[This article updated 30 September 2002]
A number of people have asked me about digital cameras in the last while, since I did some research before I bought my own in July and have been keeping up with the market somewhat. Here are my opinions of the four best values -- from lowest to highest resolution and price -- in the current market for consumer point-and-shoot digicams:
- 2 megapixel - the Canon PowerShot A40. Canon's Digital ELPH models -- the S200 (about $550 Canadian) and 330 ($675) -- get more hype, but unless you need their steel bodies and small size, the A40 ($425) provides far better bang for the buck.
- 3 megapixel - the Fuji FinePix F601Z. A cool vertical shape (which I like, but others might not), excellent movie mode, good picture quality (using Fuji's SuperCCD imaging chip), small size, fast picture-taking, and durable body make this a great little camera, if a bit pricey at $900 Canadian. Some call the F601 a "6 megapixel" camera, but that's only because it can perform internal interpolation using the SuperCCD sensor and do a not-bad job of enlarging the 3 MP image -- it's not really higher resolution, but large prints apparently turn out well. Try to find the F601 with the docking/charging cradle included. Its predecessors, the FinePix 6800 and 2 megapixel 4700, are worth looking for used. Canon's PowerShot S30 ($725) and new S230 (about $750 when it's available) are larger and smaller respectively, and are also worth considering.
- 4 megapixel - the Canon PowerShot G2. This camera simply takes excellent and detailed photographs. The fast, quality lens, easy-to-use controls ranging from full automatic to full manual, extra-long battery life, and incredibly useful swing-and-pivot LCD display make the G2 a top pick of many reviewers, me included. While the G3 will soon be available (for around $1300), and likely will take its place on my list, a clearance G2 ($1000-1100, maybe less) would be an excellent deal. As with many technology products, the best prices come when replacement models are introduced. A used G1 (the G2's 3 megapixel ancestor), while hard to find, is also a good bet. If the G2's price is still too steep, the Minolta DiMAGE F100 (a steal at $800) or Canon S40 ($850) should do the job for you.
- 5 megapixel - the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F707. While it's soon to be supplanted by the F717 ($1500), I still recommend the F707 (around $1250 right now) for the same reason I think the Canon G2 is a better value than the G3 at the moment -- you'll get a good price while retailers clear out the old for the new. Both cameras look bizarre, with their huge pivoting zoom lenses, and they're big overall, but they take lovely pictures (even in low light) and have great battery life. Anyone shelling out for 5 megapixels probably deserves the kind of flexibility and control only a larger camera with a long zoom can provide. I find competing models from Nikon, Olympus, and Minolta even more ungainly-looking, and Fuji's "5 megapixel" models (see my second choice above) are really lower-resolution ones that interpolate upwards, so the photo quality is not what the pixel count would indicate.
It seems it's hard to go wrong with a Canon digicam, perhaps because the company often waits to introduce a new model until they have it well thought out.
Prices have come down enough that I think cameras with 1 megapixel or less resolution, since they won't let you make nice prints any bigger than about 4x6 inches, aren't worth it -- unless all you're doing is posting photos to the Web or eBay. There are plenty of good ones for little money these days, however. Models at 6 megapixels and above are limited to extremely expensive semi-pro and pro single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras, which few but enthusiasts with fat wallets would look at. If you're seriously considering those, you probably know more than I do.
Whichever model and resolution you buy, you'll need to get a big memory card (96 MB or larger), since the manufacturers all provide pretty skimpy ones, no matter how expensive the camera. The range of digicam choices out there is vast, and your particular needs might make a different model best for you -- for instance, I own none of the cameras I recommend here, because I bought a 3 megapixel Konica that isn't as good as the Fuji, but cost me almost $300 less. At the prices and resolutions I mention, however, no one who buys one of my recommended cameras should be disappointed. Until a better one at half the price comes out in a few weeks, of course.