Jealous that your uncle sends out e-mail messages with digital images of the last family gathering, his trip to Mexico, and your cousin's brand new car? With recent price drops in the cost of two-megapixel consumer digital cameras, and a growing number of cameras to choose from, going digital has never been easier, or more tempting.
My Momma Told Me, You Better Shop Around
If you're considering purchasing a two-megapixel camera, it's generally because you're interested in the level of image quality that can produce adequate 8-by-10-inch printouts; otherwise, a less expensive one-megapixel camera would be a better value. In addition to basic image quality factors such as sharpness and color fidelity, it's important to have a decent optical zoom, especially if you plan to use your digital camera to take travel pictures. The ability to capture quality images in different lighting situations -- indoors and outdoors -- is also important.
We looked at seven current two-megapixel cameras: Olympus's C-2040 Zoom; Kodak's DC3400 and DC3800; FujiFilm's FinePix 2400; and Hewlett-Packard's PhotoSmart 315, 618, and 912. As we evaluated the cameras, we compared them to Canon's PowerShot S100 Digital Elph, named the Best Consumer Digital Camera at Macworld 's 16th Annual Editors' Choice Awards .
A Lasting First Impression
The first test of a good consumer camera starts even before the first shot: its ease of use. All the cameras in this roundup, minus the Olympus C-2040 Zoom, feature on-camera menus that are intuitive and easy to use because of their clearly marked symbols. The well-organized and comprehensive Olympus instruction manual is required reading for both navigating the camera's slightly confusing menus and taking advantage of its advanced features. Each of the HP cameras comes with a basic instruction manual and a more comprehensive CD-ROM.
Last year, Canon's PowerShot S100 Digital Elph, with its ultra-compact casing, pioneered a new standard for portability in a digital camera. Judging from the sleek, compact design of the DC3800, Kodak seems to have taken a cue from the Digital Elph's success: the DC3800 is only a few centimeters wider and longer than the Digital Elph, and it weighs only 5.8 ounces without its two AA batteries.
In contrast, the HP PhotoSmart 912 is built to look like a 35mm SLR camera, complete with a full-size, nondetachable Pentax lens. The zoom control is situated on what would normally be the focusing barrel of the lens. While the body design might give regular SLR users a more familiar grip, aside from the zoom control, it doesn't add any real functionality with the added bulkiness. Weighing almost 1.4 pounds without batteries, the PhotoSmart 912 is about twice the average weight of the other cameras in this roundup. The DC3400, the FinePix 2400 Zoom, the PhotoSmart 315, and the PhotoSmart 618 are all of average size, comparable to popular point-and-shoot 35mm cameras; the C-2040 Zoom is slightly wider, which surprisingly results in a more comfortable grip.
Of the seven cameras we looked at, only the Kodak DC3800 and PhotoSmart 315 lack an optical zoom -- a serious limitation, especially in the case of the DC3800, which carries a $499 price tag.
The two more expensive cameras in the roundup, the Olympus C-2040 Zoom and the HP PhotoSmart 912, also have the most advanced features. Both provide the technically minded photographer the means to capture perfectly exposed shots through spot metering, auto bracketing, and multiple exposure modes. Spot metering can make a dramatic difference in tricky lighting conditions. The auto bracketing feature -- which allows for the rapid automatic capture of a slightly overexposed and a slightly underexposed image in addition to the "perfectly exposed" original image -- is helpful in perfecting shots with mixed light. If you desire creative control and know how to get the kind of exposure you want, the PhotoSmart 912 and C-2040 Zoom have aperture-priority and shutter-priority modes, which allow you to set the aperture size or shutter speed manually.
Though less sophisticated than the 912 and C-2040, the PhotoSmart 618 offers two ISO options, as well as aperture-priority and shutter-priority modes. Plus, the PhotoSmart 618 and 912 come with an advantage in storage: they're bundled with 16MB CompactFlash cards, compared with the 8MB CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards of their competitors.
Take It Outside
In sunny outdoor conditions, the FujiFilm FinePix 2400 Zoom produces the sharpest images and the most detail in highlight and shadow areas, with the C-2040 Zoom and the PhotoSmart 912 tying for second. The FinePix 2400 Zoom also demonstrates the most accurate color reproduction, while the PhotoSmart 912 tends to render colors slightly flat. In comparison, Canon's PowerShot S100 Digital Elph captures sharpness and detail, but bright areas have a tendency to block up and lose detail. The PhotoSmart 315 and 618 deliver fairly sharp images with slightly flat colors and noticeable amounts of noise, particularly the 315. Overall, images from the DC3800 suffer from noticeable pixelation and jagged edges, making some of the photos unacceptable. Both the Kodak DC3800 and DC3400 produce soft images with slightly washed-out highlights. Oddly, the DC3400 emphasizes green tones, while the DC3800 favors red tones.
In indoor conditions that require a flash, the C-2040 Zoom, the PhotoSmart 912, and the Digital Elph produce the most pleasing images overall. In comparison, the FinePix 2400 Zoom, the DC3400, and the DC3800 have weak flashes, and their images tend to be too dark. The FinePix 2400 Zoom is, certainly, best used outdoors. In contrast, the flash on the PhotoSmart 618 is especially harsh, causing a significant loss of detail in highlight areas. Images from the PhotoSmart 315 flash are acceptable, but the overall image quality is still hampered by noise. Thanks to maximum aperture sizes of f1.8 and f2.4, respectively, the C-2040 Zoom and the PhotoSmart 618 are able to capture soft but pleasing images in less than ideal lighting conditions even without the use of a flash.
Transferring images from the camera to your Mac is easy with the FinePix 2400 Zoom, C-2040 Zoom, and all three HP cameras, since they all support USB and instantly mount on your desktop like a hard drive or a Zip disk. Although the DC3800 can't connect directly to a computer, it comes with a handy USB CompactFlash reader. Like the Digital Elph, the DC3400 requires its included software to transfer images. However, its file-by-file transfer process can be slow, leaving you to stare at progress bars for a minute or two. If you prefer to view images on your TV, you can do so with all of the cameras except the FinePix 2400 Zoom and the PhotoSmart 315.
When it comes to battery usage, the convenience of the Digital Elph's single proprietary battery, which fully recharges in under two hours, is still unmatched. The absence of bundled rechargeable batteries or AC adapters, especially in more expensive and feature-rich models such as the C-2040 Zoom and the PhotoSmart 912, forces photo enthusiasts to make an extra investment. All the cameras but the DC3800 require four AA batteries; the DC3800 requires only two. The C-2040 Zoom can also accept two Lithium batteries.
There are many things to consider when shopping for a digital camera: feature set, image output, power, and performance in low light, to name a few. Of the seven cameras in this roundup, the Olympus C-2040 Zoom stands above the rest, but many of the other offerings are also worth a look.
Macworld's Buying advice: If superior image quality, spot metering, and manual exposure modes are priorities, Olympus's C-2040 Zoom is a versatile camera that delivers solid performance and an excellent set of features. If ease of use is what you're looking for, Canon's PowerShot S100 (4.0 mice. ) remains unrivaled in its balance of style, convenience, and performance; and its competitive pricing makes it an outstanding value.