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Sub-$300 digital camera shootout

Get a Lot For Very Little: We tested 11 inexpensive digital cameras.

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Whenever a new technology arrives on the scene, it's initially very expensive. CD players cost a bundle when they appeared 20 years or so ago. Today you can pick one up for a few dollars. A reasonably equipped original IBM PC cost something like US$4,000, and that is in 1981 dollars. And who could forget the $6-7,000 laptops and $5,000 Apple Laserwriters? Today you can pick up an almost infinitely more powerful HP, Dell or Gateway PC, including a nice big flat-panel display and a DVD burner for a fraction of that. And speaking of flat-panels, their prices have come down a very great deal as well. The pattern is always the same: within a few years, the price of new consumer technology items always comes way down.

This was no different for digital cameras. The first consumer digital cameras from Olympus, Nikon and other pioneers were in the US$500-1,000 range even though they offered laughably little by today's standards. For a good while, digital cameras remained significantly more expensive than film -- at some point, they cost two to five times as much as a comparable film camera. But then, prices started coming down, and it was not only prices coming down, but also, as had happened with computers before, consumers were getting increasingly more powerful technology for less and less money. Then something else happened. No one had expected film to collapse as quickly as it did, but when that occurred, there was additional price pressure on digital camera makers because no one wanted to miss out on the huge market of photographers used to be able to pick up a decent camera for a couple hundred dollars.

So with the above in mind, we decided to see just how much digital camera you can get these days for your money. Cameras are almost always discounted heavily, and especially so in the digital market where products have such a short life cycle that they are usually obsolete within months of their introduction. So we set an arbitrary list price point of US$299, which usually translates into a street/discount price in the low to mid 200s. We called on every major digital camera maker and presented the following challenge: "Send us your best camera with a list price of US$299 or less." This was the only requirement. We figured that in this hugely competitive market, everyone wanted to look their absolute best in terms of price versus performance.

One by one the cameras came in. Several truly represented the best the manufacturer had to offer. Others had us scratching our heads: What were those PR people thinking, sending a dinky model when their client had half a dozen better offerings? Anyway, everyone will get rated on the same scales and we'll explain those at the end of this introduction. First, here's what you can expect if you want to pay less than $300:

Resolution: It used to be that megapixel pretty much determined the price and prestige of a camera. Those days seem to be coming to an end, just like Intel and AMD at some point realized that the clock speed of their CPU had become meaningless. Today you can get as much as eight megapixel even in very inexpensive cameras, and five or six megapixel has become the norm. There are still two or three megapixel cameras, but those are usually el-cheapo products that are lacking in almost every respect. Five megapixel, on the other hand, is enough to make almost everyone happy. It's enough to make nice, big print enlargements and yet the individual images are not so big as to fill up a decently sized storage card in a few shots. Look for five to six megapixel.

LCDs: The size and quality of the LCD is where you get what you pay for. If you go to a department store and look at some of the cheapest digital cameras, you'll find that they have tiny LCDs. We consider anything less than 1.8 to two inches diagonally to be essentially useless. One of the biggest advantages of digital cameras is that you can see the picture right away, and you can dispose of shots that didn't come out right. You can only do that if the screen is large enough. The bigger the screen and the higher the resolution, the better. And make sure the display is outdoor viewable. Some of the cheap ones are not. This is absolutely one of the most important aspects of a digital camera, and especially so if yours does not have an optical viewfinder as a backup.

Zoom: Optical zooms are a great thing; they can get you much closer to the action. Every digital camera but the very cheapest models has an optical zoom of at least 3X. That's nice but hardly needed if your camera has 5 megapixel or more; you simply use your imaging program to crop out what you don't need. So why do the great majority of digital cameras have optical zoom when most film cameras were fixed lens? That's because early digital cameras had such low resolution that they needed an optical zoom, thus making today's optical zoom a "legacy" feature. However, it's a nice one, and if you have a choice, always go for the highest optical zoom you can get.

Size and weight: Unlike film cameras where the size of the 35mm film cartridge determined the minimum size and the shape of a camera, digital cameras can be amazingly small, thin and light. But just as with notebook computers, ultra-thin and ultra-light models cost more. So while we value compact size and light weight in a camera, there is an interesting line between cameras that are very small and light -- such as some of the ultra-thins that we reviewed in the last issue -- and cameras that simply feel cheap. They are light because they're all plastic. In the lower price ranges you find such models. If it feels like a kids' meal toy from a fast food joint, chances are you won't be very happy with it.

Cost cutting: While US$299 is still a good chunk of change, it's clear that manufacturers cut costs wherever they can to still make a profit with economy cameras. I already mentioned the smaller LCDs. Other areas where costs are cut are the use of alkaline batteries instead of more expensive rechargeable Li-Ion powerpacks. No big deal, but it generally means you have to buy a charger with rechargeable NiMH batteries as the alkalines don't last long. While almost all digital cameras now come with internal storage, the inexpensive ones don't have much, and they probably don't come with a storage card. So you'll have to buy one of those. Tripod mounts are usually plastic, which means they can strip much more easily than metal ones. Picture quality can be amazingly good, but realize that high quality optics cost money. Most people like to play movie clips; with economy cameras you often only get 320 x 240 movies, no zooming while taking the movie, and sometimes not even sound. Almost all are strictly point & shooters with little or no manual control. What all this means is that you need to carefully examine a camera and see if it will give you what you want and need, or else you'll quickly regret the purchase, despite the low price.

As always, we rated the cameras for their suitability for users with different priorities. The "Best overall" is for users who expect the most features and best performance in a camera as long as it meets the $299 list price criterion. The "Bang for the Buck" rating is for those who want the most camera for the least amount of money. And "For Beginners" rates cameras as best for those just starting out. -- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Canon Powershot A610

Just like once you couldn't go wrong buying IBM, it's almost impossible going wrong buying a Canon digital camera. True, some of the Canons in our recent roundups surprisingly failed to score podium finishes, but they were still very good choices.

Canon released the Powershot A610 late 2005 with a list price of US$299.95. That's the high end for a 5-megapixel camera these days, but if you are into quality and features, this camera is worth every penny. This Canon neither looks nor feels like an economy model, and it isn't. What you get is a substantial camera (at 3/4 of a pound it is the heaviest in this review by far) with true prosumer features. The A610's matte-silver plastic body with some metal inserts here and there is workmanlike rather than ultra-elegant, but it is very functional and definitely feels very well-made. Unlike most compacts, the A610 houses 4AA batteries in a traditional "powerbulge" design that makes the camera easy to hold. Four batteries also last much longer than two, which is what most others in this review have: you get about 350 shots with alkalines and about 500 with rechargeables from the A610, and that is with the LCD on. Speaking of the LCD, the A610 is the only model here with a display that swivels out 180 degrees and rotates by 270 degrees. That means you can shoot from your hips or from above your head, which can come in very handy. You can also turn the display around so it faces the camera body when you don't need it and want it protected. The sole disadvantage of this arrangement is the relatively small 2.0-inch size of the display. It makes up for it in part with its high 115k pixel resolution.

Those who like manual control will love the A610. It comes with a full, traditional mode wheel to select program mode, shutter or aperture priority, custom, or full manual mode. The mode dial further offers movie, stitch-assist, scenes (eight can be selected via menu), night scene, landscape and portrait, and a fully automatic mode when you want to let the camera do the work -- something it does superbly well thanks to Canon's high-performance DIGIC II image processor. Startup time, incidentally, is also the fastest in the lineup. Push the on/off button and 1.2 seconds later you're ready to shoot.

If you like to bring things real close, the A610 has a nice 4X optical zoom, corresponding to a 35-140mm 35mm lens, that's complemented by a perfectly functional 4X digital zoom. For getting real close, there's a macro that can focus on things that are just 0.4 inches away from the lens. Impressive. While serious photographers generally don't buy digital cameras to shoot movies, the A610 is very good at it, too. You can record 640 x 480 clips at a fast 30 frames per second and use the zoom while doing so. You can also shoot at a blistering 60 frames per second in 320 x 240 mode. Movie sound is pretty good, too, and unlike some other economy cameras, the A610 allows you to add up to a full minute of voice annotation to each image.

Unlike all others, however, the A610 doesn't have any internal memory and it only comes with a 16MB SD Card, so you'll have to budget for a reasonably sized storage card. It does come with large, detailed manuals for camera operation, software, and even direct printing. We much prefer that to a pamphlet and a PDF manual.

There is little not to like with the A610. Controls and menus are functional and detailed, there's plenty of flexibility and power, and all the manual control you'd want. Image quality inside with flash tied for best with the Sony S600, and only a minor lack of sharpness prevented an outright win. Outdoor pictures looked consistently great with very good detail, though occasionally a bit soft.

* Most overall power and flexibility
* Excellent 4X optical zoom and great macro
* 60 fps movie mode and long battery life
* Swivel/rotate LCD, great image quality

Not so cool:
* Large size and hefty weight
* Smallish LCD and some cheap plastic parts

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 10.0
bank for buck - 10.0
for beginners - 10.0

FujiFilm Finepix A400/500

Fuji knows that with film on its way out, entry level digital cameras are becoming increasingly important. They will represent a good percentage of all cameras sold and it's therefore imperative to establish a good bridgehead and brand identity in consumers' minds. In FujiFilm's lineup, the A-Series serves that purpose, and the A400 and A500 are the latest additions, introduced at the January 2006 CES Show in Las Vegas.

I need to point out right upfront that we're not quite sure why FujiFilm entered the two newcomers into our "Send us your best camera with a list price of under US$300" roundup. That's because the A400 and A500 are true entry level cameras that we expect to sell for US$149 and 179, respectively. We're also covering them in a single review because they are almost identical. The biggest difference is that the A500 offers 5.1 megapixel resolution whereas the A400 is a 4.1 megapixel camera. All other specs are identical with a single exception. The A500 offers a 5.2X digital zoom in addition to the shared 3X optical zoom whereas A400 owners must do with 3.6X digital magnification -- no big deal. We found a weight difference of 0.6 ounces in favor of the A500, but that was because the review A500 came with Lithium AAs instead of the heavier alkalines. As is, we'd definitely spend the extra thirty bucks or so for the extra megapixel.

What do you get with this duo? That would be a nice looking, competent entry-level camera from a very reputable manufacturer. The body is mostly plastic though it looks like a much more expensive camera with a metal housing. It is not as exquisitely crafted as, say, a Canon Digital ELPH, but it definitely doesn't feel cheap either. From the front, the A400/500 looks as elegant and businesslike as it gets.

However, even FujiFilm cannot escape economic realities, and so the low, low prices meant some serious cost-cutting. The LCD displays, for example, are dinky, low-res 1.8-inch affairs bordering on the unacceptable. The best that can be said is that they at least are complemented by a basic optical viewfinder. Our experience has shown that even beginners -- and perhaps especially beginners -- love to take movie clips. They will be disappointed in the duo's 320 x 240 clips that are further limited by a very slow 10 frame per second recording speed, a maximum length of 60 seconds, and no audio whatsoever. Fuji also made some questionable decisions in the controls department. Instead of the usual 5-way control disc, the zoom buttons must serve double duty for menu control as well, and the up/down part of it -- which unfortunately is used for zooming -- only barely works. Both cameras come with a meager 12MB of internal memory and use the unloved xD-Picture card format (none included).

Fortunately, that's about it for criticism. Fuji managed to pack a whole lot of good stuff into these cameras. Both come with Fuji's "Super CCD HR" sensors that deliver above average picture quality. The macro mode lets you get as close as four inches. The menus are as simple as it gets and totally self-explanatory. There aren't any manual modes here (but you can set white balance and exposure compensation). It's portrait, landscape, sport, night, auto or movie. The controls, likewise, are minimal and easy to figure out. Power on/off is via a tiny recessed button that's hard to operate.

Though in this case it's a cost-saving measure, we like the use of standard AA batteries and we also like onboard I/O jacks (DC, video, mini-B). A set of AA alkaalines lasts for perhaps 100 pictures.

The A400/500 are worthy entry-level contenders with very good picture quality, even though they are not the best Fuji offers for US$300. Inside, the A400/500's flash was too week to create great pictures, but image quality was perfectly workable. Outdoor pictures were close to excellent and always in good focus.

* The Fuji Super CCD HR imager
* Nicely styled bodies, easy to use
* Standard AA batteries, onboard I/O

Not so cool:
* Small, dinky LCD
* Frustrating "combination" controls
* Little internal memory, xD-Card format

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 5.4
bank for buck - 6.8
for beginners - 6.7

FujiFilm Finepix F470

We've always admired FujiFilm's ability to combine avant-garde technological innovation with a wide variety of styles and sizes, and almost complete coverage in every conceivable class of camera. We didn't necessarily like every product. but I truly can't remember a Fuji where I didn't feel the company at least gave it its best shot, whether or not I agreed with all the design decisions or the end result.

The US$299 F470, introduced at the 2006 CES show represents the current flagship of the company's very compact F-Series cameras. With a footprint about the size of a credit card, a thickness of just 0.8 inches, and a weight of five ounces, the F470 would probably have been a front runner in last issue's "thin-zoom" shootout.

Take one look at the F470 and you know that Fuji clearly put a lot of thought into its features and design. Its plastic/metal body looks and feels expensive and conveys a sense of high quality. Like many Fujis, the F470 includes a special styling touch. In this case the thin boxy body has a slight curvature on the right that at first may come across as just a design gimmick. But use the Fuji and the rear indentation fits your thumb and the front has just a hint of the "power bulge" that makes bigger cameras so comfortable to hold. "Bulge" would be an exaggeration, of course, in such a small camera -- one of the few in this lineup to use a thin, rechargeable Li-Ion power cell instead of standard AAs. It's good for about 200 pictures, which is not bad at all.

The back of the F470 is dominated by a huge and reasonably high-res 2.5-inch LCD. That's as big as that on the vaunted video iPod and perfectly suitable to review pictures and movies. Unfortunately there is no optical viewfinder. As far as controls go, the F470 conforms to current standards: A small power button on top turns the camera on and off. A ring around the shutter selects auto, program, or movie modes. A conventional five-way navigation disc operates menus and lets you toggle through the usual flash, macro, self-timer and delete functions. The only thing non-standard is Fuji's "F" button. It accesses the "Fuji Photo Modes" that really should be part of the menus.

The F470 is a point & shoot camera although it offers a little bit more manual control than its less expensive A-Series cousins.

Those who like to shoot moves clips will be quite happy with the F470. 640 x 480 pixel clips? Check. Shooting at 30 frames per second til the card is full? Check. Sound? Check. And you can even attach 30 second sound clips to each still picture. The F470's internal memory of just 16MB and the included 16MB xD-Picture card doesn't help much either, so it's off to the store to get a 512MB or 1GB card at extra expense. The camera starts up quicker than most: push the buttons and 1.7 seconds later you're ready to start taking pictures.

Image quality, almost always a strong point of Fuji cameras, is exemplary. Not only do you get a full 6.0 megapixel, but those pixels are arranged in Fuji's patented Super CCD HR arrangement that we've come to know and love. Flash image quality inside was excellent with great looking pictures. Outdoor pictures were superb and best in this roundup, with just a bit of oversharpening here and there.

The macro function lets you get as close as four inches. There are ten scene modes and six white balance presets in addition to a reliable automatic mode. The built-in flash is powerful for such a small camera and we definitely appreciate the onboard power and combined AV/USB jacks. A few things are perhaps a bit plasticky for a camera at the upper end of the allowed price spectrum, like the connector cover and the plastic tripod thread, but overall this camera rocks.

* Small, light and slender
* Clean, uncluttered, attractive design
* Very large, sharp LCD display
* Logical, easy-to-operate controls

Not so cool:
* No manual modes, no optical viewfinder
* ome plastic parts look a bit cheap

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 8.1
bank for buck - 9.0
for beginners - 9.4

HP PhotoSmart R717

When we asked for HP's best sub-US$300 digital camera, the Photosmart R717 arrived at our editorial offices. Though released quite some time ago, this 6-megapixel compact can still holds its own in most areas against a barrage of newer models. It's also an interesting looking camera with a brushed stainless steel front that curves around the right side. The back is dark-gray plastic with a rubbery finish that makes the R717 easy to hold. The overall design employs a strict tool kit of lines, curves and indentations that all come together in a disciplined, unusual, but not unpleasant whole. In practice, it all works amazingly well, with most controls literally at the tip of your thumb. It is difficult to review a HP camera on its own merits because Hewlett Packard views a camera as just one small part of an integral imaging/computer system that includes PC, email, the internet, printers, scanners and the all-encompassing HP Image Zone software suite that can -- if you let it -- do it all. So while the specs are all there, you can never quite shake the feeling that this camera isn't quite whole unless it is plugged into the HP collective. But let's take a look at the hard data anyway.

In addition to the 6.2 megapixel imager you get a 3X optical zoom (30-117mm equivalent) that can be digitally multiplied to full 24X magnification. The 1.8-inch LCD is small by today's standards, but it is bright and razor-sharp with its 130k pixel resolution. We're talking 558 x 320 pixels -- much more than your average Pocket PC. That's a good thing because HP uses the LCD for more than just menus. There is also a help feature that covers not only most of the camera's operation in substantial detail, but also offers photographic tips and even lists a slew of available optional accessories and where to get them. The menus are all beautifully designed and laid out. No confusion here. The same can generally be said about the controls. They are in the right spots and clearly marked. Repeatedly clicking a mode button to select one of a dozen scene modes (including an Aperture priority mode) is a bit cumbersome, but everything else is easy and simple.

Movie fans will be disappointed by the lack of a 640 x 480 mode, and even at 320 x 240 you can't zoom. On the other hand, movies do record with sound and at a brisk 30 frame per second clip til you run out of storage, and you can also attach up to 60 seconds of sound to each still picture. The R717 uses a rechargeable Li-Ion power pack that's good for at least 200 pictures. Where the R717 really shines is in helping you taking good pictures and sharing them with friends and family. There is the HP adaptive lighting that auto-adjusts high-contrast pictures. Other technologies work on white balance, color, sharpness, noise, and so on. There is in-camera red-eye removal. There is an in-camera panorama preview so you can align up to five pictures. You can even have the camera analyze your pictures and give you advice on the spot. And the camera knows the proper orientation of every picture. All of this will appeal to beginners and those who simply want to take pictures without taking a college course in photography. Others will have no use for it, or for HP's massive software suite.

Another interesting feature is the cameras Instant Share Menu where you can not only tag picture for printing, but also have them automatically sent to your favorite destinations, such as email addresses or online albums, next time you connect to the PC mothership.

All of this makes the HP R717 the perfect choice for some people and rules it out for others. Thanks to its strong flash the HP stook good and extremely sharp pictures inside. Outdoor pictures were average and often a bit oversharpened.

* Unique, functional design and operation
* Onboard image manipulation and help
* Close integration into HP's Image Zone

Not so cool:
* Smallish (though very sharp) display
* Weak movie mode
* Some controls cumbersome

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 7.2
bank for buck - 7.9
for beginners - 7.8

Kodak EasyShare C663

Kodak is in an unenviable position. The longtime world leader in traditional film products is frantically trying to make up rapidly declining film sales with increasing digital product sales. So far, the results are mixed. While Kodak is the number one seller of digital cameras in the US and number three in the world after Canon and Sony, Kodak keeps losing money. Kodak's ability to establish itself as a premier maker of digital cameras as well as grabbing the lion's share in digital printing services is therefore crucial to the company's survival. Which means they have to make cameras people want to buy, lots of them. And Kodak is doing a decent job. As editor of Digital Camera Magazine I ended up buying a Kodak as a gift for my son's tenth birthday. It was an impulse buy. The colorful box, the features, the price, it all just seemed right. And there's the Kodak name. My son loves it.

The 6.1 megapixel Kodak EasyShare C663 was introduced early 2006. It's a very compact camera with plenty of appeal. Its silvery body feels solid. The Schneider-Kreuznach name that adorns the 3X optical zoom lens sounds impressive. A standard mode dial signals that this is not a toy. There's a huge 2.5-inch LCD that means you can actually see and enjoy pictures and movies right on the camera. And despite the big screen, Kodak thoughtfully added an optical viewfinder for those times when you need one.

Kodak bills the C663 as the first to incorporate their Kodak Perfect Touch technology, previously, the company states, only available in Kodak printers, kiosks and lab processing. This sounds good -- who doesn't like Kodachrome? And for good measure there's also the Kodak Color Science image processing chip for rich colors and accurate skin tones. Like HP, Kodak also stresses the ability to very easily share pictures via, well, EasyShare. There's a special little red "share" button that brings up a print and email menu, and also "Favorite." Yes, you can tag your favorite pictures and movie clips so you can always quickly find them. This is a friendly camera indeed. And if you spring for an optional Kodak printer dock you just place the camera on it and print away. Or get the also optional camera dock for easy recharging of the battery pack (you can also use AAs) and sending pictures to the computer. In fact, the C663 comes with a custom camera adapter that fits this particular model onto Kodak docks.

How does it all work in everyday life? The big screen is terrific. It makes all the difference in the world when reviewing pictures or even walking menus. The controls are logically arranged, but quite small and mostly labeled with very small print. The 5-way nav pad looks like a disc, but is actually a tiny little control knob. The mode dial is clear enough but doubles as the on/off switch, and some modes use a hybrid approach that's part dial, part onscreen menu. It all works fine, but isn't quite as easy and intuitive as it could be. Kodak covers the bases with 15 scene modes that are represented both by an icon and a fairly detailed description, and a manual mode that provides control over aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and autofocus. Using Perfect Touch almost always improves a picture. There is also a crop mode that brings up a smaller frame. You can pan it around, but you can't change its size, which makes it less useful than it could be.

I was a bit disappointed in the camera's audio and video. It can take 640 x 480 movies, but you can't zoom. It records sound with the movies clips that can go on until the card or 32MB of internal memory are full, but you can't annotate voice clips to pictures. I'd expect both in a $300 camera that is supposed to be easy fun.

A weak flash hampered indoor picture quality. Pictures looked okay and were sharp, but there just wasn't enough light. Outdoor images looked excellent, though at times a bit soft.

* Terrific 2.5-inch LCD and rangefinder
* Clean, handy, quality design
* Comes with rechargeable AA pack
* Integration with Kodak docks and printers

Not so cool:
* Tiny controls with tiny labels
* No voice clips or movie zoom

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 8.0
bank for buck - 8.5
for beginners - 8.9

Mustek MDC 500

Imagine an automotive publication challenging domestic and international car manufacturers to send their overall best general purpose vehicle under, say $30,000, for a roundup and one of them, and a lesser known at that, enters a modest little $10,000 econobox. Would that makes sense? Is there good PR to be had from entering a product that will likely be slaughtered by the much higher-priced competition? We're not PR types and so we don't know. However, the PR folks at Mustek, a Taiwanese high tech company that's been building scanners and other cool digital electronics for the past 18 years, apparently felt confident enough to send their new MDC 500 to battle the costlier, more established competition. Mistake or smart move? We shall see.

Let's start with saying that if you really want a decent 5-megapixel digital camera but your wallet is nearly empty, the MDC 500 may well be just what you're looking for. Its suggested retail price is US$129, which means you may be able to get it for 99 bucks or less. Which means you get an awful lot of pixels for your money, especially since the Mustek even has a hardware-interpolated mode that jacks resolution up to 7 megapixel (3072 x 2304). Wow. Further, Mustek bills the MDC 500 as a "4-in-1" multi-functional device that's still camera, camcorder, card reader, and PC vidcam. This is starting to sound interesting.

Open the nicely designed box, though, and you quickly face the cold reality that even an inventive Taiwanese company cannot cheat the basic rules of economics. The MDC 500 is a small camera with the footprint of a credit card. Though it's almost an inch thick it weighs next to nothing -- just 3.4 ounces with battery. It feels very light and plasticky, too -- not like the costly ultra-thins we reviewed in the last issue of Digital Camera. At first sight it looks like there is a large LCD on the back, but it's really just a minuscule 1.7-incher sitting inside a much larger bezel. It's sharp enough with a claimed 480 x 240 pixels, but has a very narrow vertical viewing angle.

You turn the camera on by moving a plastic slider plate in the front that doubles as a lens protector. The little Mustek beeps and goes through its fairly lengthy startup, but no zoom extends out of the camera. That's because it's the only camera in the lineup that has no optical zoom. It's a fixed lens, and 4X digital magnification is all you get. Okay, we've always felt that the ubiquitous optical zoom of virtually all digital cameras was a legacy leftover from the days of sub-megapixel cameras, whereas the Mustek has 5 megapixel to play with, or seven if you count the interpolated mode (we don't).

Moving on to operations and features, the MDC 500 is extremely easy to use. There's just the shutter, four directional buttons that also serve to toggle through flash modes, camera modes, and self-timer, and to bring up the onscreen menu. An "okay" button and a macro mode slider complete the controls. The onscreen menu is sparse and hard to read. There are no zoom-in/zoom-out controls. The OK button toggles between no zoom and 2X or 4X digital magnification, which are represented by small rectangles on the LCD. As far as modes go, there is auto and five scenes. Movies are recorded at 320 x 240, with sound. You can't attach audio clips to pictures. You can zoom in and pane around when reviewing pictures on the display.

The little Mustek comes with a very decent printed 70-page manual, a little leather case you can use on your belt, and Ulead Photo Explorer and Photo Express, both very good applications.

The Mustek 500 did not do well in our indoor flash tests. The very weak flash just didn't have enough punch for anything farther than a few feet away, and that made for murky, grainy shots. Outdoors, the inexpensive Mustek held its own, producing very good pictures that only tended to get a bit grainy due to oversharpening. Overall, alas, the bottom line is that despite the low price, the MDC 500 is a good choice only for those with the most basic expectations. Cool: * Lots of megapixel for very little money * Super easy to use and very light Not so cool: * Feels cheap * Tiny LCD that's hard to read * No optical zoom * Minimal feature set Rating for: overall bang for buck for beginners 4.5 6.0 6.6

* Lots of megapixel for very little money
* Super easy to use and very light

Not so cool:
* Feels cheap
* Tiny controls with tiny labels
* No optical zoom
* Minimal feature set

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 4.5
bank for buck - 6.0
for beginners - 6.6


Unlike its ultra-inexpensive and overmatched little brother, the Mustek 832Z definitely belongs in this field. It is a thoroughly modern digital camera that offers a full 8.0 megapixel -- most in this lineup -- for great price, just US$249.99 at the time of this writing. This is a camera that feels solid and well-designed in very respect. In fact, we found numerous identical parts used in this Mustek and the Pentax Optio E10, so we wouldn't be surprised if Mustek and Pentax shared some common digital camera DNA. A look through the Pentax lineup of Optio cameras confirmed the similarities.

In order to ward off confusion, I should mention that the Mustek 832Z is different from the $299 Mustek 830Z introduced in January 2006 at the CES show in Las Vegas. That model has a larger screen, more internal memory and a rechargeable battery.

What you get with the 832Z is a full-function, full-powered compact digital camera with plenty of features, including full manual control. It is also an attractive camera with a very elegantly designed body that uses a variety of brushed, matte and gleaming silver metallic finishes to convey the high-tech look that's been popular for several years now. It's a compact camera, too, with a footprint barely larger than that of a credit card. However, it has some heft to it (7.1 ounces including its two AA batteries) and definitely does not feel cheap.

In terms of controls, the 832Z follows current conventions: a nice large navigation ring with an "OK" button in the middle, separate buttons for replay, menus and delete, and a small on/off button in the center of the large mode dial on top of the camera. Shutter and optical zoom are separate and not combined into one control; I prefer that. Controls are all clearly marked with large icons that make sense. Also, all are black -- none of the confusing mix of colors, pictures and text here. This is an easy camera to learn, use, and hold in your hands.

The Mustek has a fairly high resolution LCD display that measures two inches diagonally. It also has an optical viewfinder, something that is rapidly becoming extinct in today's digital cameras . Mustek also includes -- unique in this field -- a diopter adjustment wheel. Unfortunately, the wheel moves very easily and I had to refocus often.

As mentioned, the 832Z not only offers plenty of resolution, but also enough operating modes to appeal to beginners and advanced photographers alike. You can set the mode wheel to Automatic and start snapping pictures. Scenes are relatively limited with just four settings: night, landscape, portrait and sport. In Program mode the camera sets aperture and shutter but you can control the rest. More advanced photographers can select Aperture or Shutter priority modes, or use the full Manual mode.

Those who like to shoot movie clips can do so in full 640 x 480 mode, with zoom and audio. There are some limitations: the zoom is digital, and recording takes place at just 20 frames per second. And there is none of the movie wizardry you might find on some of the more expensive cameras.

After you've taken a picture, the 832Z lets you resize it and even change recording quality. Unlike some of the competition, Mustek does not offer in-camera image manipulation. You do that once the pictures are uploaded into your PC, either with the included Ulead Photo Explorer and Photo Express, or your own image manipulation software of choice.

Given its high resolution and good optics, we had high expectations for the Mustek's image quality. Unfortunately, a weak flash hampered indoor picture quality and sharpness and kept the Mustek in the middle of the pack. Outdoor pictures had an excessive greenish tint and too much contrast. Mustek will have to do some finetuning here. Interestingly, we also found excessive green tint in our pre-production Pentax Optio E10, enforcing suspicions of a close family relationship.

As is, view the Mustek as a Pentax for less money. I wish we'd have had a chance to also test the more full-featured Mustek MDC 830Z.

* Nice design, quality feel
* 8.0 megapixel
* Optical viewfinder with diopter adjustment
* Full manual control

Not so cool:
* No audio clips
* Relatively small screens and few features

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 7.4
bank for buck - 7.7
for beginners - 7.7

Nikon Coolpix L1

The Nikon Coolpix is a compact digital camera that's very easy to like. The front/back pictures actually don't do this new Coolpix justice. Ours came in matte black with some chrome trim -- in my opinion a much better color combination for this camera than the basic silver shown above.

Compared to the chiseled look of some compact cameras that look like they've been machined from a solid block of metal, the Coolpix looks friendlier, warmer and less intimidating. It also has a large and very bright 2.5-inch LCD screen. Even a brightness of "3" out of five selectable levels was more than good enough. I must point out that the size of the display is something that totally changes the character and usefulness of a digital camera. Viewing pictures and movies on a 2.5-inch display is actually enjoyable, and that screen size is also large enough to allow you to clearly see whether a picture is sharp or has any flaws. Unfortunately, Nikon left off an optical viewfinder.

In addition to the large display, Nikon also equipped the L1 with another perennial crowd-pleaser: instead of the usual 3X zoom you get a full 5X of optical magnification. That can make a huge difference when you're doing sport or nature photography. Combine it with the camera's 4X digital zoom and you have 20X total magnification. Finally, while we expect 5 megapixel in this class, the Coolpix comes with six. More is always better.

In terms of controls and operation, the Coolpix also fares well. You turn the camera on and off via a small button on top. The large shutter offers superb control. You never inadvertently take a picture while still trying to focus with this camera. A mode slider lets you select automatic, scenes or movies. Shutter and zoom are separate, the way it should be. The rest of the controls are organized in the common 5-way navigation arrangement, with each of the four directional buttons also used to toggle through the usual functions (flash, macro, exposure control, and self-timer) plus three additional ones for functions not covered by the disc. Onscreen menus are simple and easy to understand and use. Everything is clearly marked, many functions have explanations, and you can even set the menus to either icons or text.

This camera is a point & shooter, and so you won't find manual modes. Instead, there are some 14 scenes, and four of them (portrait, landscape, sports, and night portrait) have additional "assist" modes. Select "portrait" and you get no fewer than seven different options for various types of portraits. An amazing "face priority" mode automatically detects the location of a face in a picture and makes sure that is in perfect focus. In "sports" you get a mode where the camera takes 16 shots in two seconds and puts them all into the same picture so you can see, for example, a finish, or what led up to a basket. Taking pictures for a panorama is fun as well. All of this makes the Coolpix L1 an entertaining and exciting camera to use and explore.

Movie options are more limited. You select between three sizes, up to 640 x 480, and you get sound, but you can't zoom while taking movie clips and the camera only records at 15 frames per section in VGA mode. You can also attach up to 20 second sound clips to images.

Like most cameras in this class, the Coolpix L1 can use either two standard alkaline AA batteries or rechargeables. We recommend the latter.

The Nikon's fairly weak flash didn't allow great shots indoor. They looked okay, but weren't very sharp. Outdoors the Nikon shot good but not great pictures. The focus was usually very good, but occasionally picture detail was a bit blurry, giving the L1 a middle-of-the-pack rating in this area.

* Attractive, functional design
* Terrific, bright 2.5-inch display
* Lots of interesting scene modes
* 5X optical zoom

Not so cool:
* Weak flash
* No manual control

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 7.6
bank for buck - 8.4
for beginners - 8.6

Olympus FE-120

As usual, ever enigmatic Olympus marches to the beat of a different drummer. In this case, you get a full six megapixel for very little money -- US$229.95 list, which translates into a much lower street price. You also get a good 3X optical zoom, numerous scene modes and some playful extras, all rolled into a typical Olympus body, i.e. one that a little larger and more rounded than what most of the competition offers. And that's just what Olympus has in mind with this class of camera: they should be easy and fun; friendly cameras designed for effortless picture taking. But is this the best Olympus camera with a list price under $300? Definitey not.

When you first take it out of the box, the camera feels large but comfortable in your hand. Everything is rounded; there are no sharp angles or corners. The size of the camera makes the small 1.8-inch LCD display look even smaller than it is. It's forlornly sitting in a bezel that could easily accommodate a 2.5-inch LCD, and we wish it would.

As far as controls go, the FE120 follows traditional layout, to some extent. There's the usual 5-way control where each directional button also toggles through a function (macro, self-timer, flash, exposure control). Zoom and shutter are separate so that you can control one with the thumb and the other with the index finger. There are also separate buttons to switch the camera into record and replay modes, and a final one to delete pictures you don't want. Interestingly, the backside also houses a mode dial populated by no fewer than ten icons and settings. Six of them are used for scene settings (portrait, landscape, night, sport, landscape and portrait, and night portrait). An additional "scene" setting provides access to ten more scene settings, selectable via onscreen menu. Auto, Program, and Movie modes complete the mode dial offerings. Even in program mode there is very little manual control. That's not what this camera is all about. Settings are handled via scenes. In all modes you may also push the "Menu" button in the center of the navigation pad. This brings up the unique Olympus-style menus that you either hate or love. No offense to Olympus, but count us among the former; a full menu overhaul is long overdue.

Most buyers of entry level cameras like to take movie clips and so we hoped for some good variety in that arena. Sadly, despite the 6-megapixel resolution, the FE-120 is limited to 320 x 240 pixel clips. You can shoot until the xD-Picture card (32MB is included) or the meager 10MB internal memory is full. You can also select full 30 frame per second mode, use digital zoom, and the camera does record sound. It's just that this is nowhere near as much as we'd expect from a "best camera under US$300."

There are some bright spots. Those who like to get very close to subjects will love the supermacro mode that allows to get as close as 0.8 inches. That's second only to the Canon. There is also some fun and games in the playback menu. You can, for example, select one of six picture frames, then zoom and pan the image until you have the desire effect. This can be useful, but most people will probably prefer to do such trickery on a nice, big computer screen instead of the Olympus' tiny LCD.

This wouldn't be an Olympus if it didn't have a few surprises in store. Based on our overall impressions we didn't expect too much from our test pictures. Yet, the picture quality of the Olympus' indoor shots was a pleasant surprise. It created very good pictures that consistently ranked near the top in this roundup. Outdoors, the Olympus FE-120 nearly matched the leading Canon and Fuji FE470 with very pleasing pictures. They were occasionally a bit oversharpened, but most will be very happy with the picture quality this inexpensive camera offers.

* Very good overall picture quality
* Good variety of scene modes

Not so cool:
* Fairly large and bulky
* Confusing menus
* No manual control
* marginal movie mode

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 6.3
bank for buck - 7.2
for beginners - 7.1

Pentax Optio E10

Pentax is usually full of surprises. We've reviewed Pentax cameras that looked like a million dollars but didn't perform very well. But we also reviewed other Pentax cameras that looked perfectly ordinary and performed like champions. What category does the Optio E10 fall in?

Like almost all Pentax cameras, the Optio E10 is beautifully styled and crafted. Look at it and chances are you'll fall in love with its classy, handsome design and well thought-out choice of materials and textures. Pick it up and you'll marvel at how right it feels in your hands. It's very small, with the class-typical footprint no larger than that of a credit card. It's not ultra-slender, but thin enough to slip into most any pocket. It's light at 6.2 ounces, but heavy enough so it doesn't feel like a toy.

Despite the small side of the camera, the backside is home to a gloriously large 2.4-inch LCD, the kind that makes viewing pictures and movie clips a pleasure rather than an eye-squinting chore. Large though it is, the display isn't very high resolution, and that hampers its usefulness. Like many recent digital cameras, it does not have an optical viewfinder, so if the screen washes out you're out of luck.

The back also contains almost all controls. They are a bit small for large fingers to operate comfortably, and the mix of green, black, blue and edged icons and writing could, and should, be simplified. It should always be obvious which control an icon belongs to, but that isn't the case here. The relative confusion continues with the mode dial on top of the camera. It's populated by eight icons that must be aligned with a tiny black dot in order to take effect. The tiny icons are pretty self-explanatory which is a good thing as the display doesn't provide additional information. Each mode setting has a corresponding menu that is not easy to read because white or gray text is superimposed over a live picture. Text is disappointingly blurry.

Despite its serious look and 6-megapixel resolution, the Optio E10 is a point & shooter without any manual modes. And Pentax purposely designed the camera as an affordable entry-level model. What you do get is just a few modes: portrait, landscape, action, night and program mode. Program mode lets you set white balance, ISO sensitivity, metering method (center-weighted or spot), color mode, sharpness, saturation and digital zoom on or off.

The E10 doesn't offer much in the movie or audio departments either. It's 320 x 240 movies at 20 frames per second. You get sound and you can shoot in color, black and white or sepia. There's also a digital zoom that's so choppy that it's useless. Sound is limited to movies; you can't attach audio clips to your images.

The Pentax E10 does have some neat tricks. One of them I haven't seen before and it makes so much sense that I'll mention it here. When it comes time to use the self-timer to take a family picture with everyone in it, the problem often is that someone blinks or makes a funny face. So you have to go through the whole procedure twice or three times. Pentax to the rescue: the E10 has a mode that waits for ten seconds to take the first picture, then takes another two seconds later. Brilliant.

Like most affordable entry-level cameras, the E10 uses two AA batteries or AA rechargeables. Pentax estimates only 80 pictures per set of alkalines. The camera has an SD Card slot, but only 10MB of internal storage. Software includes ACDSee.

Our Pentax was a preproduction model and so we didn't judge the test shots. Based on our experience with Pentax Optio cameras we expect acceptable indoor quality and very good outdoor quality.

* Classy design, quality feel
* Large 2.4-inch LCD display
* Simple operation

Not so cool:
* Low resolution
* Inconsistent hard-to-read icons and menus
* Weak movie mode

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 6.3
bank for buck - 7.5
for beginners - 7.4

Sony Cyber-shot S600

Sony is a company that can do it all, and very often does. It's also a compaany that has a history of pioneering concepts but not quite managing to make them standards, and of going hogwild in designing numerous often overlapping products in already crowded markets. This at times leads to regrettable knee-jerk reactions (such as when Sony pulled its entire line of terrific Clie PDAs), axing of development projects (such as its desktop pen computers and, most recently, the Aibo robot dog), and finally to products that often seems compromises between departments and individuals that are all unwilling to give up on their pet features or design elements.

Despite all this, Sony remains a force to be reckoned with, and many of their products still hit the spot in ways no one else can. That seems to be the case with Sony's new Cyber-shot DSC-S600, an addition to the budget S-Series, announced at the January 2006 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Unlike many Sony products, the S-600 is neither a technological tour-de-force nor one of those ultra-slim marvels at miniaturization that Sony is so good at. No, the S-600 so happens to be an excellent example of what Sony still is capable of doing in terms of very good technology at a very reasonable price when it puts its mind to it.

The Cyber-shot S600 is neither particularly small nor particularly attractive. It sort of resembles the Olympus FE120 -- fairly large, rounded with a variety of different design elements, and a bit on the heavy side. However, in this particular case, a Sony camera offers more in virtually every respect, and it costs less. That's right. For a very low list price of just US$199.95, the S600 gets you 6 megapixel resolution, a nice Sony-quality 2-inch LCD display plus optical viewfinder as a backup, an excellent Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens with 3X optical zoom, and enough advanced Sony technology to make this perhaps one of the most rewarding and most powerful point & shooters available at any price. For example, the camera is extremely light-sensitive with ISO settings up to ISO1000. This allows for higher shutter speeds at low light conditions, thus reducing the chance for blurry pictures, and also let's you take discreet indoors shots without the flash going off.

Using the S600 is very simple. On top, a slider lets you select taking pictures, shooting movies, or reviewing what you shot. A menu button brings up those menus relating to a mode. Unfortunately, the menus mostly use tiny icons whose meaning is not always clear, and the camera doesn't offer additional information. The seven scenes are a bit meager, and they do not include such necessities as a macro mode. However, even without macro you can get as close as five inches, which isn't too bad.

Sony's choice of a rather wide-angle 31-93 mm lens is interesting. On the one hand, it's much easier to get everyone into a group shot. On the other hand, you almost always shoot more than what you really wanted to get into the picture, which means there'll be a lot of cropping. The lens definitely requires some getting used to.

Those who like to shoot movie clips will love the 640 x 480 resolution at a full 30 frames per second. Sound is good as well, but it's for movies only. You can't attach voice recordings to still images. The camera uses 2AAs. For storage there is a Memory Stick Duo slot and 32MB of internal memory.

In terms of picture quality, the Sony excelled. Its very powerful flash made for excellent, very well lit indoor pictures. They consistently looked great, illuminated things evenly, and also offered excellent focus. Outdoor quality was almost equally good, and the camera offered the best unenhanced image sharpness of all cameras in this review.

* Great Sony value at a low price
* Superb image quality
* Very strong flash

Not so cool:
* Wide-angle lens requires getting used to
* Very few features
* Confusing icons without additional info

Rating for (10=max):
overall - 8.0
bank for buck - 9.1
for beginners - 9.1



Best overall:
Canon PowerShot A610

In the entire history of Digital Camera Magazine's roundups it has never happened that one single camera happened to score highest in every single ratings class. In fact, we always had a different winner in each of the three classes we usually score by. Not this time. In our "best digital camera with a list price of US$300 or less" shootout, the remarkable Canon PowerShot A610 scored perfect 10.0 marks in all three categories: Best overall, Biggest Bang for the Buck, and Best camera for Beginners. The Canon does it by offering a near perfect balance of power, performance, features, easy-of-use and, most importantly, image quality. No matter what you ask of it, this camera can do it, and do it well. Beginners can point & shoot to their hearts' content. Advanced users will appreciate the excellent manual control. The Canon also shoots great movie clips, has a nice 4X optical zoom, and great battery life. There is never an entirely free lunch -- the Canon is a bit big and hefty, the swivel/rotate LCD is smallish and some plastic parts are a bit on the cheap side. But overall, you absolutely cannot do better in the economy class than the Canon A610.
Runner-up and great value:
Sony Cyber-shot S600

Sony has always made very good digital cameras, but they often came at a fairly high price. The new Cyber-shot DSC-S600 offers a full 6-megapixel together with features that really matter when taking pictures in everyday life: excellent image quality indoors as well as outdoors, and a very strong flash you can always rely on. The sole caveats are a wide-angle lens that takes a bit of getting used to, and a sparse menu structure with not that many features. Still, between the built-in smarts that make for great pictures and a very low list price of just US$199.95, Sony has a winner.


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