In 2001, I conducted a search for the best camera with a street price under $300. I’ve repeated the experiment every year since.
Wow, have things changed.
Back in 2001, every camera on the market had an eyepiece viewfinder; today, almost none do. Then, all $300 cameras ran on AA batteries; today, all use rechargeables.
Then, you got a whopping 1.3 or 2.2 megapixels; now, 12 or 14 is standard. Then, some cameras could actually zoom — wow! — up to 2X. Now, pocket cams with 10X or 12X zooms aren’t unusual.
It’s time to ask the question once again: “How much camera can $300 buy me?”
Below, reviews of nine answers to that question. Most are small, attractive, competent little machines with 12 megapixels, 3-inch screens and hi-def video capture.
All have image stabilization and face recognition, for sharper, better exposed shots. The Panasonic, Fujifilm, Canon and Casio models have unusually wide-angle lenses for capturing vistas — but can also zoom in 10X or even 12X. (There’s usually some distortion at the corners at the widest view, but that’s a small price to pay for this kind of versatility.)
Still, small, cheap cameras saddle you with shutter lag (the delay after you press the button), low-light compromises (blur or grainy “noise”), and blown-out highlights (bright areas of pure white, with no detail). If you want a camera without those drawbacks, buy a bigger, more expensive interchangeable-lens model.
And now, here are my notes on this year’s contenders. CANON POWERSHOT SD980 ($280 street). Sleek, squished-capsule shape. Canon’s first touch screen. Drag a finger or tap to flip through photos, magnify them, focus off-center. Tilt the camera various ways to activate certain functions. Other highlights: a wide-angle lens, O.K. picture quality, high-definition video. Quick circuitry; minimal start-up time and shutter lag.
Real problem: the three-inch screen is shaped like a hi-def movie; when you’re shooting stills, you get black bars on either side, so the usable screen is much smaller. Touch screens eat up battery; only 240 shots a charge.
ZOOM EX-H10 ($262). Another quirky, breakout camera from Casio. Best parts: wide-angle, 10X zoom, astonishing 1,000-shot battery — three times the norm.
Has 38 presets — not just Sunset, Beach and Portrait, but all kinds of crazy special effects. Multi-Motion Image places several copies of your moving subject (ski jumper, skateboarder, whatever) against a single background. Dynamic Photo mode is hard to use, but very cool: it cuts your subject out of one photo and places it against the background of a different photo, à la green screen, for a still composite photo or short movie.
Weak spot: Video — no high-def, no optical zoom while filming, 10-minute clip max.
FUJIFILM FINEPIX F70EXR ($197). Low light is always a small-camera bugaboo. Cheap little sensors produce blur or grainy photos indoors or after sunset. But F70EXR has the largest sensor of the batch (.5 inches), and in EXR mode, can combine the light from two adjacent pixels on that sensor. Result: clearer, more colorful low-light photo (at half resolution, 5 megapixels instead of 10).
Zooms quickly, though noisily, while shooting video; can’t shoot hi-def. Over all, wonderful, sharp pix. But camera takes time to learn.
KODAK EASYSHARE Z950 ($183). Kodak strikes again in its traditional niche: design clarity. Important controls are on top — and they light up. Price: $183, a steal for a camera with 10X zoom, full manual controls and hi-def video.
Zooming while filming is another small-camera problem. On the Fuji, audio track picks up zooming noise; on the Samsung, audio cuts out completely while zooming; on the Panasonic, zooming is incredibly slow to avoid noise. But Kodak zooms nice and fast — and almost silently (though it blurs in and out of focus while zooming).
Downsides: It’s big, bulky and very slow. Pictures are only average. Have to charge battery in the camera (so can’t keep a spare charging).
NIKON COOLPIX S8000 ($299). Just released, so for near term, you’ll pay list price. Nicely thin, compact 10X zoomer. As with Sony, Samsung and others, it can snap automatically when subject smiles. Like Casio and others, it can apply a fake-looking smear to skin tones to minimize blotches and wrinkles.
Hi-def video with stereo sound and dedicated Movie button is a plus, but it can’t zoom. Amazing-looking screen. Photos generally excellent, except when the autofocus misses.
OLYMPUS STYLUS 7000 ($184). Superlight, cheap 7X zoom. Panorama mode stitches consecutive frames together automatically as you swing your arm. Illuminated controls: nice. HDMI jack for showing photos in hi-def on a TV.
Lots of bad news, though: no hi-def video, no zooming while filming, horrific shutter lag, no autofocus lamp for low light, a nonstandard U.S.B. cable to get the photos off. And still using the nonstandard memory cards (XD or MicroSD)? Get with it, Olympus!
PANASONIC LUMIX DMC-ZS3 ($244). The camera that wants to be a camcorder. 12X zoom, usable during filming (which is pristine hi-def); stereo audio; dedicated Start/Stop button for video. (Caution: Factory setting uses a format — AVCHD Lite — that few video-editing programs can handle. Motion JPEG format is available, but it’s lower quality and has a 16-minute clip maximum.)
Homely software — ALL CAPS MENUS, anyone? — but clear. Terrific screen (super-high-res, like the Nikon’s). Doesn’t just recognize faces, but recognizes particular faces, which you can name (“Uncle Stu”), but doesn’t do much with that information. Pictures are excellent, but screen doesn’t brighten up as necessary, as rivals do, making it very hard to compose shots in low light.
SAMSUNG DUALVIEW TL225 ($274). Crazy amount of tech in this one. Small, secondary screen on the front. Nearly invisible in sunlight, but great for self-portraits, for counting down to the self-timer snap, and even for holding the attention of children (the camera can play a little cartoon on that screen).
Main screen is the biggest on the market, at 3.5 inches. Responsive touch screen: draw an X for Delete, swipe across for Next Picture, tap to change settings like flash. Tilt or shake the camera to activate playback functions, too.
Detractions: Have to charge battery inside camera; have to transfer the photos using bizarre nonstandard cable; movie audio cuts out completely, weirdly, while you zoom; requires a cellphone memory card (MicroSD). Touch screen does a real number on battery life (180 shots). Camera is too flash-happy.
But very good photos.
SONY CYBER-SHOT W290 ($180). Least expensive camera here, but few other virtues. Buttons tiny and cramped. Have to zoom by holding down buttons, rather than turning a ring around the shutter button. Shoots hi-def, but can’t zoom while filming. The first with an “auto fire when subject smiles” mode — but a dedicated shutter button on top just for that feature? Really? Also, the photos are soft and fuzzy.
THE BOTTOM LINE As the ridiculous megapixel race winds down at last, camera companies are now putting effort into differentiating their cameras — and wow, are there some weirdies here, like the two-screened Samsung, the green-screen mode of the Casio and the would-be camcorder Panasonic.
And if you can choose only one? I have three favorites this year, for different reasons. (That’s the price we pay for differentiation.)
The Fujifilm F70EXR is superior in low light (and has that 10X zoom). The Panasonic Lumix ZS3 takes great hi-def movies (12X zoom). (The Nikon S8000 is extremely similar, but costs more.)
The Samsung DualView TL225 zooms only to 4.6X, but offers that huge touch screen and the amazingly handy small front screen. (Honorable mention to the Kodak Z950. It doesn’t quite match the big boys’ photo quality, but what you get for $183 is amazing.)
Oh — and for the price and pocketability, all three of this year’s winners take very good photos. That’s always a nice feature to have in a camera.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.