Holiday gift guide: Digital cameras

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

The DMC-LX2 earned excellent scores in nearly all of our image-quality tests. Most shots--even magnified enlargements--looked sharp, and the camera earned our top score for exposure quality. In our lab tests, cameras capture images while mounted on a tripod, but outside the lab, I tried the Lumix's two image-stabilization modes (one works continuously, and the other works only when the shutter release it held down, ostensibly to save battery life). Neither mode can prevent blurry pictures in extremely shaky settings (on a roller coaster, for example), but they will gain you an f-stop or two, which is enough to save some pictures, particularly in low light.

In addition to aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and full-manual shooting modes, the DMC-LX2 offers 18 scene modes, including one for 'Food' and two for taking shots of babies ('Baby1' and 'Baby2'). The latter two modes prompt you to identify your child's birthday; subsequently they refer to that date in stamping photos with your baby's age--for example, "2 years, 1 month, 19 days." (The two Baby modes are identical; there are two of them s you can track the progress of two children.) The camera's menus explain what the scene modes do, but they don't do a very good job of it--the description of Food mode reads, "For taking pictures of food. Take a picture without flash for the best result."

The camera's warranty is a bit unusual, and not in a good way: Most parts are warranted for a year, but the CCD is covered for only six months, and the labor warranty lasts just 90 days. Most camera warranties back their product for a full year on both parts and labor.

Alan Stafford

Top Ranked SLRs

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT

It's fair to say that the Canon EOS Digital Rebel launched the now burgeoning field of digital single-lens-reflex cameras--mostly due to its breakthough price of under US$1000. But since its release a year-and-a-half or so ago, the Digital Rebel has started to seem a little dowdy next to the latest SLRs from Nikon, Olympus, Pentax and Minolta. With the new Digital Rebel XT, Canon lost an opportunity to make it more professional-looking than its predecessor, but it did add the necessary internal improvements to put the Rebel XT among the top consumer SLRs.

The first of these enhancements--bumping up the resolution from 6.1 megapixels to 8 megapixels--was a no-brainer. Not because you can make huge enlargements, but because it gives you more latitude for cropping shots and keeping them sharp. I was able to crop an action shot of a rugby match by about 75 percent and still print a pretty sharp 5 by 7.

Both the Rebel and the Rebel XT do a fine job recording images--neck-and-neck in color and exposure accuracy in the shots I took out in the field. Changes in our lab tests preclude direct comparisons between the two cameras, but the Rebel XT earned the highest scores recorded to date for exposure, color accuracy, and overall quality. Its sharpness score put it in a statistical tie with a number of 6-, 7-, and 8-megapixel models.

The most impressive change in the XT is its speed: In burst-shooting mode and using high-speed CompactFlash media, the XT captured up to 20 shots at a steady 3 frames per second before its buffer filled and it slowed down to a little under 2 fps. The original Rebel fired four shots at around 2.4 fps, and then was too slow to make burst shooting truly viable. The two cameras sound differently in burst mode--the XT makes a noise like the well-built motor drives of high-end 35mm SLRs, while the original model clanks in a way that does not inspire confidence in its long-term durability.

Other improvements of note include the XT's capability to record images simultaneously in RAW and JPEG; its ability to adjust the color balance (along with automatic color-balance bracketing); and its size (the XT is considerably less bulky than its forebear--a difference that becomes very noticeable after a full day of shooting).

Canon made very few changes to the layout of the Rebel's controls and menus--they're relatively quick to change and easily interpreted. My minor gripes include the somewhat stiff selector dial and the small size of the text in the menus. I had a really hard time seeing the menu choices in bright sunlight. Call it vanity, but the Rebel XT's smooth plastic-like case (like the original Rebels) looks kind of cheap and fragile when compared to the metallic bodies of almost any other digital SLR. Canon's good call here was to offer a black-body version, which looks a little more professional.

Upshot: Fast action, compact size, and great imaging makes the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT a top pick among inexpensive digital SLRs.

Tracey Capen

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