Our other sites: | Pen Computing | Digital Camera Roundup | Rugged PC Review | Handheld Computing | Scuba Diver Info | BBW | More Features



Long Zoom Digital Cameras
We tested eight mid-priced models with 5x and greater zoom range.

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

8 state-of-the-art big zoom digital cameras. All have 5X optical zoom or better. Some up to 12X. Some are large, some are small. All are quite affordable. We tell you which is best overall, best for big zoom work, and best to just take along with you.

One of the great things about digital photography is that even inexpensive digicams come with optical zooms. That's because of their humble origins as sub-megapixel cameras less than ten years ago. In those days of 640 x 480, 800 x 600 or perhaps 1024 x 768 resolutions, you simply needed an optical zoom to get close enough to a subject without having to crop the picture until so few pixels were left that the image looked like something from an Atari 2600 video game. That started the tradition of equipping even budget digicams with good optical zooms, mostly of the 3X variety. 3X isn't much, but it is is perfectly workable. It gets you in a bit closer, and in this day and age of multi-megapixel cameras you have so much resolution available that cropping a megapixel or three hardly makes a difference.

However, there are those instances where you want a big zoom so that you can get really close. That comes in handy when you want to get close-ups of people in crowds, at sports events, when bird watching, attending a baseball game or a car race, or numerous other situations when you just can't get close enough or when it isn't practical. In those instances, the bigger the optical zoom, the better. "But why not digital zoom?" you may ask? "My camera has a 4X digital zoom, so when I multiply that with my 3X optical zoom I get 12X total magnification." Not true. Most digital zooms simply look at part of the picture the optical zoom provides and then fill in extra pixels. This means you don't get more resolution at all. You just get a fairly poor quality image with lots of pixels. Some camera companies have ,smart 0/00 digital zooms that can result in improved picture qualities. They either do this with special software manipulation or by limiting the smart zoom to the lower resolution modes so that the digital zoom can ,borrow 0/00 unused imager pixels to improve the picture. Any which way you look at it, optical zoom is the only "real" zoom.

So what do you need to look out for when you realize that you want, or need, a big optical zoom? You can, of course, get a digital SLR and then simply buy whatever lens you want. But for the purpose of this review, we will limit ourselves to less expensive point&shoot, consumer and prosumer cameras where cost is an issue. A bigger optical zoom generally means higher cost. So you need to decide what's good enough for your needs. You may be happy with a slightly higher magnification, like 4X or 5X. That can make just enough of a difference to get you the pictures you need. However, it won't be enough if you want to get really close. For that you,ll want the biggest zoom you can get, and those are in the 8X to 12X range.

Big optical zooms are terrific, but they also have drawbacks. In general, the bigger the zoom, the larger the lens and the more it'll stick out, making the camera bulky. And the bigger the optical zoom, the more important it becomes to shoot with a steady hand. Some cameras have anti-shake technologies that work remarkably well. However, it almost always pays to invest in a tripod (or even a monopod). Further, a big optical zoom also requires a good LCD or viewfinder, or else you can't really see what you're talking a picture of. Some of the big zoom digicams have electronic instead of optical viewfinders, just like older video cameras. The problem there is that electronic viewfinders often have a "grainy" picture even if they have relatively high resolutions.

It's in the nature of comparison tests that they include different kinds of cameras designed for different users and applications. Therefore, we rate cameras not on just one scale, but tell you how suitable they are for different users, and which ones rate highest for a given purpose.

With this lineup of big zoom cameras, we decided it would be best to rate them on three different scales. First, how well they work overall. Here we look at the big picture. Second, how well they work as big zoom camera. Here's how well suited the camera is when used almost exclusively in big zoom mode. And third, for those instances where you need a big zoom but don't have room for one, how small and handy the camera is. You decide which rating is most important to you.

As far as pricing goes, posting list prices is almost useless as cameras are always heavily discounted, and getting more so as they reach end-of-life. So for this review we used the average price listed for each camera on www.pricescan.com at the time we conducted the lab tests, which was early September.

For image quality tests, all cameras were loaded with fully-charged batteries, reset to their factory settings, digital zoom was disabled if necessary, and auto-flash was enabled/popped up if necessary. All shots were taken on a tripod and triggered by a ten-second shutter release delay to eliminate any movement from touching the shutter release. For the macro tests, all cameras were set to macro mode, zoomed back to maximum wide angle position, centered on the subject, and triggered by the ten-second delay timer. Please note that this test only shows how the camera performs with its defaults. A skilled photographer may be able to do significantly better.

We hope this roundup of Big Zoom cameras will give you a better idea of what,s out there, what you can do with each camera, and which one will fit your requirements, lifestyle, and budget best.

Canon Powershot S2IS
The Powershot S2IS is digital camera powerhouse Canon,s newest entry into the big zoom market. It replaces the older Powershot S1IS, which it surpasses in every respect: bigger zoom, more megapixel, better electronics, larger LCD display, more powerful flash, and so on. But how does the Canon fare against the competition? Is it a good choice for someone who wants a big zoom?

That depends. If you're looking for something to stow away in an attache case or a purse (let alone a shirt pocket), forget it. The S2IS is a big, heavy camera. The kind that immediately marks you as a serious photographer. You can't hide this Canon. You can't use it to quickly take some sneak shots without everyone noticing the big matte silver plastic body. And if you're caught up in the megapixel race you,ll be disappointed with the camera's "mere" 5mp.

If, however, you want a true big zoom camera with lots of power and plenty of features, the S2IS will definitely make your short list. It has a massive 12X optical zoom~the digital equivalent of a 36 to 432mm 36mm lens. When you want to get that close, you need image stabilization, which Canon supplies, or better yet a tripod (jeers for the plastic thread). If 12X is still not enough, multiply that with a passable 4X digital zoom for a total of 48X. That almost gets you into the next county.

Adding to the camera's flexibility is a twist (180 degrees) and rotate (270 degrees) LCD. It allows you to take pictures overhead or shoot from the hip. The flipside of the flexible display solution is that the LCD itself is fairly small--just 1.8 inches. It is viewable outdoors, but just barely. The camera doesn't have an optical viewfinder, but uses the LCD. You can toggle between LCD display or LCD viewfinder (which has a diopter adjustment).

Ergonomics are quite good. The big body fits nicely into your right hand. The big ,power bulge 0/00 that holds the camera's four AA batteries helps. Most controls are where you expect them, but the implementation isn't perfect as the body is cluttered with far too many hard-to-decipher icons icons and markings of various colors. In sharp contrast, the on-screen menus are clear and logical. Virtually all choices are in text, and since you can view the LCD through the viewfinder, you can see the menus outdoors as well.

I've never liked the shutter to sit inside the zoom ring and I've never liked overly cluttered mode dials. The S2IS has both. It also has a large button with a red dot on it just where your thumb rests. Push it and the camera starts recording movies. Not a good solution. I can see the button getting activated inadvertently and the camera filling the card with movies. One the other hand, you can take movies in full zoom. Combine that with full 640 x 480 res at 30 frames per second, image stabilization, and stereo sound recording! Even more amazingly, you can take full res pictures DURING movie recording. Perhaps Canon put that big button there on purpose. The S2IS is almost like having a video camera.

This being a Canon, expect all the usual superb electronics, making the camera quicker and smarter than most. The S2IS will also appeal to serious photographers with its full manual modes, its numerous features, and enough tricks to keep you entertained for weeks or months. Be prepared to spend a bit of time figuring it all out as the learning curve~if you want to get the most out of this camera~is somewhat steep.

The big Canon disappointed in the macro test. Its autofocus never managed to latch on the right spot and the result was an unsatisfying image. In full zoom mode, the Canon managed excellent exposure, decent focus, but far too much purple fringing. In the 1X test shot, the Canon took a decent shot with excellent exposure and focus in the distance.

* Superb 12X zoom lens with anti-shake
* Terrific movie mode with zoom and stereo
* Extensive manual control, tons of features

Not so cool:
* Big and bulky plastic body
* Too many incomprehensible icons
* Camera this good should have RAW support

Rating for:
big zoom use-9.6

Casio Exilim EX-P505
Casio has perhaps been one of the biggest surprises of the digital camera era, establishing itself as a premier maker of elegant, innovative, high quality products that always seem to be a step ahead of everyone else. it's all too easy to fall in love with one of Casio,s ultra-slender little wonders, and then it's terrific to find that with the Casios, beauty is far more than just skin-deep. Does the same apply to the EX-P505 which in many ways represents a departure from Casio,s proven recipes?

For starters, this camera is actually a lot smaller than it looks in the pictures above. In some ways. Its 3.5 x 2 inch footprint would appear small enough to make the EX-P505 pocketable. It would be if it weren,t for the big 5X optical zoom (38-190 mm equivalent). The lens barrel makes the Casio almost three inches deep, so forget about sticking it into a pocket. This camera is totally defined by its big lens and you can,t help but wonder why, as Pentax and HP, for example, managed to totally retract their 5X lenses inside bodies just one inch thick. Did Casio want to make a fashion statement here, or did they struggle with unfamiliar design issues?

All that said, the camera is actually quite elegant. The semi-gloss black body is cleanly and beautifully designed. Every line and curve is both beautiful and functional. All controls are in the right place and clearly marked. There is no clutter, no wasted space, no confusion. The P505 is elegant and purposeful where most other Casios go for the ultra-high-tech look.

Other things are different as well: there is no optical viewfinder. Instead, Casio sprang for a LCD panel that is both large (2.0 inches diagonal) and flexible. You can flip it out and rotate it, allowing for shots that you just can,t take with a fixed display. Unfortunately, the display isn't very high res with just 85k pixel (354x240).

Casio's motto is ,expect the unexpected, 0/00 and that certainly holds true for the EX-P505,s many clever features. The pop-up flash actually pops up automatically instead of stupidly waiting for the operator to open it. In manual mode, the camera zooms in to 2X so it's easier to focus. Even in a camera this small, Casio included two microphones so you can record in stereo. The Li-Ion battery has a retainer clip so it doesn't fall out when you open the door to insert or remove a SD Card. there's 7.5MB of internal memory so you're not entirely out of luck if the storage card is full or you forgot to put one in (it can happen). And who,d want to miss Casio,s ,U-Boot 0/00 display mode or the terrific live histograms?

While many small cameras limit themselves to being fully automatic point & shooters, the EX-P505 offers much more flexibility. It can be used as a simple snapshot camera, but it also has a full complement of semi-manual and manual modes. And also no less than four movie modes, plus you can zoom in up to 4X while watching movies. And use the optical zoom while you take movies.

In the speediness department, the Casio is a mixed bag. It starts up quickly, the auto-focus is fast enough, but cycle time between pictures is a bit slow.

The Casio performed well in the macro test. It wasn't the sharpest, but found a good balance in focus and exposure. The full 5X zoom test shot was perfectly exposed but not as well focused as others. There was also excessive purple fringing and over-sharpening. The 1X test shot looked good because the Casio fired its flash, but it also managed to present a well-balanced, sharp image.

Looking at the overall test scores the P505 managed against this strong competition, I am surprised that it didn,t do better. At the very least I would have expected it to win the ,take along 0/00 category, but that lens needlessly massive barrel is just too big.

* Very clean and functional design
* Powerful features, plenty of cool stuff
* Strong battery, excellent macro
* Several movie modes, stereo sound

Not so cool:
* Small size negated by large lens barrel
* Relatively slow cycle time

Rating for:
big zoom use-7.3

Fujifilm FinePix S9000
Almost every comparison test has its 800-pound gorilla, and the Fujifilm FinePix S9000 fills that roll in our lineup of big zoom digicams. Place it next to our three 12X zoom cameras~the Canon S2IS, the Konica Minolta Z5, and the Sony DSC-H1~and they look like 3/4-scale models next to the big Fuji. To give you an idea of the price you pay when you go for this formidable piece of equipment: It weighs nearly twice as much as the also rather hefty Canon. With its 10.7X optical lens (28-300mm equivalent) in resting position it is 5.5 inches deep. With the lens fully extended almost seven inches.

At first sight you,d swear this was a SLR. The size, the design, the weight. The huge 1/1.6-inch Super CCD HR imager with its 9 megapixel resolution~nearly twice that of all other ,big zoom 0/00 cameras in this lineup. An ISO range from 80 all the way to 1600. And the big lens that you adjust manually with your hand. With this camera Fuji truly blurs the line between digital SLRs and standard digicams. And speaking of blur, right on the big mode deal is an ,anti-blur 0/00 mode that any S9000 owner will almost immediately come to love.

Yet, this is no SLR, and that means you get some of the goodies DSLR users can only dream of. Like a superb 640 x 480 movie mode with sound and full zoom, and even the ability to record at 60 frames per second in VGA resolution. 30 second voice memos. A terrific lens without the fear of getting the optics all dusty. A special ,Focus check 0/00 enlargement mode where part of the LCD or electronic viewfinder zooms in so you can make sure your subject is in complete focus.

Like every other major digicam manufacturer, Fuji has its proprietary electronic special sauce~in this case the 5th generation Super CCD HR sensor and Real Photo Technology. Super CCD HR arranges pixels in a special way to increase dynamic range with different size pixels. Real Photo reduces graininess and noise. Judging by the excellent pictures the camera produced, it works.

In everyday use, the big Fuji is a handful, just like any SLR would be. You quickly come to appreciate the manually operated zoom lens, the four AA batteries that can quickly be replaced, and the fact that the camera has both an xD-Picture and a much more common CF Card slot. Switching between the two is via menu. If only one card is inserted, the S9000 knows which to use. The 1.8-inch LCD is a bit small, but that goes for most LCDs that can be flipped or rotated. The S9000,s does not rotate, but works well for overhead and from-the-hip shooting. The electronic viewfinder is large and fairly clear. Physical buttons and controls are generally large and clearly marked. There is a bit of a learning curve. As mentioned, the anti-shake feature works well, but you still might want to use a tripod. The Fuji has a metal threaded mount for that. And while the pop-up flash is powerful, there is also a standard shoe.

The Fuji didn,t do as well as expected in the macro test. The image was reasonably sharp, but unevenly exposed and too dark and contrasty. The full-zoom test shot was excellent with perfect exposure and focus, almost zero purple fringing. The only criticism would be a bit of softness here and there. The 1X test shot was as expected~excellent.

What it all amounts to is that the Fuji S9000 is not only the 800-pound gorilla of this bunch, but also a very different camera in general. It offers superb resolution and quality, most of the consumer features expected from a non-SLR, but it all comes in such a large package that many may simply spend the extra money for a true digital SLR.

* High quality images and 9 megapixel
* Extensive manual controls
* Excellent movie mode
* Combines SLR and consumer features

Not so cool:
* Very big and heavy
* Small LCD

Rating for:
big zoom use-10.0

HP PhotoSmart R817
Though Hewlett Packard has been selling digital cameras for a long time, somehow we never had high expectations for any HP camera. While no one would ever question HP,s technological competence, for some reason the computing behemoth generally seems content to issue ho-hum digicams that are dumbed down to an extent that makes them nearly unusable for any serious photographer. I made the mistake once to buy an entry level digicam for my young son. In that case ,entry level 0/00 meant just plain bad. HP seemed more interested in selling complete ,systems 0/00 that would lock in consumers via gigabytes of shovelware and strong recommendations to use other HP peripherals and consumables. There are some indications that HP is seeing the error in its ways. As of this writing, HP no longer sells any digicam under 4 megapixel. And there is now a good variety of pretty interesting cameras.

Truth be told, you wouldn,t expect a new beginning just from the looks of the PhotoSmart R817. Its oddly designed brushed metal body with a cheap-looking faux carbon fiber insert doesn't look like much. Ergonomic indents in the metal look more like the camera has been banged up (though they fit your fingers nicely). Else, there really isn't much to say about the design.

Amazingly, once you get over preconceived notions and the ho-hum first impression, the R817 is actually a pretty nice camera. For starters, it is very small and compact for a 5 megapixel, 5X optical zoom camera. At 3.6 x 2.25 x 1.2 inches and weighing under 6 ounces, the HP is one of only two truly pocketable cameras in this lineup (the other is the Pentax Optio SV---hmmm, the HP is using a Pentax lens). That alone will net HP a bunch of sales. The picture above shows the camera's 5X zoom fully extended. When the R817 is turned off, the lens completely retracts into the camera body, making the HP far handier than, for example, the Casio with its huge lens barrel.

Move on to the LCD and there is another nice surprise. Not only is the display large enough (2.0 inches), but it also offers the highest resolution of any LCD in this lineup, by a lot. We,re talking 153k pixels and 640x240 resolution while the others generally languish in the 115k range. Sure, without a optical viewfinder the HP needs a good LCD, but it's still a plus.

Controls are neat and clean and kept to a bare minimum. there's an on-off switch, four buttons (flash, focus, mode, timer) that bring up on-screen menus, a dedicated movie button next to the shutter, and a novel third-of-a-circle zoom segment that you operate by rolling your thumb left and right. It works, but takes some getting used to.

Moving on to features, the HP can hold its own. This is not just a point & shooter; HP equipped the R817 with aperture and shutter priority modes as well as a program and a manual mode. Exposure compensation operates by a full six EV points (all others do just four), and the 5X optical zoom can be digitally multiplied to a full 40X (not recommended). It also has a cool panorama stitch mode that glues the pictures together right in the camera. And there's even speed. The camera starts up quickly, focuses quickly, and cycles quickly. Nice. The menus are a pleasure as well. Everything is clear and logical. there's even an on-screen Help mode that provides guidance on how to use features.

There are some not-so-clever features. For example, to charge the battery or connect to a computer you need to use the included dock. And you either love or hate the many hundreds of megabyte worth of software HP plows onto your hard drive.

The HP,s macro performance was difficult to judge because the camera grossly overexposed the test shot. The picture was sharp enough, but would have to be corrected in software. The 5X zoom test shot looked very pleasant if a bit too contrasty, with perfect focus, good exposure and virtually no purple fringing. The no-zoom test shot benefited from the camera flashing, but focus in the center was marginal. Overall a much better performer than we expected. And the perfect zoom camera to take along.

* Small, handy, truly pocketable
* Very easy to use, very clear menus
* Speedy, nice features, even manual modes
* Large, high-res LCD

Not so cool:
* Looks cheap
* Nice software, but way too much of it

Rating for:
big zoom use-7.1

Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z5
I am probably biased when it comes to the Di-MAGE Z5. When it first arrived at our office, I immediately fell in love with it and chose it as my new daily driver, the camera I use for almost everything. Cameras with massive zooms are usually massive in size as well, but that doesn't apply to the Z5. True, the big lens assembly dominates the camera, with the ,power bulge 0/00 seemingly attached to its side as an afterthought, but the Z5 is neither unwieldy nor very heavy. You certainly can,t stick it in your pocket, any of them, but it also doesn't require special gear to carry it along. it's both simple and extremely versatile. You can use it to take great closeup shots, but the first time you take it to a ball game or any other place where you need to get real close to the action, that,s when you truly get hooked. In this day and age, 5 megapixel is the bare minimum if you use a camera almost all day long, but then again, that,s what all but one of the contenders in this lineup have. And with a big zoom you don't have to crop nearly as much, so your megapixels go a long way.

What it all means is that if you're interested in a somewhat different camera with a tremendous optical zoom and lots of good, common-sense features, and can live with the relatively bulky body a big optical zoom lens necessitates, Konica Minolta,s DiMAGE Z series will almost certainly be of interest to you. The DiMAGE Z5 has a uniquely styled body that looks like a SLR but isn't; a relatively cumbersome overall shape due to the big lens; a ,switchfinder 0/00 that uses one and the same LCD for external viewing and as the basis for an electronic viewfinder; excellent ergonomics; an amazing range that covers extreme close-ups all the way to a massive 12X optical zoom; and a terrific anti-shake feature that makes the 12X optical zoom far more useful that it has any right to be. In the Z5, Konica Minolta also replaced the dinky little 1.5-inch LCD of the Z5,s predecessor models with a higher resolution 2.0-inch display. The new and larger LCD makes a huge difference. You no longer have to squint to see what,s on the screen. I'd like more than the rather stingy 115k pixel resolution, but in this class almost everyone else is playing Scrooge as well. The Z5 is very fast. I never have to wait, and that is important to me. Add to that a separate compartment for the SD Card slot and the four standard AA batteries, very cleanly and clearly marked controls, and a simplicity of operation rarely found these days in ever more complex digital cameras, and you have a winner. While the DiMAGE Z5 didn,t actually win any of the three categories, it is one of only three models to score in the 9s in every category~talk about well balanced.

Unfortunately, a few shortcomings carried over from earlier models and they may have cost the DiMAGE an outright win: the flash still doesn't pop up automatically, but most serious users will likely use an external flashlight anyway. And the diopter adjustment is still right next to the eye-piece where it's almost impossible to adjust. And, shamefully, the DiMAGE Z5 is the only camera in this entire lineup to have no audio annotation or voice memo feature at all. You get sound with the very nice 640 x 480 movie mode, and that,s it.

In our image quality testing, the multi-talented DiMAGE Z5 struggled with our macro test shot. It hunted for good focus and exposure but delivered neither (unlike in my own daily work with it). The 12X zoom shot was beautifully exposed and in near-perfect focus, but suffered from unacceptable purple fringing in high contrast areas. However, it pretty much aced the short zoom test where it offered the overall best balance between perfect exposure and proper focus.

* Small and handy for a 12X zoom camera
* Overall excellent picture quality
* Clean, clear design and menus
* Powerful features, yet simple operation

Not so cool:
* Flash doesn't pop up automatically
* No audio annotations or voice memos!

Rating for:
big zoom use-9.1

Olympus C-5500 Zoom
According to IDC, a Massachusetts research firm, Olympus is having a tough time in the US market. In the second quarter of 2005, Olympus, marketshare dropped from 10.9% to 6.4%, a distant fourth, just barely ahead of HP, Fuji and Nikon, and way behind Kodak, Canon and Sony. This is weird because not only is Olympus a pioneer in the digital camera market, but they also have a strong and ever-improving lineup of state-of-the-art cameras. So barring any potential behind-the-scene issues, if I had to come up with an explanation for this drop, I'd have to say that a) Olympus cameras usually look workmanlike rather than exciting and thus are not likely to stand out on a crowded shelf, and b) Olympus cameras often suffer from a rather convoluted menu system that may cause potential buyers to put the camera back on the shelf in frustration. I may be wrong.

I do feel quite confident, however, in saying that anyone who passes on the C-5500 Zoom is missing out on a very good camera at a great price. According to pricescan.com, at the time we finished this roundup in September 2005, the C-5500 was available for an average price of just US$235, by far the least expensive of this group. For that you get an attractively styled and very well made camera with a 5.1 megapixel imager, a very good 5X zoom lens that covers the 36-180mm equivalent, both automatic and manual modes, excellent ergonomics, a large 2-inch LCD and enough features to keep most photographers entertained and happy. there's even an anti-shake feature to stabilize things when you use the big zoom. So while the camera has been around for quite some time (in digital camera terms, anyway), the C-5500 represents a great balance of price, features, and performance. it's simple enough for beginners and powerful enough for serious photographers. it's large enough to accommodate four AA batteries (a solution we still like very much because you can get them anywhere) and a 5X zoom lens that fully retracts inside the housing, yet it isn't bulky or unwieldy (unless you compare it to the diminutive HP or Pentax).

However, before you sprint to the local discount store to bag a C-5500 or order one online, consider some of the not-so-great aspects of this camera.

If you're into movies, the C-5500 is among the weakest in this lineup. At this point, a maximum movie size of 320 x 240 pixels is no longer acceptable, not when others do it at 640 x 480 or better, with stereo sound, dedicated movie buttons and more. Sure, this is no vidcam, but people do like movie clips. And the C-5500 also can,t zoom while you're shooting clips.

Audio mode is equally weak. Four second audio clips per picture isn't much compared to the competition, some of which are veritable dictaphones.

Then there are little things that, somehow, you expect from a camera that looks as serious as this one: A diopter adjustment for the viewfinder, for example, a pop-up flash that actually pops up automatically when needed, or a decent printed English manual rather than a few pages of basic instructions in a multi-language booklet, with the rest on CD. Then there are the xD-Picture cards, a fine format, but a less common one. That works for me as long as the camera has dual slots, but if you go xD-Picture only, chances are you need to buy all new cards and card readers. Finally, there's the Olympus user interface that you either love or hate. I find it needlessly confusing with its multiple levels of inconsistent menus and icons. This is really too bad as the overall ergonomics of the camera are very good. Everything is clear and in the right spot.

The inexpensive Oly surprised us with the best macro performance of all cameras. The test picture was sharp and properly exposed. The 5X zoom test shot was also excellent, with perfect focus, no purple fringing, and excellent exposure. The C-5500 did average with the no-zoom test shot, providing only average exposure and sharpness.

* Great looks and design quality feel
* Excellent 5X optical zoom
* Superb ergonomics

Not so cool:
* Confusing menus and controls
* Only 20-second movie clips
* Marginal software and manuals

Rating for:
big zoom use-7.8

Pentax Optio SV
In the second half of 2005, the 5-megapixel subcompact appears to have become the definitive all-purpose, take-everywhere digicam for virtually everyone. The price/performance/size equation all work well.

Canon pioneered the boxy little metal-bodied design with their PowerShot S-series/Digital ELPH models. They,re still here and doing quite well but other makes have caught up to Canon,s pioneering efforts. Pentax brings a few neat tricks to this party with their popular Optio S line, the latest of which is the lovely and talented Option SV. Built in the mold of the 5MP, 3X-zoom Optio S5i, the SV offers a much larger 5X zoom to the feature mix using Pentax,s unique ,folding 0/00 lens design. You get a slightly fatter lens that zooms to 185mm equivalent telephoto that magically extends no more than your typical 3X zoom optic does. Unlike Minolta,s original ,flat 0/00 zoom technology for subcompacts, the Pentax design does not compromise image quality perceptibly. In fact, this camera exhibits a welcome lack of pincushion and barrel distortion at the zoom extremes.

I,ll admit to not really warming up to the original Optio models; they seemed derivative, overpriced, and somewhat slow compared to the cameras of the day. These were the kind of cameras you,d like if you were given one as a present but not if you,d paid for one yourself. Obviously, Pentax figured out how to hit the ELPHin sweet spot, as the latest Optios are fine cameras that can even please grumpy, nitpicking photo editors like us.

Except for one little thing: speed. The Optio SV, as nice as it is in most respects, is still comparatively pokey in the shutter lag department. If you routinely take pictures of things that move quickly, you may not be totally happy with the SV.

If you can get past the speed issue, you have much in the Optio SV that will make you happy. It has that long 5X zoom, the aforementioned superb optical performance, a super-macro mode that get you in insanely close (just over an inch), an auto-throttling flash for close-ups, auto-bracketing, 320 x 240 @ 30fps movies limited only be SD card size, USB2, AV-out port to connect to your TV, and a very sharp, 115,000-pixel LCD you can see outdoors. You also get a trick docking station that can charge an optional spare battery pack. Speaking on the dock, it does not let you face the back of your camera outwards, as the excellent Casio Exilim docks do, meaning you can,t use them as mini-digital picture frames.

No matter how much we obsess over details and compare features to competitive models, people want a subcompact digicam to do two things: get the shot with minimal hassle, and produce attractive output for print and screen. Everything in between is academic. The Optio SV has a better than average user interface, with clearly marked controls and a well-organized menu structure. And the output will delight you, with sharp, contrasty detail and naturally saturated color. Pentax brings plenty of image making experience to the table, with lens technology that is world-class. At around $300 street price, the Optio SV is now quite a bargain, and worth adding to your short list of quality, subcompact digital zoom cameras.

The Pentax seemed to put in a stellar performance in our macro test. The picture literally popped. That,s because it cheated a bit by oversharpening. Still, the Optio was among the best here. The 5X zoom test shot looked great, with perfect exposure, zero purple fringing, and near-perfect focus. The 1X zoom shot was only average, without the sharpness we,d expect.

* 5X zoom in a very small body
* Very good optics
* Nice user interface

Not so cool:
* Only 320 x 240 movies
* No internal memory
* Not the fastest gun in the West

Rating for:
big zoom use-6.8

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1
With just a couple of exceptions, Sony has never really ventured into big zoom digital cameras. Until now, that is. With the Cyber-shot DSC-01, Sony makes it clear that it doesn't want to concede that increasingly lucrative market to Canon with its S2IS and, to a lesser extent, Konica Minolta with its DiMAGE Z20/Z3/Z5 cameras.

Unlike many prior Sonys that always seem to sport unusual designs, the DSC-H1 is dead-conventional in its design. it's about the size and weight of the Canon S2IS, which means it is big and heavy. This is not a camera that you easily stash away, let alone carry in a pocket. What you get in return is a very competent big zoom camera that gets the job done.

The big 12X digital zoom covers the 36mm equivalent of 36 to 432mm. This makes the camera perfect in situations where you can,t get close to the action, or where you want to get really close without interrupting the setting. Sony also separated the zoom from the shutter rather than combining it into one control, which makes zooming so much easier. The camera also has a terrific macro mode that lets you take pictures of things less than an inch away from the big lens. I say big because, just like the V3, the H1 sports a massive metal and somewhat awkward looking threaded hull around the lens. The big barrel lets you screw on lens adapters and filters.

Sony has always excelled in the LCD department, and the H1 is no different. Its excellent 2.5-inch LCD is half an inch larger than any other in this lineup. Unfortunately, its 115k resolution is the same as that of most of the smaller displays. Also, unlike the Canon S2IS,s flip/rotate LCD, the Sony,s is fixed. What it seems to come down to is deciding between a small flip-out display or a larger fixed display.

As is the case with all of the big zoom cameras in this comparison, the Sony doesn't have an optical viewfinder. Instead, you toggle between the LCD and an electronic viewfinder. Not a bad solution, but a somewhat cumbersome one as it requires the pushing of a button before you can use whatever mode is not on.

Before you even start using the camera you notice two things. First, the H1 uses the Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro format. If you already have some of them, good. If not, you have to buy them. The H1 comes with a relatively generous 32MB of internal memory, but that doesn't last long when you take 5 megapixel images and the camera doesn't come with a Memory Stick. Advice: get one with at least 512MB capacity. Second, despite the large powerbulge in this large camera, the H1 runs on only two rechargeable AAs. Rechargeables pack a lot more punch these days~up to 2,500mAH~but given the size of this camera and Sony,s superb InfoLithium technology, why not four AAs or InfoLithium?

In daily use, the Sony is a nice but not perfect companion. We quickly came to appreciate its terrific "Super Steady Shot" antishake technology that makes getting sharp images using the zoom lens easy. Operating the camera was fairly easy as well. The menus are clear and uncluttered, and most controls are clearly marked. An exception is the small, shiny mode dial that is cluttered with 14 letters and icons, making it often impossible in sunlight to find the mode you want. Do camera designers ever use a camera?

The H1 has a powerful flash that automatically pops open when it is needed. The only flash-related problem is that in forced flash mode it can take the camera seconds after the shutter is pressed to actually take a picture.

Shockingly, Sony failed to give the H1 any ability to record sound clips with images. Sound is only for the 640x480 (no zoom) movies. Boo!

In the lab, the Sony performed well with the macro test shot. It focussed properly but slightly overexposed, which resulted in a picture that was somewhat too soft. The 12X test shot was perfect, with great focus, perfect exposure, zero purple fringing and superb detail. The standard 1X test shot was good, with excellent focus, but uneven exposure.

* Superb anti-shape feature
* Very good 12X zoom, good macro mode
* Largest LCD display in this lineup

Not so cool:
* No audio clips with images
* Two AAs instead of four or InfoLithium
* Nearly indecipherable mode dial

Rating for:
big zoom use-9.8


Best overall:
Canon PowerShot S2IS

Canon,s jack-of-all-trades PowerShot S2IS pulls off a narrow overall win against some rather illustrious competition. The PowerShot did this with a very balanced feature set for a reasonable price. With the exception of its terrific 12X zoom lens, the Canon didn,t dominate this field, but it also didn,t have any weaknesses other than cluttered icons and menus, and perhaps a somewhat ho-hum design. Offering a flip/rotate LCD, a terrific movie mode, versatile audio recording, a vast feature set, great manual control, good battery life, and that nice, big zoom, you can,t go wrong with the PowerShot S2IS.
Best big zoom:
Fujifilm S9000

If money were no object, the Fujifilm S9000 would have run away with the overall victory, at least for those who,d be willing to put up with its massive size and weight. Offering almost twice the resolution of all other cameras in this lineup, the big Fuji can take full advantage of its superb manually controlled 10.7X optical zoom lens. Needless to say, there's full manual control and numerous advanced features, but they do not come at the expense of leaving out more consumer-oriented goodies such as a very good movie mode and voice memos. The S9000 is the perfect camera for people who want a big zoom and near SLR features and performance.
Best to take along:
HP Photosmart R817

The little 5-megapixel HP Photosmart R817 easily was the surprise of this lineup. It doesn't look like much, but offers a very appealing combination of handy size and weight, a surprisingly rich feature set, great ease of use, a terrific LCD, 32MB of internal memory and much better image quality than expected. We also love the fact that the big 5X optical zoom fully retracts into the slender body when the camera is off. We don't like the lack of a viewfinder or that you need the dock to charge the camera or connect it to a computer, but its overall goodness makes this the zoom camera you can to take anywhere.



© 2004 D.C. Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.