Four score

Introduction

It's hard to imagine, but six years ago, early adopters were paying upwards of £800 for sub-megapixel digital cameras producing images with as much relation to reality as a courtroom sketch. Worse still, the majority were Windows-centric devices. Forward to the present, and not only is Mac support universal, but the fuzzy effects of the past can be achieved by a £30 snapper that hangs off your keyring.

With digital cameras having overtaken sales of their analogue brothers, and three- and four-megapixel cameras currently leading the market – according to industry watcher GFK – many of the leading names have stopped producing models sporting resolutions lower than this new benchmark. Of course, this trend helps widen the gap between dedicated stills cameras and the emergence of increased resolutions being offered by camera phones (already at one megapixel, and counting).

The popularity of digital cameras isn't hard to understand when around £200 will now deliver a compact zoom model with quality indistinguishable from film – at least up to 8-x-10 inches and in an infinitely more versatile format – which is everything most of us will ever want, unless we're used to an SLR with interchangeable lenses.

With this in mind, we're rounding up and comparing the latest generation of four-megapixel cameras on offer from eight of the major players.

Choice facts
For the same financial outlay, today's consumer has a dizzying amount of options. From glancing at the specifications there is little to choose between the models presented here (since the majority share the same Sony-produced chip), manufacturers have upped the ante on design – producing ever sleeker, sexier devices that will, like your
mobile phone, fit neatly into a top pocket.

Research shows that despite great leaps made in miniaturizing digital-camera lens technology, delivering faster processing speeds, sharper images and extending battery life immeasurably, the biggest concern for today's digital camera purchaser is still what it looks like. Luckily, all the cameras here deliver images that won't disappoint.

So without further ado, let's discover what each offers, their similarities and differences, their successes and any failings...

Canon Digital IXUS 40
Price: £320

Canon pioneered the credit-card-sized point-&-shoot with its original Digital IXUS, and four years on, the latest generation takes the size issue a step further, being barely larger than a box of matches at just 19.5mm ‘thick’, yet feeling reassuringly sturdy at 130g.

Despite petite dimensions, Canon has usefully managed to cram in a larger than average 2-inch LCD on the camera back. Powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, startup is almost instantaneous.
A teeny optical viewfinder compliments
the LCD; though the latter offers a wider field of view for composing shots.

Also worthy of commendation are the fact that there’s little in the way of shutter delay and gap of only a couple of seconds between shots at the highest resolution while the previous image is being written to card (slightly longer with flash). For those looking to make hard copies of their snaps, the IXUS 40 is PictBridge compatible, meaning that you can hook it up directly to any compatible printer for optimal ‘one-touch’ results.

As you’d expect from Canon, images are sharp and evenly exposed, and colour reproduction is faithful. Inevitably, at £100 more than the cheaper models here, you’re paying something of a premium for the IXUS’ metal build and miniaturized controls. But it’s perfect for slipping into a laptop case, and having handled this veritable pocket rocket, most of us will probably feel that’s it’s worth giving two fingers to the bank manager.

Fujifilm FinePix F440 Zoom
Price: £280

Small and stylish, the boxy F440 recalls Konica Minolta’s X series of compacts, but features a rather more conventional 3.4x zoom lens system that protrudes from the body when in use. Image storage is on to xD-Picture Card; a slightly stingy 16MB capacity is supplied. A mix of solid metal and plastic, at 150g the metallic F440 is well built, fits snugly in the hand and, alongside the Canon IXUS 40 is one of the best designed (although like that diminutive model it isn’t for the sausage-fingered).

Keeping matters streamlined, there’s no visible on/off button – the camera is powered up by sliding to one side what initially appears to be a logoed detail on the camera front. The F440 powers up in two seconds, and there’s an equal wait between shots. Images are easily composed using the larger-than-average 2-inch LCD that dominates the camera back, though there’s a tiny optical viewfinder if you want to save battery life.

Like the latest-generation Fuji compacts, the 440 has that added ‘F’ factor – denoting a dedicated photo mode that allows the adjustment of pixel count, ISO-equivalent sensitivity settings, and the ability to endow shots with a chromatic sheen or shoot in black-&-white. With bright, clear menu screens and the absence of any mode dials that might confuse rookies, the funky F440 impresses as not only being one of the best built but the easiest to use of the cameras here.

Kodak EasyShare LS743
Price: £200

Having been around since the spring, this is one of the older models here. However it’s one of Kodak’s best efforts to date. The ‘LS’ prefix denotes its premium status in the EasyShare range, underlined by a flashy metal faceplate and camera enthusiast-enticing Schneider lens.

It’s about the size of a mobile phone stood on end, although the casing makes it feel weightier. The LS743 doesn’t come supplied with removable media – you’ll have to invest in your own SD/MMC card for that; there’s just 16MB built-in storage to get you started.

Everything about this camera screams ease of use, particularly the one-touch Share button that emails pre-selected images instantly to the destination of your choice when the camera is hooked up to a Mac. There’s also a standalone Printer Dock 6000 available for those who want similarly accessible hard copies of their pics.

The camera powers up in under three seconds, the on/off button glowing a cool blue when in use, though there’s a rather annoying wait of around five seconds between shots at the highest selectable resolution. Although Kodak understandably puts more emphasis on image quality than design and the company’s much-heralded Colour Science technology is supposed to get it right every time, the auto white-balance favours whatever colour is in the majority in the shot (a red post box produces a magenta bias, for example), and areas of contrast confuse the metering. However, both issues are common to lower-end digital cameras and generally, images are as sharp and crisp as you’d expect. A welcome step in the right direction for Kodak after its brick-like models of old.

Nikon Coolpix 4200
Price: £250

For a long time, Nikon concentrated on the high end of the digital-camera market before announcing affordable SLRs such as the D70, and latterly, well-performing compacts such as the Coolpix 4200 (and forthcoming big brother the 4800).

More conventionally styled than the majority of cameras here, the 4200 features an array of controls that will be immediately familiar to any digital-camera owner – including a bottle-top-style mode dial, four-way controller for effecting menu changes, and rear speaker for playing back video clips with sound. The slimline lithium-ion battery is housed to the right of the unit (if viewed from the back) forming a nicely ergonomic hand grip. The camera powers up in 2-3 seconds with a natty welcome screen, and there’s an acceptable delay of under two seconds between capture of successive images.

Seeing as most people use their digital camera’s LCD as an electronic viewfinder, the 4200’s 1.5-inch screen looks distinctly weedy against the 2 inches increasingly offered by the competition. That said, the menu information is a lot clearer than on Sony’s P73. Another minor niggle: like Kodak, the 4200 doesn’t supply removable media out of the box – instead, you’ve got 12MB of internal memory (storing just five maximum resolution, least-compression images) to get you up and running. There’s a slot for a supplementary SD card, so factor at least a 128MB card into your budget.

The Nikon Coolpix 4200 will undoubtedly appeal to those who still prefer their digital cameras to look, feel and perform like conventional units.

Olympus Mju Mini
Price: £250

In something of a design departure, Olympus has re-imagined its popular Mju series of weatherproof metal-bodied models in the unconventional sloping shape of the Mju Mini. It has the same tiny dimensions as the Digital IXUS 40 (if not quite the same build quality), but looks – and, with its rolling mode wheel, to an extent handles – quite like no other digital camera before.

Accompanied by the sort of dramatic whizzing sound that normally heralds the arrival of a superhero, the Mini powers up – thrusting out its stubby 2x zoom – within a couple of seconds. Image storage is onto the xD-Picture Card (16MB supplied). On the cons side, when used as an electronic viewfinder, the 1.8-inch LCD monitor displays a fair bit of ghosting indoors, and there’s a shutter delay of a couple of seconds, plus an equal gap between committing an image to memory and being able to fire off the next.

The Mju Mini’s build, ease of use and inability to do little more than point and shoot suggests that it will find an larger audience within the gadget, as opposed to specialist photography, market.

As for the images, like the rest of the Mju range, colours are slightly cold and under-saturated – but won’t worry the Mini’s target market. It also loses half a star for only including the full manual on CD rather than in hard-copy form. A bit of a gamble for Olympus then, but available in six colours, it’s certainly something of a talking point and functions particularly well as a party camera or accompaniment to your iPod.

Pentax Optio MX4
Price: £370

Almost immediately the retro-styled three megapixel Optio MX was announced, it was upgraded in the shape of the four-megapixel MX4. It ain’t pretty: rather like your dad’s old Super-8 cine camera, the MX4 resembles something from a car-boot sale and is being ambitiously marketed as ‘two great cameras in one’, with four megapixel stills and 640-x-480 pixel (TV-quality) video with sound.

That said, it is reasonably ergonomic: the rotating hand grip also houses the battery compartment, while a removable SD card (32MB supplied) slots beneath a pop-up flap on the side of the main body. Unusually for a hybrid stills/video camera, the flip-up-and-rotate 1.8-inch LCD monitor is located on the camera back rather than on one side. The other key features: a mode dial, on/off switch, pop up flash gun, and a teeny four-way controller for tabbing through menu options can be found atop the unit, while the shutter button and zoom lever are located within easy reach of your forefinger on the handle.

For amateur Spielbergs or those who want to get close to the action, the MX4’s zoom performance outstrips that of every camera here, its 10x optical zoom offering a magnification equivalent to 100x when combined with the digital variety. Great fun the MX4 may be, and full marks for Pentax in daring to do something different – but it’s expensive if you’re primarily on the look out for a stills camera... and there’s little about this niche product with the ‘wow’ factor.

Samsung Digimax U-CA4
Price: £200

Undoubtedly not the first name you’d associate with photography, Samsung has been knocking out good-value alternatives to Sony’s Cyber-shot range for a couple of years now. The 4MP U-CA4 upgrades the three-megapixel U-CA3, and is the latest in a line of 16 new models from the Korea-based manufacturer.

Revealing its debt to the Japanese electronics giant, images are stored on a thumbnail-sized Sony Memory Stick Duo (32MB capacity) that requires a supplied adaptor to use with a standard card reader. Also in the box is a natty Velcro case – with tighter profit margins most manufacturers continue to overlook these useful extras. Slightly chunkier than the average mobile, the camera itself has more of a noticeably plastic feel than the other models here plus a strange glitter finish that suggests you might like to take the U-CA4 clubbing (or earmark it as a present for a teenager).

Relatively lightweight at 119g and easy to handle, the camera takes around three seconds to start up, the zoom lens extending with a whirr from being stored flush to the body. There’s a slight shutter delay and a lag of around three seconds writing subsequent images to card, though it doesn’t seem as infuriatingly slow as its U-CA3 predecessor and such speed-of-processing issues are not a great concern at the entry level end of the market. When used as an electronic viewfinder, the LCD is usable but noisy. To sum up, then, a more than satisfactory budget option that is easy to use and wouldn’t daunt first timers, but there are better all-rounders.

Sony Cyber-shot P73
Price: £200

Sony’s sausage-shaped Cyber-shot family has been around since the start of the decade – with the only real changes being the steadily improving pixel count, faster internal processing, and falling price tags. The fact that you can now pick up this well-constructed, sharp-shooting mid-range unit for around the £200 mark is incredible.
Alongside Kodak’s LS743, the four-megapixel P73 is one of the longest in the tooth of the cameras here, but is still widely available and does just about everything you’d want, from what has – through the shifts in the market – now become an entry-level camera. Sony makes a big point of plugging its Stamina system that claims to offer reduced power consumption and longer lasting battery life – perhaps that’s why the P73 is the only camera here to offer two rechargeable AAs as its power source rather than a dedicated lithium ion pack.

The camera starts up in two seconds, and takes just over three seconds writing an image to media (16MB Memory Stick). Though, like all the cameras here, the P73’s operation is pretty much auto-everything there are more photographic options on offer, with up to ten shooting modes including program and manual, plus video clips and a live histogram in capture mode.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the 1.5-inch LCD is relatively small and makes the display hard to read at times. For composing Sony’s trademark well-saturated, colourful images you’ve the back up of a teeny optical viewfinder, but the LCD inevitably offers a wider field of view. Great value, but not an outright winner.

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