There's nothing like collecting candid snapshots as keepsakes through the years. But with every roll of film processed from a traditional film camera, chances are some prints aren't worth a second glance. If you don't plan on printing anything greater than 5 by 7 inches or plan to use digital images for your Web site, a one-megapixel digital camera delivers the snapshots you want at a reasonable price.
Macworld Lab tested four one-megapixel cameras priced from $300 to $600: the Canon PowerShot A10, the Olympus Brio D-100, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P30, and the Sony Mavica MVC-FD92. After comparing features and evaluating image quality for each camera, we found that the Canon A10 offers the best combination of performance and value.
Each camera offers point-and-shoot ease, with different feature combinations. The Sony cameras have the most features: spot metering and multiple exposure modes, plus the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 has a choice of 100, 200, and 400 ISO ratings. The advantage to having these ISO ratings is that you can customize the camera's light sensitivity instead of relying on the auto sensor. Both Sony cameras also have special effects such as black-and-white and sepia, as well as the ability to record short movies in MPEG format. The Mavica MVC-FD92 simultaneously records 15 seconds of audio with video at high quality; the length of a movie shot with the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 (video only, no audio) is measured by the capacity of the media card.
The type of zoom a camera has, if any at all, is something to consider when shopping for a digital camera. There's nothing more frustrating than attempting to get a great shot of something in the distance, and then realizing that it's impossible due to the lack of zoom. The $599 Mavica MVC-FD92 sports an impressive 8x optical zoom; the $299 Cyber-shot DSC-P30 and the $349 PowerShot A10 both feature a more common 3x optical zoom. Only the $299 Brio D-100 lacks an optical zoom; instead it comes with a marginally useful 2x digital zoom. (A digital zoom isn't a "true" zoom; it simply crops the image.)
The PowerShot A10 is the only camera in this group to feature Stitch Assist mode, which allows you to easily create panoramas.
What's on the Menu
Making the transition from film to digital doesn't have to be difficult: all of the cameras we tested are easy to use. Plus, the PowerShot A10, Brio D-100, and Cyber-shot DSC-P30 manuals are excellent and very thorough. All but the Mavica MVC-FD92, which is larger and heavier than the others due to its built-in floppy drive, physically resemble their 35mm point-and-shoot counterparts.
To get started with the PowerShot A10 and the Cyber-shot DSC-P30, you select Still Image, Playback, or Setup mode by turning a dial on the camera. On the Sony, the dial is on top of the camera; on the Canon, the dial is on the back. You can also use the arrow keys to navigate the LCD menus. The Mavica MVC-F92 uses a horizontal switch instead of a dial for the same functions. The Brio D-100 is simplest of all, letting you toggle between Still Image and Playback modes by simply pressing the display button twice on the back of the camera.
One advantage of the PowerShot A10 is that you don't have to scroll through menus to adjust to different lighting situations; white balance and exposure compensation controls can be accessed directly using a separate button on the back of the camera. All of the controls on the cameras responded quickly, except with the Mavica MVC-FD92; when you press the shutter button halfway to set focus and exposure, the image on the LCD viewfinder freezes momentarily, a quirk that is potentially troublesome for taking action shots. The LCD viewfinders on the other cameras in this roundup only pause when the shutter button is pressed fully.
A digital camera's features, image quality, and ease of use don't chalk up to much if its batteries don't last long enough to capture a decent number of shots. Both Sony cameras keep you abreast of power supply with an indicator on the LCD screen that shows how many minutes of battery life are left. Plus, the Mavica MVC-FD92 comes bundled with a rechargeable InfoLithium battery and AC adapter that doubles as an in-camera battery charger. Because the Mavica MVC-FD92 lacks an optical viewfinder, the LCD requires a large amount of power to operate, making the chargers necessary. The Cyber-shot DSC-P30 is bundled with two AA batteries and accepts a rechargeable InfoLithium battery, purchased separately (charger lists at $150; battery lists at $50).
Battery life with these cameras varies according to the battery type. The lightweight Brio D-100 accepts either one 3V lithium battery or two AA batteries, but both seem to drain at a similar rate. Using AA batteries, the PowerShot A10, the Brio D-100, and the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 each provide approximately one hour of continuous shooting. The Cyber-shot DSC-P30 and the Mavica MVC-FD92 lasted well over an hour using InfoLithium batteries.
Left in the Dark
It's often impossible to frame your shots in perfect lighting. A camera's built-in flash helps keep pictures from turning out too dark. We tested fill flash in the daylight. The PowerShot A10 delivered the most eye-pleasing results, delivering enough light to capture detail in such dark areas as under the subject's eyes. The Cyber-shot DSC-P30's fill flash produced an image that was not quite as bright and therefore less detailed but still satisfactory. In comparison, the Mavica MVC-FD92 and the Brio D-100 weren't able to provide adequate flash; images were unacceptably dark and the subject was hard to see.
On the other hand, you may encounter situations in which flash is inappropriate, where it makes sense to use the limited light that's available. In this type of situation, aperture size plays a large role. Although none of the cameras in this roundup are equipped with a truly versatile lens, with wider aperture sizes of f2.8, the Mavica MVC-FD92 in Twilight mode and the PowerShot A10 both produced acceptably sharp images. The Brio D-100 and the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 also created sharp images but showed a strong yellow cast under incandescent lighting. Using the Twilight mode on the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 wasn't enough to compensate for low light, and the camera frequently produced soft and/or blurred images.
A large part of the digital camera's charm is its ease of use, and some cameras are simpler to use than others. Transferring images to your computer is effortless with the Brio D-100, the Cyber-shot DSC-P30, and the Mavica MVC-FD92 as they don't need any software to mount the media on the desktop when the camera is connected via USB. Plus, any computer with USB can connect to the camera. Canon's bundled ImageBrowser software is required to download images from the PowerShot A10. The A10 uses CompactFlash, the Brio D-100 uses SmartMedia, and the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 uses Sony Memory Stick. In addition to Sony's proprietary Memory Stick, the Mavica MVC-FD92 offers an alternative storage method: floppy disk. While this feature might be useful to those with older machines or external floppy drives, the built-in drive is PC-formatted and therefore less than ideal for Mac users.
Your Best Shot
In our tests, we took a combination of indoor and outdoor shots and then compared the results -- both printed and on-screen -- for color fidelity, contrast, and sharpness. We found that the PowerShot A10 performed the best overall, delivering excellent images in a variety of lighting situations and showing no severe weaknesses. Although it favored warm tones, the Brio D-100 was the clear winner in the color fidelity arena, producing the most accurate images. The PowerShot A10 images showed a slight excess of red but were otherwise comparable to output from the Brio D-100. Both Sony cameras had difficulty producing accurate blues; some images from the Mavica MVC-FD92 showed a greenish color cast. Oddly, this problem was more severe when shots were taken using the manual white balance settings. When it came to contrast, the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 offered the best balance of highlight and shadow detail, followed by the Brio D-100. Images from the PowerShot A10 were good apart from exhibiting slightly blown-out highlights, whereas those from the Mavica MVC-FD92 appeared underexposed. Finally, the PowerShot A10 led the pack in sharpness, delivering clear, crisp images, with the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 not far behind.
Each camera in this roundup ships with a strap, USB cables, and batteries (four AA batteries with the A10 and the Cyber-shot, one 3V Lithium with the D-100, and a rechargeable battery with the Mavica FD92). The PowerShot A10 comes with an 8MB CompactFlash card, the Brio D-100 comes with an 8MB SmartMedia card, the Cyber-shot DSC-P30 comes with a 4MB Memory Stick. Neither a floppy disk nor a Memory Stick is included with the Mavica MVC-FD92.
Except for the PowerShot A10, each camera comes with an AV cable. Canon's proprietary software downloads images and performs very simple actions such as rotating images. Olympus's proprietary Camedia Master program is comparable to the Canon software and is included with the Brio D-100. Both Sony cameras are bundled with MGI PhotoSuite SE 1.1, similar to the Canon and Olympus software, but it also includes templates for greeting cards, calendars, and the like.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The Canon PowerShot A10 offers the overall best balance of features and performance. At a moderate price, it delivers excellent image quality: sharp images with accurate colors in a variety of lighting situations. If additional features are more important to you, consider the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-30; it offers perks such as Movie mode and special effects at a very modest price.