Holiday gift guide: Digital cameras

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

New point-and-shoot digital cameras boast resolutions as high as 12 megapixels, but because even entry-level models capture plenty of pixels, resolution just doesn't matter as much as it used to. So this year, features to look for include big LCDs (3-inch displays are pretty common, and make taking and playing back shots easier); face detection, wherein the camera can recognize people and adjust exposure accordingly; image stabilization, which can help reduce blurriness (somewhat); and the ability to pre-format pictures for uploading to photo-sharing sites or photo blogs. Many pocket-size point-and-shoot models are available in snazzy colors--red, black, pink, blue, and purple, so you don't have to settle for a boring old silver one. Want something more serious and sophisticated? Low-end digital SLR prices seem to have stabilized, but you can find good deals on them. Of course, they take up lots of room in a backpack.

Top Ranked Point-and-Shoot Digicams

Fujifilm FinePix S700

Fujifilm's FinePix S700 adds an SLR-style frame to the solid functionality of an advanced point-and-shoot. Its best traits are its long battery life, manual controls, 10X optical zoom, and image stabilization--not a bad combo in a US$250 model.

The camera powers up in less than 2 seconds, and the shutter button responds fairly quickly. It handled close-up shots nicely; I photographed a quarter at a distance of about 2 inches, and the resulting shot looked crisp and clear.

In our lab tests, the 7.1-megapixel S700 earned a high score for color accuracy and an average score for sharpness. Its scores for distortion, however, were subpar. In our battery-life tests, the camera's four AA alkaline batteries supported 475 shots--much better than the average score.

I liked the camera's 'Natural Light and Flash' mode shooting option, where the camera captures a pair of consecutive shots--one without flash and another with flash--so you can compare which lighting captured the better image. A continuous-shooting mode snaps shots at a resolution of either 7 megapixels (the unit's maximum) or 4 megapixels. This feature worked fine, but it was a bit slow to record.

The S700 has the chops to perform well in most shooting scenarios. You may find the body a bit bulky, though.

Grace Aquino

Fujifilm FinePix F31fd

The Fujifilm FinePix F31fd (US$350 as of February 15, 2007) is a 6.3-megapixel camera with a 3X optical zoom. The metal body feels solid enough to take a few knocks, and it fits well in the hand. My only complaint with the construction is that the small plastic flap covering the AV-out and power jacks looks flimsy and likely to snap off.

The F31fd is one of the first cameras to offer face detection, a feature that identifies human faces in order to optimize the exposure and lock the focus. The value of this feature became most evident when I shot in portrait mode with the flash suppressed. With face detection turned off, photos of coworkers sitting in front of a brightly lighted window came out underexposed, and their faces were much too dark. Turning on face detection improved the exposure: My coworkers' faces came out well lit, without my having to use the camera's flash. Turning on face detection also improved flash shots, though the difference was much more subtle than in the case of pictures taken without flash. A dedicated button for this feature sits next to the camera's four-way control button. PC World has created a video demonstrating this feature.

The camera's other noteworthy talent is its low-light capability. You can crank Fujifilm's proprietary sensor up to ISO 3200. Of course, shots taken at higher ISO settings contain increasing amounts of digital noise, but I'll take those artifacts over shots taken with flash any day. The camera can be slow to focus in low light, however: It sometimes required almost 2 seconds to lock on. The autofocus would swim in and out before snapping each shot, unable to recognize via its AF assist light that the proper focal distance had already been established.

In our lab tests, the F31fd performed admirably. Its battery life earned a rating of Superior because the camera reached our test limit of 500 shots on one charge of its rechargeable lithium ion battery. The average number of shots per charge for recently tested point-and-shoot cameras is far lower, at about 270 photos.

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