G R U E   D A B S   O F   G R U E   D A B S   O F   G R U E   D A B S   O F   G R U E   D A B S   OF

A comparison of digital cameras under $350 –

one 4-megapixel and seven 3-megapixel cameras,

all with 3 x optical zoom

 

INCLUDES EXPLANATIONS OF TECHNICAL TERMS USED IN SPECIFICATIONS

Original version - December 2004

April 2006 - more remarks added. Camera models have been superceded, but the same principles of selection apply.
January 2007 - Choice Magazine has tested 57 digital cameras priced from $A199 to $A5950.
May 2011 - Technical progress and the high Aussie dollar mean that specs are now very much better and prices lower.
June 2012 .....and now even lower. My pick of the current bunch of compact cameras under $150: Samsung ST66 (I've just bought one online), Olympus VR-310, Fujifilm JZ100, BenQ S-1430, Panasonic DMC-FH6, Sony DSC-W610. If you can
spend a little bit more, consider going for ruggedness rather than more photographic features. Dust can be a major problem
with some cameras (e.g. in the Panasonic Lumix range). The lower-end dust-proof compacts include Fujifilm FinePix XP30
and XP50, Nikon Coolpix S30 and Panasonic Lumix TS3 and TS20.

 

The real cost of your camera depends on its durability and what’s (not) included in the package

 

Aims

 

Recently I went hunting for a digital camera package that would be easy to use, easy to carry, effective in a wide variety of situations and suitable for creating good quality prints up to A4 size as well as images for computer use. The ability to make short movies would also be an advantage. In addition I wanted to be able to more or less forget about batteries, memory and image uploading.

 

Some initial research soon showed that I would certainly need rechargeable batteries and preferably a way of charging them without having to remove them from the camera, a reasonably large “flash memory” card and a camera with a one-touch uploading facility. The camera itself would need to make images with up to  3.2 megapixels (MP) resolution and would need an optical zoom permitting up to 3x magnification. As I already have a decent printer and image processing software, digital zoom (which essentially just crops your pictures and reduces their resolution) would not be a consideration.

 

I would look at cameras with a basic price-tag of  up to $350 (Australian) and aim to come up with a total package price of $350 – $450 (in fact I managed to do slightly better than $350). Prices on digital equipment are coming down all the time and are generally lower in the USA than in Australia and New Zealand.

 

Research

 

My research was done mainly by looking up specifications and professional and user reviews on the internet, also by browsing through sales brochures and asking questions of personnel in photography stores and brand-name technical departments –  in particular Kodak, whose staff appeared to know next to nothing about their cameras. The most helpful person was a sales girl in a Kmart store in Garden City (Mount Gravatt, Brisbane).

 

Some of the information in this comparison is very subjective. In a few instances it is not even reliable, as I have come across differences in the factual detail provided by different professionals. None of the cameras has been tested by me personally – except for very short experience of the one I’ve just bought. Therefore I cannot accept responsibility for errors of fact or judgment and prospective buyers should check all details before they make a purchase. I would recommend trying out the camera controls and ease of doing common tasks before making a purchase.

 

Best deals

 

The best deals were generally to be found in stores that didn’t specialise in cameras, such as Kmart, BigW, Myer, Target, Dick Smith, Harvey Norman and JB Electronics, and in internet stores. In the Brisbane area the only non-internet specialist camera shop I found with any good deals was the Sunnybank Hills Camerahouse. Prices obtained from internet stores of course had to include handling, freight and possible transaction charges, which together amounted to $12 – $25. I found that packages were usually not all that they seemed. My final purchases were made from three different outlets – Myer (Brisbane), Dick Smith (Buranda) and Cheap Memory (Gold Coast). The shopping club of which I am a member was unable to match the prices obtained at these stores. Other internet outlets worth checking out in the Brisbane area are umart and the Sunshine Corporation of Australia. Post-Christmas (2 months after this survey), one of the best deals is to be found at Dick Smith Electronics: they have the Kodak CX7530 (3MP and 5x optical zoom) plus Kodak printer dock for the incredible price of $A299.

 

The cameras

 

One of the cameras in my final list, the Kodak CX7430, has a higher resolution (4.2 MP) than I was looking for. But it has a number of good features and was within my price range, so it got into the list. All the cameras have a maximum image resolution of 2040 x 1536 pixels, some with normal and enhanced quality levels. All have lower resolution levels as well. In all the cameras that have optical viewfinders, the viewfinder is coupled to the zoom, as is the LCD display.

 

 

Side-by-side comparison table

(Prices in Australian dollars)

 

Features

(see explanations below)

Nikon

Coolpix

3200

Canon Powershot A75

Kodak Easyshare

CX7430

Fujifilm Finepix A330

Olympus

Camedia

C-310

(D-540)

Pentax

Optio 30

Konica

Minolta

Dimage X31

Kodak

Easyshare

CX7330

Base price (2004) $

346

339

337

249

219

279

289

239, incl

49 bonus A

Card price 1, 256MB, $

56  (SD)

45  (CF)

56  (SD)

131  (XD)

131  (XD)

56  (SD)

37B  (SD)

56  (SD)

Batteries + charger, $

53

65

41C (96)

53D (75)

53

53

53

41C (96)

Total price, $

455

449

434

433

403

388

379

336 (bonus included)

General

 

Easy to use Excellent features but some snags

Easy to use

Excellent features but

relatively

bulky

Very easy (except for tricky ‘OK’ button) Good

features

Quite easy to use

Some good

features and

some snags

Quite easy to use

A few poor features

Easy to use Very good features

 

Tricky controls

A few poor

features

Very easy

(except for

tricky ‘OK’

button)

Good features

Appearance

Very neat

A bit ugly

Good

Very good,

slim

Very good

Very neat

Extremely

compact

Good

Weight g incl batteries

190

(2 AA)

301-315 

(4 AA)

228

(2 AA)

195

(2 AA)

200

(2 AA)

180 

(2 AA)

165

(2 AA)

225 

(2 AA)

Size mm

88x65x38

101x62x34 + hump

103x65x38

104x62x31

102x56x36

93x62x36?

86x67x24

103x65x38

Body material

Plastic

Plastic

Plastic

Plastic

Plastic

Plastic

Plastic

Plastic

Durability

No problems reported

Risky mechanics and doors

Dodgy USB /card door.  Poor service?

Dodgy lens

cover

No problems reported

Risky electronics?

No problems reported

Dodgy USB /card cover.  Poor service?

Mode selector dial2

Yes

Yes (a bit busy)

Yes

No (uses menu)

No (has

virtual dial)

No (has

virtual dial

+ prompts)

No

Yes

Effective resolution 3

3.0MP

3.1MP

4.2MP

3.2MP

3.2MP

3.2MP

3.2MP

3.1MP

Picture quality in

  daylight

Very good

Excellent

 

Excellent

 

Very good

Very good

Excellent

 

Fair to good

 

Very good

 

Low-light pic quality

Fair

Good

Very good

Good, hard to focus

Good

Good

Variable, hard

to focus

Fairly good

Picture modes

30+, incl hard-to-use

panorama

assist

13, excellent

panorama assist

9-12, good selection,

panorama  assist

4-6, good selection

5, no action mode, pan

assist needs special card

12,

pan assist,

no action mode

2: normal and

portrait

5, quite good selection

Movies 4

To  capacity

of memory

640x480

320x 240, 160x120MP

15fps

30 secs at

640x480MP

180 sec at

320x240MP

To  capacity of memory

320x240MP

20fps

60 secs to 4 mins, 320x240

160x120MP 10fps

To  capacity

of memory

 320x 240, 160x120MP

15fps

To  capacity

of memory

 320x 240, 160x120MP

15fps

To  capacity

of memory

 320x 240,

160x120MP

15fps

To  capacity

of memory 320x240MP

15fps

Audio with movies

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

No

Yes

Image processing

Nikon View 6

DIGIC + iSAPS

Colour Science

Image Intelligence

TruePic TURBO

?

CxProcess

Colour

Science

Built-in memory

14.5MB

None

16MB

None

None

16MB

No

16MB

Memory card supplied in package

None

32MB

None

16MB

16MB

None

128MB

(no cover on card slot)

None

Approx pic capacity on 256MB card

150-2190

150-2720

195-590

160-550

?

?

150-1500

260-700

Buffer 5

Yes

Yes

?

?

Yes

None

?

?

Pictures left indicator

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Instant  image delete button

Yes

Yes

Yes

No, a bit tricky

?

Yes

No

Yes

Lens

Nikkor, retracting

Canon, retracting

Kodak

Retinar, retracting

Super EBC Fujinon, retracting

Olympus, retracting

Pentax, retracting

Minolta

non-protruding

Kodak

Retinar,

retracting

Automatic lens cover

Yes

Yes

Yes

No, sliding cover

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Lens quality

Good

Excellent

Very good

Very good

Excellent

Very good

Very good

Very good

Lens max

aperture

F/2.8

F/2.8

F/2.7

F/2.8

F/2.9

F/2.9

F/2.8

F/2.7

Optical zoom

3x

3x

3x 

3x

3x

(noisy)

3x

3x

3x

Digital zoom 6

4x

3.2x

4x

1.6x

3.3x

4x

4x

3.3x

Focus range

4cm-inf

5cm-inf

13cm-inf

10cm-inf

2cm-inf

2cm-inf

10cm-inf

13cm-inf

Manual focus 7

No

Yes

No

Yes?

No

Yes

No

No

Autofocus steps 8

Seamless

9

?

? (zoom has 10)

9

5

?

?

Autofocus points 9

?

9 + scene

Multiple

?

?

5 + scene

Centre focus

Multiple

Autofocus assist lamp10

Yes

Yes

No, but works well without

No

No

No,  OK without at short range

No

No, but works

well without

Shutter speed, secs

1/3000 – 4

1/2000 – 15

1/1400 – 4

1/2000 – 2

1/2000 – 2

1/2000 – 2

1/500 – 4

1/1400 – 0.5

Shutter lag11, secs

0.1 – 1.5

0.5 – 0.7

0.1 – 0.6

0.1 – 0.5

0.1 – 1.1

0.1 – 0.6

0.1 – 0.5

0.6-0.7

 

Aperture

/shutter

priority 12

No

Yes

No

No

No

No

?

 

No

Self timer

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Exposure compensation 13

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Flash fill 14

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Redeye reduction

Yes, not

good

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Power-up time, secs

3

3

4

3.3

6

2

1 – 3.5

6

Cycle time:          normal/rapid modes 15

0.7-6.5/

0.1-2.3

(3-16 pics)

3-4 / 0.5

(8 pics)

1.8-2.5 / 0.25 (6 pics max)

2-7

(no rapid mode)

5.5-6/0.7

(14 pics)

4 / 0.5-2

(4-9 pics)

3-5 / 0.3-2

(6-9 pics)

3/ 0.3

(3 pics max)

Optical viewfinder

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes,

only 80% coverage

Yes, small, only 80% coverage

Yes

No

Yes

LCD size

1.6 ins

1.8 ins

1.6 ins

1.5 ins

1.8 ins

1.6 ins

1.5 ins

1.6 ins

LCD quality

Poor in

bright sun,

Good in low light

Good

Good except in very bright or dim light

Fair

Very good in bright light, fair low light?

Very good

Poor

Good except

in very bright

or dim light

Auto image orientation 16

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

No

Yes

Voice memo on images

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

?

No

No

No

Time/date stamp

Yes

Yes

No?

?

?

Probably

Yes

Date only

Battery life

Quite poor

Very good

Quite good

Very good

Fair

Very good

Good

Quite good

Low battery indicator

Yes

Yes

Yes

?
?

Yes

Yes
Yes

Auto power save

Yes

?

Yes

Goes off after 2 or 5 mins

?

Yes

?

Yes

Video out port

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes (no cover)

No

No

No

Yes

USB port 17

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

(no cover)

Yes

Yes

 (no cover)

Yes

Yes

Ease of uploading, printing and some other operations

Very good

Good

Quite good, extremely good with Easyshare dock

Good, extremely good with Finepix pic- ture cradle

Quite good

Quite good

Quite good

Quite good,

extremely good with Easyshare

dock

PictBridge

support 18

Yes

Yes

No, uses EasyShare

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No, uses

EasyShare

Other features

Several

Many

A few

A few

A few

Several

Few

Very few

 

 

Notes

 

A  Included bonus pack (this store only) contained a tripod, camera case and cleaning gear.

B  128 MB SD included in package; $35 added to bring memory to 256 MB. See note 1

C  Kodak EasyShareTM Dock 6000 makes battery charging and picture transfer much easier (for Kodak EasyShare cameras only). One Brisbane store was selling this for $41 (including 2 NiMH batteries). Elsewhere $96 was the best price I could find. Otherwise you can use a normal charger (around $53 including batteries and freight if applicable), but you will then have to remove the batteries from the camera when they need recharging.

D  Fujifilm Finepix Picture Cradle makes battery charging and picture transfer much easier (for certain Fujifilm cameras only). This item can be found in some stores for as little as $75 (normally around $105). Otherwise use a normal charger ($53), but you will then have to remove the batteries from the camera when they need recharging.

 

1  A “flash memory” card of at least 128MB is needed to store a reasonable number of pictures before having to upload them into a computer or printer. Prices are based on a 256MB card.

2  For most users the mode selector dial will simplify the selection of commonly used “modes”, such as portrait, action and close-up shots.

3  The resolution determines the maximum size of prints you will be able to make without losing sharpness. However, the higher the resolution, the larger the memory needed to store a given number of pictures.

4  Because of the large number of frames that must be stored, movies use a lower resolution than still shots. The lower the resolution, the longer the movie can be. Movie quality is usually not very good and takes up a lot of memory space.

5  This apparently affects the time taken to save a picture to memory, which determines the minimum “cycle” time between shots, especially when taking shots in rapid mode.

6  This could be handy if you don’t have a computer and must print direct to a printer. However, using digital zoom reduces picture resolution. If you have a computer with image processing software, digital zoom is of no importance as you can get the same effect by cropping and enlarging your picture.

7   With advanced technology, automatic focus works well for most cameras in most situations. However it does not always work in dim lighting or when a distant focusing point  is wanted and there are objects in the foreground. Some cameras have modes to reduce these problems. Some cameras allow manual focusing only in the ‘macro’ range (close-ups).

8   In cheap cameras the automatic focusing is not ‘continuous’ or ‘seamless’ but occurs in steps. The camera can actually only focus on points (distances) corresponding to these steps, and not on any point between them. If the number of steps is large you’d never notice this trick, but if there’s only a small number of steps it’s possible you could notice imperfect focusing – as you often do with a fixed focus camera (which could be thought of as a camera with just one step). The same applies to optical zoom: in some cameras the zoom occurs in steps as well.

9  Even cheap cameras are usually quite clever: they don’t simply focus straight ahead, but take into account the distances of objects that are towards the sides of the field of view. Some cameras can be made to focus on a particular object that is not in the centre, and some will do this automatically (for example , when put in portrait mode and the subject is not in the centre). The number of focusing  points is an indication of how well the camera can do these tricks, but it is not the whole story.

10  Cameras without an autofocus assist lamp have varying degrees of difficulty trying to focus in dimly lit conditions. Some cameras appear to be especially bad at this and should probably be avoided.

11  This is the interval between pressing the button and the shutter actually working. The variable interval quoted for each camera depends mainly on whether the focusing time is taken into account. Once the camera has been focused, the remaining time lag should be close to the lower end of the range.  Some people consider shutter lag to be important.

12  This means that you can (if you want) separately control the shutter speed and/or lens aperture, rather than have the camera do it for you automatically. Most cameras have enough modes to take care of most situations: for example if you select an ‘action’ mode (or ‘sports’ mode) the camera will normally use the largest possible aperture and the fastest shutter speed.

13  Essentially this means the amount of light entering the camera can be adjusted if pictures are coming out too dark or too light. All the cameras in the list have exposure compensation in various degrees.

14  This means the flash can be made to operate in conditions where it would not go off  if  the camera is on an automatic setting. This is especially useful for lighting a face in portrait or figure shots taken against a bright background.

15  This is the time you have to wait between taking two consecutive photos. In an ordinary film camera it is the time needed to wind the film onto the next frame number. In a digital camera it is the time needed to upload the image into memory and (possibly) perform other electronic functions. The normal time may be quite long – anything up to 7 seconds. However most cameras have a rapid mode that allows you to take a certain number of shots in quicker than normal succession. Some cameras also have an extra fast mode that allows you to take a certain number of pictures (usually 9) in very quick succession, but the pictures are of lower quality. The second range of figures refers to these rapid and extra fast modes. After using a rapid mode there is then a much longer than normal delay (up to 30 seconds) before the camera becomes ready for another shot.

16  Some cameras can detect when you take a picture in the vertical (portrait) position rather than in the normal horizontal (landscape) position. The picture is then turned through 90 degrees on the LCD so it will appear the right way up. In cameras without this facility you can usually turn the pictures yourself, but only by pressing buttons! It can be done much more easily after uploading to a computer, using image processing software.

17  This port allows connection of a cable to upload your pictures to a computer or printer.

18  This allows pictures to be easily uploaded direct to a printer via the USB connection. No computer is needed.

 

Other remarks

 

(i)  There is little  information on the very important question of in-camera battery charging. It seems that with all these cameras you normally have to remove the batteries from the camera to charge them, unless you purchase one of the brands that comes with an in-camera charging system as an optional extra (Kodak, Fujifilm).

 

(ii)  Kodak EasyShareTM docks – These docks come in two styles – with and without a printer. The printer docks are strongly promoted by Kodak and cost a lot more than the non-printing docks, but only make postcard-size prints (152 mm x 102 mm). To make clear prints of this size you really only need a 2.2 megapixel camera. It seems a waste of resources to buy a 3.2MP or higher camera and an Easyshare printer dock. If you don’t already have a good printer, it would be more sensible to get a non-printing dock (or forget about the dock altogether) and buy a decent colour printer that can produce any size of print up to A4. These printers are now quite cheap. While on the subject of EasyShare, I might mention that after a quick play with the latest version of the software I'm unimpressed. The photo imaging software that came with my HP printer, while heavy on computer resources, is easier to use, more logical and more useful - and it works properly. I've removed the EasyShare stuff from my hard drive.

 

(iii)  Batch processing - In addition to image processing software, you might need some batch processing software if it is not included in your camera's or printer's image processing package. You are most likely to need it for reducing the size (pixels/kilobytes) of photos you want to put on a website or send by email. A free program which does this easily and quickly, and which you can download from the internet, is UniDream PowerBatch (version 6). This is designed primarily for adding watermarks to pictures, but you can by-pass this feature. After selecting and opening the folder that contains all (and only) the pictures you want to reduce, in the icon row click on the second button from left (the one consisting of 6 little green and white squares and two red arrows). Then simply select a percentage reduction or, preferably, a maximum size (kilobytes) that you want your pictures to be. Click OK and choose a folder where you want your reduced images to go (it's best to create this folder before you open PowerBatch).

 

First shots from my new camera

 

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These shots, taken with the snappy little Kodak CX7330, have had their resolution greatly reduced and have also lost some clarity due to JPEG compression. The resultant files are about one eightieth and one two-hundredth of the size of the original uncompressed files (flowers and sea gull respectively). In the second image you can see the pixellation effect in the ripples on the water. For another shot, similarly reduced, see the beach photo at the top of my home page (click in box at right).


.........Dabs of Grue..........29/12/04