Great digital cameras are in danger of becoming commodity items. We just tested five high-end digital cameras, each with at least a 3X optical zoom, 5 megapixels or more of resolution and a street price of $500 or so, and we had a hard time picking one to recommend -- they could all do the job fine.
All five cameras featured large, bright LCDs to review shots; high-capacity rechargeable batteries; preprogrammed point-and-shoot modes as well as full manual controls; and limited movie-recording features. And they all would have sold for $1,000 or more two years ago, instead of the far lower street prices listed here.
Canon PowerShot S70 ($450): This black, pocket-sized, 7.1-megapixel camera has a no-nonsense feel and a pleasing relative simplicity that made it a slight overall favorite. At 10.3 ounces, it was only slightly hefty but was easy to hold, aside from a viewfinder a little too close to the center.
Canon's zoom allows "only" 3.6X magnification, but it provides a wider angle than most digicams, the equivalent of a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera. Canon protects it with a somewhat awkward sliding cover.
Fujifilm FinePix E550 ($350): Lightweight, compact and easily grasped, this 6.3-megapixel camera sports a 4X zoom. If you often shoot in low light, it offers an usually high film-equivalent sensitivity of ISO 800. The E550 also stands out for using AA-sized batteries (a set of rechargeables is included), which means you can always buy more shooting time at the corner store.
On the downside, this camera's eyepiece is small, its flash must be opened manually before use, and adjusting its settings involves two different buttons. Plus, it relies on expensive, proprietary xD PictureCard memory instead of the CompactFlash and SD Memory Card storage most cameras employ.
Kodak EasyShare DX7590 ($470): This 5-megapixel model looks like a chunky, miniature film SLR, thanks to its impressive, 10X zoom lens, which uses an internal-motion design to eliminate the Pinocchio's-nose look. Unfortunately, the flash must be popped up manually, and the DX7590's electronic viewfinder may bug those used to regular optical viewfinders. A 2.2-inch screen allows close inspection of photos.
We found this camera a bit difficult for a big right hand to hold, despite being able to use the front-mounted jog dial to adjust its settings. Kodak bundles a dock that charges the camera's battery and simplifies image transfer.
Olympus C-7000 Zoom ($599): Compact and weighing just 9 ounces, this 7.1-megapixel, 5X zoom is easily grasped, except when you try to steady it with your left hand and find that the pop-up flash gets in your way. If you're big-nosed, you won't like the too-centrally-mounted viewfinder either.
The on-screen interface is still too complicated, and the zoom lens works too fast for precise framing. The C-7000 also requires the same pricey xD memory as the Fuji -- particularly unwelcome given its already steep cost.
Pentax Optio 750Z ($499): This new model looks slightly retro, thanks to the black pebbled rubber on its front face. Its flip-out display swivels out from the back, an unusual feature in a camera this small. The camera offers a wide range of controls to exploit its 7-megapixel resolution and 5X zoom, including modes for panoramas and double exposures.
With all of these models, budget the cost of a 256-megabyte or larger memory card to replace the puny 32MB card normally supplied (Kodak includes 32 megs of internal memory instead of a card). If you're not rigorous about keeping the battery charged, budget for an extra battery as well.
All five cameras will shine in casual picture-taking, although none had exceptional startup or shot-to-shot speeds (they all powered on in 2 to 4 seconds and took about 3 seconds between shots, except for the Kodak's 4-second lag).
Their real value, though, lies in the fine control they offer, plus the ability to make 8-by-10 blowups of almost any shot. If neither virtue appeals to you, these models are overkill.