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Few things today change as quickly as digital cameras. Prices drop, quality increases, and confusion reigns. Last year, after we all got adjusted to 3-megapixel cameras, we saw a flurry of cameras with 4- or even 5-megapixel CCDs. As the editor of the Digital Camera Resource Page (www.dcresource.com), I've seen them all, the good and the bad. As this column evolves, my goal is to keep you abreast of the digital camera market so when it's time to buy or to upgrade, you'll know all you need to make the right decision.
In this first column, I'll look at four of the most talked-about 4-megapixel cameras--two full-featured devices, Canon's PowerShot G2 and Olympus's C-4040Z; and two compact cameras; Canon's PowerShot S40 and Olympus's D-40 Zoom. All four feature a 3Yen optical zoom lens (or close to it), and a wealth of manual controls. And all are compatible with Mac OS X and Apple's iPhoto.
Before we get to the cameras, we need to address one question: When everything you've heard says that 3 megapixels is enough for a good 8-by-10-inch print, do you need to spend the extra dough on the extra pixels? Well, more is better sometimes, especially when you want to crop a photo tighter and still be able to print a large-size image. Also, the higher-density CCDs can give you more data to play with letting you coax details out of the shadows. Similarly, resizing a 4-megapixel photo down to 3 megapixels often yields better results than taking the same photo with a 3-megapixel camera.
Canon PowerShot G2
The PowerShot G2 ($899 street) is currently Canon's high-end consumer digital camera. It's an updated version of the popular 3-megapixel PowerShot G1, adding better color accuracy, new focusing and metering systems, and less noise in long-exposure photos.
Canon includes excellent extras with the G2: a rechargeable LiIon battery and charger (which doubles as an AC adapter), 32MB CompactFlash card, and an expansive software bundle.
The G2's body is solidly constructed and easy to hold. One of the G2's standout features is its flip-out, rotating LCD, which allows you to take pictures in many situations where a regular LCD wouldn't cut it. Another handy feature is the autofocus (AF) illuminator for focusing in low-light situations.
The 7mm-to-21mm f-2.0 lens (equivalent to 34mm to 102mm on a 35mm film camera) is threaded, and Canon offers wide-angle and telephoto conversion lenses. The camera has a hot shoe for an external flash as well.
The G2 has more manual controls than almost any other digital camera I've seen. You've got full control of shutter speed, aperture, numerous white-balance settings, flash and exposure bracketing, continuous shooting, and the capability to save images as JPEGs or in Canon's proprietary RAW image-file format. (RAW files are uncompressed images that take up a lot less space than TIFFs, although you must convert them via Canon's RAW Image Converter software before using them in an image-editing program or other application.)
Canon PowerShot S40
The S40 ($799) is essentially the same camera as the G2 packed into a smaller, all-metal body, and with a more compact 3Yen 7.1mm-to-21.3mm f-2.8 (35mm equivalent is 35mm to 105mm) zoom lens. Due to its smaller size, the S40 lacks the G2's rotating LCD and support for external flashes and lenses.
The S40 ships with the same software as the G2, but it comes with a 16MB CompactFlash card and a smaller-capacity battery. It offers the same plentiful set of manual controls, and its maximum shutter speed is 1/1,500 second (the G2's maximum is 1/1,000).
As is the case with many of today's digital cameras, both the S40 and the G2 include a number of preset scene modes. Choose one (portrait, landscape, night, color effect, panorama assist), and the camera uses the appropriate settings. The panorama helper is great for stitching several shots into one.
The quality of the images from both cameras is excellent--color quality is right on (and you can make it more vivid or neutral using the color effect mode), images are sharp, and the shadows exhibit little noise.
One nice option you can get for the S40 is a waterproof camera case ($240), which lets you take the camera up to 30 meters underwater.
The C-4040Z ($799) is one of the best full-featured cameras, from Olympus, although its bundled extras are not as good as those included with Canon's G2. You get a 16MB SmartMedia card, but no rechargeable batteries, and the manual comes in PDF format on a CD (though a small, paper quick-start guide is included). Olympus's Camedia Master software also leaves much to be desired compared to Canon's software, as does the manual's quality.
The C-4040Z's fast f-1.8 lens has a 35mm focal range of 35mm to 105mm, and the lens is threaded for use with conversion lenses. You can use an external flash unit, but this requires the purchase of a flash bracket and sync cable.
The C-4040Z also has a full suite of manual controls ranging from shutter speed and aperture to focusing and white balance. A sequential shooting mode lets you take up to 8 pictures at 2 frames per second.
In addition to saving images as JPEG files, the C-4040Z can store pictures as TIFFs, which occupy more space than Canon's RAW format. It takes a long time to write a TIFF to the memory card, and the camera is unresponsive until it has finished. Both Olympus cameras can also interpolate images up to 3,200 by 2,400 pixels, but image quality is not as crisp as it is at the maximum hardware resolution of 2,272 by 1,704 pixels.
Olympus D-40 Zoom
The $699 D-40 Zoom (D-40Z) is the smallest camera of this group, weighing just 6.7 ounces. Roughly the size of a deck of cards, the camera is smaller than the PowerShot S40. The D-40Z's bundle also pales in comparison with those from Canon: you get a 16MB SmartMedia card, a non-rechargeable LiIon battery, and a CD-based manual. The D-40Z has a 2.8Yen, f-2.8 zoom lens with a 35mm equivalent of 35mm to 98 mm. It has no support for add-on lenses or an external flash.
It's a rarity for a small camera to have a status display on top, but the D-40Z does (the S40 does not). This is nice because you don't need to use the main LCD display to see the current settings or the number of photos remaining.
The D-40Z has a mode dial with a wide variety of preset scenes, similar to that of the PowerShot cameras. Two of the more unusual scenes include self-portrait mode, and one that stores your favorite settings so you can quickly access them without making a trip to the menus.
The D-40Z has the same manual controls as the 4040Z, the only difference being a faster top shutter speed of 1/1,000 second.
In addition to the LiIon battery, both Olympus cameras can use standard AA batteries rather than the more expensive proprietary rechargeable battery the Canon devices require.
You could buy any of the products reviewed here and end up with a great camera, but in each size range, one stands out.
In the full-size category, the PowerShot G2 outshines the C-4040Z. It has the rotating LCD, superior image quality, more manual controls, a hot shoe, and better extras, such as the AF illuminator and IBM MicroDrive support. The photo quality on both cameras is excellent, though in some situations the C-4040Z tends to experience more chromatic aberrations (which show up as purple fringing around some edges). This can look bad on screen, but is generally not a problem in printed images.
If you value portability over features, I would give the Olympus D-40Z a slight edge over the PowerShot S40. The PowerShot has a superior bundle and a larger LCD, and its RAW image mode is more responsive than Olympus's TIFF mode, but I still preferred the D-40Z's more compact body (and lower price).
I ran into the chromatic aberration issue occasionally with the D-40Z, but I don't consider it a major problem; image quality for both the S40 and the D-40Z is very, very good. (If you don't need 4 megapixels but like the S40's form factor, Canon's $699 S30 is a 3-megapixel camera identical in size and feature set to the S40.)
JEFF KELLER is the editor of the Digital Camera Resource Page (http://www.dcresource.com), which includes reviews and ratings of more than 330 digital cameras, and dvspot (http://www.dvspot.com), a consumer DV camcorder site. Send feedback on this column to email@example.com.