise levels are higher than normal (turning down the in-camera sharpening helps reduce noise). Long battery life and the responsive autofocus system are also noteworthy.

One of my favorite ultrazoom cameras from last year was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-fZ1 (   ; October 2003). But the two main issues I had with it were its low resolution and its lack of manual controls. Panasonic has updated the DMC-fZ1. A great new model, the Lumix DMC-fZ10, still has that amazing f2.8, 12x zoom Leica lens with optical image stabilization, but this new camera has 4 megapixels and full manual controls. The super lens and impressive burst modes make the DMC-fZ10 a great choice for action photography. My main gripe concerns how it works (or, more accurately, how it doesn't work) in low-light conditions: it's hard to focus, and the electronic viewfinder can be too dark to see.

The Dimage A1, from Konica Minolta, also has image stabilization, but instead of the mechanism being in the lens, it's part of the CCD itself. The A1's f2.8–f3.5, 7x zoom lens isn't quite as impressive as the lens on the DMC-fZ10, but you'll get an extra megapixel of resolution and many manual controls. The A1 also has great performance, with no delays between shots, even in Raw or TIff mode. Unlike the electronic viewfinder (EVf) on most cameras, the A1's EVf can be viewed in low light. The A1's lithium-ion battery lasts for a long time, too. As with some of the other cameras I've mentioned, the A1's images are slightly noisy but otherwise excellent.

Another 5-megapixel ultrazoom camera is the HP Photosmart 945. Whereas the Dimage A1 focuses on performance and manual controls, the Photosmart is designed for ease of use. from the in-camera help system to the HP Photo and Imaging software, the Photosmart 945 is a shining example of a camera that anyone can use. I especially like how it lets you select photos for sending via e-mail or printing -- right in the camera. Another cool feature is Digital flash, which brings out detail in underexposed areas of photos. As with the Dimage A1, the 945's electronic viewfinder is usable in low light. However, its downsides include slow write speeds, a dated movie mode, and a fairly useless burst mode.

If you want extra zoom power in a pocket-size camera, you should consider the Pentax Optio 555. It offers a 5-megapixel CCD and a 5x zoom lens, manual controls, and great battery life, all housed in a take-anywhere metal body. The camera also has unique digital color filters and a mode for making 3-D images. Like the Olympus C-5060, the Optio 555 takes good but noisy images. And like the Nikon Coolpix 3700, the 555 has red-eye problems.

If 5 megapixels isn't enough, how does 8 sound? The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-f828 has just about all the bells and whistles you can imagine, and then some. It takes very high-resolution images, but they contain a lot of purple fringing, especially given the camera's 7x Zeiss T lens. In most cases, performance is very good, except in Raw mode, where the camera locks up for several seconds while the file is saved to the memory card. Speaking of memory cards, the DSC-f828 can use Memory Sticks and Compactflash cards (including IBM Microdrives). The DSC-f828 is a bulky camera, with a unique rotating lens design that lets you shoot from unusual angles -- for example, above a crowd. Neither the included Pixela ImageMixer software nor the Raw conversion software is OS X native (Sony promises that a Mac version will be available by the time you read this; in the meantime, Adobe Photoshop's Camera Raw feature will do the trick). The DSC-f828 is compatible with iPhoto, though.

The Olympus E-1 digital SLR uses the new four Thirds standard, which was designed with Kodak and fuji. Since it's an all-new system, you'll need to buy new lenses -- a problem for the pros that Olympus is trying to lure. Although the Olympus E-1's 5-megapixel resolution is lower than that of other cameras in its price range, it outperforms them in areas such as continuous shooting and build quality. Image quality is excellent, though some of my test photos were slightly underexposed. The Olympus E-1 has a high-tech ultrasonic dust-removal system, which most D-SLR users will appreciate. This camera is a great choice if you have only a small lens collection, or if you're starting out with your first SLR. l

At a Glance
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