3.2-5.0-megapixel digital cameras.

Introduction

This year’s Photo Marketing Association (PMA) show brought a flood of new digital cameras to market – and made it clear that choosing a digital camera isn’t getting any easier. Camera companies keep cranking out models with strikingly similar features, making it more difficult for consumers to find the cameras they want. The PMA show also demonstrated that 3.2 megapixels is now the entry point for most camera manufacturers, as is a 3x optical zoom lens – six of the ten cameras we look at this month have both those characteristics. The best camera of that bunch is the Canon PowerShot A70. What defines this camera is its full suite of manual controls, including shutter speed, aperture, focus, and white balance. Add an autofocus (AF) illuminator, a nice movie mode, and support for both conversion lenses and an underwater case, and the A70 is way ahead of the competition, especially with a street price of £299. Three other nice cameras – and the only others in the 3.2-megapixel class that have an AF illuminator. Canon’s IXUS II is super-compact and cute. Like its better-featured brother the IXUS 400, its front and top feature a special coating to stop scratches. Unlike the 400, the back appears fairly scratchproof, too. Our only real complaint is its 2x zoom, which looks a little short-sighted compared to the other cameras here. Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-P8 has a few more features than the DSC-P72, such as control over sharpness and saturation, and it’s slightly smaller, with an all-metal body (the P72’s body is plastic). Also, the P8 uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery while the P72 uses two rechargeable NiMH AA batteries. As a result, the P72’s battery life is almost twice that of the P8. The trade-off here is really between size and battery life. Both cameras support add-on lenses and an external flash, and you can buy an underwater case for the P8. The cameras have a movie mode that is among the best we’ve seen; it allows you to record 640-x-480 videos (with a 16fps frame rate) until the memory card is full. And both use the Memory Stick Pro, though they can also use regular Memory Sticks. Another good camera in the 3-megapixel class is the Olympus Mju 300. What makes this point-and-shoot camera stand out is its weatherproof (but not waterproof) metal body. It’s easy to operate and its picture quality is good, although it could really use an AF illuminator. Olympus’s other new camera, the Camedia C-350 Zoom, has the same feature set as the Mju 300 but doesn’t have the fancy body. It’s a decent enough camera that provides good-quality images. Nikon’s Coolpix 3100 is a good camera with a unique scene-mode feature. Instead of just letting you flip to a scene mode (for example, portraits, landscapes, or sports shots), the 3100 goes one step further by putting gridlines or other aids on the LCD to help you compose better shots. In some cases this feature is overkill, but beginners should find it helpful. The Coolpix 3100 also has a manual white-balance mode, which is rare for a camera in this price range. Its image quality is good, but the pictures were a bit too noisy for our tastes, and it really needs an AF illuminator. This month’s 4-megapixel camera is a great one: Canon’s IXUS 400. This is strictly a point-and-shoot camera, though it lacks the scene modes found in the other cameras reviewed here. Its movie mode is good, but not as good as that of the A70. Photos are sharp and free of noise, and surprisingly, red-eye wasn’t a problem. Of the three 5-megapixel cameras in this month’s roundup, the best is Canon’s PowerShot S50. The S50 is almost identical to the PowerShot S45, but with a 5-megapixel CCD. The S50 has a full suite of manual controls, an AF illuminator, a good movie mode, and excellent photo quality – even a bit sharper than the S45’s. The S50 doesn’t support any lens or flash attachments, red-eye can be a problem, and the camera’s four-way controller is a little quirky, but the rest of its features make up for those minor faults.
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