Holiday gift guide: Digital cameras

With many camera's now boasting 12 megapixels, resolution doesn't matter so much now, but what does?

In our image quality tests, our jury gave the camera high marks for its photos' color accuracy and low distortion. The camera scored high across all categories, earning an overall image quality score of Very Good.

And though its 2.5-inch LCD isn't huge, it's sharp and bright enough for viewing in all but the brightest conditions. The up position on the four-way control brightens the display--a handy feature, since the F31fd lacks a viewfinder. Operating the four-way control is easy enough, though it's a bit small for my large thumb (I often ended up poking it with my fingernail). The dial atop the body makes six mode positions available: auto, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, manual, scene mode, antishake, and movie. It does not include an option for portrait mode because that mode is listed under scenes; you'll have to enter the menus to select portrait mode if you most recently used any other scene mode.

The antishake mode simply increases the shutter speed and ISO to reduce blur. Considering that the F31fd can go up to ISO 3200, that's no small potatoes, but you may have to accept more digital noise in exchange for your sharper photos, which you wouldn't if the camera offered optical image stabilization.

If you like shooting in low light or taking lots of pictures of people, the F31fd should prove to be a worthy workhorse.

Eric Butterfield

Lumix DMC-LX2

The 10-megapixel Lumix DMC-LX2 (US$410 as of February 15, 2007), the most recent Panasonic model we've tested, has the same image stabilization feature found on many other Lumix cameras, but it dispenses with those cameras' long zoom in favor of a smaller, more compact body. Even so, the lens protrudes from the camera body by 0.75 inch when the camera is turned off, giving it a total depth of 1.75 inch and making it a little too clunky to fit comfortably in most pockets. The lens cap isn't integrated into the camera body, either; instead, it dangles from a tether while you shoot. If you switch on the camera with the lens cap still attached, you'll get an on-screen warning to remove it.

The DMC-LX2 replaces the DMC-LX1, which we tested last year. The main update involves resolution: The new model takes 4224-by-2376-pixel stills with a wide-screen (16:9) aspect ratio--a format unique to this camera. The HD format is nice for snapping wide-angle shots of, say, landscapes, but pictures that have a distinct foreground subject showed too much extraneous background (though this might be good for capturing unique effects). You can use the three-position switch on the lens to jump to the camera's 3:2 (DVD dimensions) mode, or to its traditional 4:3 mode. In 3:2 format, however, you get only 8.5 megapixels; and in 4:3 mode, 7.5 megapixels. The zoom lens extends to 6.2X if you ratchet the resolution down to 2 megapixels, but at the camera's highest-resolution setting you can only zoom to 4X.

If you choose the right format, the DMC-LX2's unusual, 2.8-inch wide-screen LCD (located on the back of the camera) crops the image just the way an HDTV does. The HD mode takes some getting used to, though. Unless you hold the camera at arm's length, you have to move your eyes to see the entire display. One nifty feature: You can set the display to "high angle" mode, making shots easier to view when you hold the camera over your head--say, in a crowd. The camera has no optical viewfinder.

The camera and the manual say that you can capture movies in either 16:9 or 4:3 mode, but the camera we received for testing allowed movie capture only in 4:3 mode. When I tried to select the 16:9 mode, the camera insisted that I was still in the unsupported 3:2 mode.

Like the DMC-LX1, the newer model has several buttons on its small, well-constructed aluminum body. In addition to the usual mode dial and menu navigation buttons, it has an exposure lock button conveniently situated on the back, and a button on the top of the camera for turning on image stabilization. This feature uses software to reduce blur, and you can use it in multiple scene modes. The tiny joystick on the back controls things like aperture and shutter speed when you use a mode that supports these manual adjustments, but I would rather have used the four menu buttons to adjust these settings. The joystick adjusts the manual focus, too--a function that it does make a bit easier.

Two buttons control the flash. Unfortunately, you must use a button on the top of the camera to pop up the flash manually. One of the four directional buttons lets you select the flash mode, but pressing it doesn't cycle through the modes; instead, it launches an on-screen menu, so you have to use the directional buttons or the joystick to select the mode, and then press the Menu button to enter the mode. That's far more complicated than it should be.

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