Digital cameras have become the latest gotta-have-one gadget in computerdom, giving digital photographers complete control from shutter release to final print, plus near-seamless output to e-mail or the Web. So we recently took a close-up look at two leading high-end contenders, Nikon's Coolpix 950 and Olympus's C-2000 Zoom.
While last summer's top-of-the-line gear offered 1 million pixels (one "megapixel") of resolution, these two cameras deliver over two megapixels (1,600 by 1,200 pixels) of resolution -- sharpness that rivals, and sometimes bests, garden-variety 35mm film cameras. Both the Nikon and Olympus offer high-quality 3x zoom lenses, optional add-on lenses, advanced automatic exposure, plenty of manual settings (aperture-priority, shutter-priority and full manual shooting) for advanced users and playback options that let you zoom in on parts of the picture on the included LCD screen.
Both models also share $999 list prices, although their street prices have sunk below $800.
But these two digicams could not appear much more different. The Nikon 950 definitely looks like a digital camera, with a swivel design that lets you rotate the camera half independently of the LCD half, which is handy in tricky situations such as taking a picture over the heads of people. Sporting a black magnesium body and a rubberized grip, the Nikon 950 is a beautiful piece of engineering -- aside from a badly-designed flexible plastic door for its memory cards that started falling open four weeks into the test. The Nikon, at a full pound with batteries, is also a bit hefty.
The Olympus C-2000, on the other hand, could easily be mistaken for a regular 35mm camera. It's two ounces lighter than the Nikon, but suffers from its own annoying quirk: The motorized lens barrel popped the lens cap off if I turned the camera on before removing the cap.
Both cameras come only with eight-megabyte memory cards -- good for just a handful of pictures in fine-quality mode. Count on buying at least one larger-size memory card to do any sort of traveling or extended picture-taking. The Nikon gains an advantage here in using CompactFlash storage cards instead of the Olympus's SmartMedia cards: The latter max out at 32 megabytes (selling for $100 each), compared to the 96-meg CompactFlash units available at $200 and change apiece.
You'll also need two sets of rechargeable batteries, given the way these things scarf down AAs. And while in the store, get a card reader for your computer, which will download pictures many times faster than the connecting cables these cameras include.
Setting aside those inconveniences, both cameras produce the most stunning, 35mm-like digital pictures yet seen in a consumer-grade digital camera. Photos from either the Nikon or the Olympus could be enlarged to 8-by-10-inch size with very little sign of "stairstepping" artifacts. You could use either one of these as your only camera -- if you don't get antsy about toting $1,000 worth of electronics.
The Olympus works better than the Nikon in low-light situations and offers a remote control that works in both record and playback modes. The Nikon excels at macro shots, with extremely sharp focus thanks to high-quality Nikkor optics. It also seemed to have the edge over Olympus in producing the most "film-like" images, with the depth of color and perfect exposure we've come to expect.
But whatever camera you buy this year will probably be outdated in a year or less. Just since we began this review, new two-megapixel models have come out from Casio, Epson, Fuji, Sony and Toshiba.