Holiday gift guide: Digital cameras

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

Top Ranked Budget Digicams

Powershot A460 Digital Camera

Canon's PowerShot A460 has a sophisticated and durable look to it, yet it costs just US$130 (as of 5/10/07). Though nicely designed, its boxy and chunky shape prevents it from being carried comfortably in a pocket. It will fit nicely into a small bag, however.

The 5-megapixel A460 offers a 4X optical zoom, whereas most cameras at this price level have a 3X zoom. Plus, the A460 has three metering modes (evaluative, center-weighted, and spot); most competitors have only one. The function-set menus offer exceptionally quick access to settings and are easy to use. Key controls are grouped together in an intuitive list.

The zoom control is a little unusual--instead of having a separate wide-telephoto toggle, the camera uses the top and bottom positions of the four-way thumb control for zooming. The thumb control works well enough, though its function won't be obvious to a first-time user, and its placement on the back makes the camera a bit awkward to operate one-handed.

The A460 starts up quickly, in 2 seconds, and offers both an eye-level viewfinder and a bright 2-inch LCD screen. A simple mode dial lets you select full auto (with a limited selection of menu options), manual (still automatic, but with some user settings, such as ISO and white balance), scene modes, and movie mode.

You get a choice of eight scene modes--a typical set that includes portrait, night scene, foliage, beach, snow, and fireworks. But oddly, you'll find no sports or action setting. The camera also lacks a built-in help system to explain the modes, though for most people they should be self-explanatory. However, it does have a super macro mode that lets you get really close to your subject (up to just 0.4 inches away).

A separate menu button pops up a list of less-common camera settings, such as a date stamp and digital zoom on/off. You'll also find grid lines and red-eye settings there. The menus are short and only one layer deep.

The Canon A460 earned an overall image quality score of Good from the PC World Test Center, with roughly average ratings for color and exposure accuracy, and below-average points for sharpness. Photos I took outdoors at a waterfront area showed good color saturation and image sharpness--better than photos from the comparable Kodak EasyShare C653 and Nikon Coolpix L10 cameras I tried at the same time. Unfortunately, the Canon's images also showed significantly more noise or speckling than images from those two competing models; this noise was obvious in areas of solid black, such as a ship's hull, and in a clear blue sky.

Canon bundles its flexible ZoomBrowser utility on a CD with the A460; you use it to organize, edit, print, and share your photos. The editing tools are not extensive, but they work well and include a very helpful Photoshop-like before/after preview button. Also on the CD is PhotoStitch, which you can use to merge photos into a panorama, though the camera lacks the panorama-assist mode, found on other Canon models, that helps you line up successive shots.

The A460 runs on AA cells and delivered roughly average battery life in our tests, lasting 253 shots.

Overall, the Canon PowerShot A460 is a nice package and a great value.

Tracey Capen

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