STATE OF THE ART; More Megapixels for the Money
A LOAF of bread, a jug of wine and thousands of other consumer items: sooner or later, inflation will hit all of them. In one funny little corner of the economic universe, however, that law doesn't apply. It's consumer technology, where prices head ever downward even as power and features improve.Two years ago, this column explored a critical holiday-season question: How much digital camera can $300 buy?The answer was a two-megapixel model (for 5-by-7-inch printouts, tops). Some cameras could show your photos on TV, some could capture jittery movies, some could shoot super close-ups in macro mode, but no one camera offered all of these goodies.To find out just how far we've come in 24 months, I challenged Canon, Casio, Fuji, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, Kyocera, Minolta, Olympus, Pentax, Samsung and Sony to name their best 2003 cameras with street prices under $300, and then compared the choices.The surprising result is that two years in the great Cuisinart of consumer feedback have purÃ©ed most of the eccentricities right out of digital cameras. Looking over their specs, you'd conclude that their makers all worked off photocopies of the same feature list. Except as noted, every model has 3.2-megapixel resolution (enough for spectacular 8-by-10 prints), a 3X zoom lens and a 1.5-inch color screen on the back, a selection of shooting modes (sports, nighttime and so on), a self-timer, a flash, a TV connection, rudimentary digital movies with sound and even a microphone for adding voice annotations to photos. And they're all silver.Most models now take AA batteries instead of expensive, proprietary bricks that, when spent, end your shooting for the day. Not that you'd ordinarily use alkaline AA's, which die in a digicam faster than you can say ''Neveready.'' No, you should use AA nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) rechargeables, which last much longer. But you'll rest (or shoot) easy, knowing that in an emergency a set of drugstore alkalines will buy you another 15 minutes.So what's left to distinguish digital cameras these days? Mainly size and shape -- ''form factor,'' as the camera companies put it. (Then again, these are the same people who say they're going to ''incentivize you'' to buy their ''impactful photographic solutions.'')For example, if cameras were coffee cups, you'd get barely a sip out of Minolta's amazingly engineered, ultrathin brushed-metal Dimage XT ($290). You've seen slices of Wonder Bread thicker than this camera.So where's the zoom lens on a camera four-fifths of an inch thick? Minolta put it entirely inside the camera, mounted vertically. A prism bends the light inside. As a bonus, you don't have to wait for the lens to extend every time you turn on the camera. The pictures are great; unfortunately, there's room only for a proprietary battery that won't make it through a day of typical shooting.Minolta must have gasped when it saw the new Pentax Optio 33WR ($290). It, too, is a small, thin slab with an internal zoom. The twist is that this camera is ruggedized and water-resistant. You can't scuba dive with it, but you can frolic in saltwater and sand, rinse it under the faucet, and live to shoot another day.Other offbeat Pentax perks include an alarm clock and a time-lapse mode. Still, experienced shutterbugs might miss some of the finer engineering niceties of the Minolta, like quick startup times, aperture-priority mode (for sharp subjects, soft-blurred backgrounds) and shutter-priority mode (to freeze sports action or blur babbling brooks).Once you're out there shooting in the rain, by the way, don't be surprised to see your buddies using the similarly weatherproof, ultracompact, extremely gorgeous Olympus Stylus 300 ($250).Alas, this 2002 model is an aging beauty at this point. It captures only silent movies, offers few manual controls and stores its photos on XD memory cards, an expensive, proprietary Olympus-Fuji format that doesn't fit into printers, palmtops or card readers without an adapter.Sony's DSC-P8 ($300), another diminutive gadget, is one of the few cameras to offer continuous auto-focus, which can be invaluable when you're tracking a moving target. And if you're into using your still camera as a crude camcorder -- that is, with no zooming or self-adjusting exposure during a shot -- this is the camera to get. It can capture 640-by-480-pixel video, big enough to fill your TV, and the movie length is limited only by the size of the memory card. (The P8 accepts Sony's Memory Stick Pro cards, which are available to the affluent in sizes up to one gigabyte.) You even get a focus-assist lamp, which lets the autofocus work even in dim light, where other cameras would flounder.Future Ansel Adamses should note that you can't set aperture-or shutter-priority mode. Otherwise, the biggest sacrifice with this little gem is the proprietary battery, which conks out after about 70 minutes.At the opposite extreme of the size-and-shape scale is the Fuji FinePix S3000 ($300), whose chunky shape suggests a shrunken 35-millimeter film camera. Its standout feature is a 6X zoom lens. With this baby, you can do more than just take pictures of the school play; you can inspect the costumes for lint.The S3000's other unusual feature is an electronic viewfinder. When you peer through the eyepiece, you don't see through the camera. Instead, you see a second, internal L.C.D. screen, which guarantees that what you snap is what you framed.It's too bad about the S3000's downsides: a detachable lens cap to fuss with, bulk that won't fit into a pants pocket, only silent movies and those pricey, incompatible XD memory cards.Speaking of oddball designs, on the Kyocera Finecam L3V ($290), instead of a squinty little 1.5-inch screen on the back you get a relatively vast, bright, antiglare 2.5-inch display. (Remember, these are diagonal measurements, so that's a huge difference.) Instead of hooking up your camera to a TV, you can practically get away with setting this big brilliant screen on the mantelpiece.Too bad the super-size screen is this pony's one trick. You don't get aperture- or shutter-priority modes. Movies cower in a corner of the otherwise black screen. And in the time it takes the L3V to get ready for a shot, your adorable child will not only have moved on to a different pose, but probably have gotten married and had children.This roundup's two American entries -- the hefty HP Photosmart 735 ($250) and Kodak EasyShare DX 6340 ($290) -- won't pass any wind-tunnel tests. Yet they offer a simplicity and clarity that make their rivals look cryptic indeed. For example, when you change settings, only these cameras' screens say ''Flash Off'' or ''Sports Mode,'' rather than displaying icons the size of atoms. Similarly, these are the only cameras that tell you how many more pictures your memory card can hold.These are slow, steady cameras, apparently geared for people whose vision is going. (Not only is the Kodak the only camera with diopter adjustment -- a focusing knob on the eyepiece for people who wear glasses -- but the first topic in its manual is: ''Need This Guide in Larger Print?'') Yet apart from their boxy design, you sacrifice very little; the Kodak even offers aperture- and shutter-priority modes.Canon's A70 ($255) is also ungainly-looking. Still, it's hard to find fault with a camera that offers quick startup and shot-to-shot times, shoots crisply as close as two inches away, accepts auxiliary lenses, offers every manual control, includes a low-light focus-assist lamp (for auto-focusing in dim light) and takes sensational photos. Unlike its rivals, it can even capture 640-by-480-pixel movies, big enough to fill your TV screen (although you get only 30 seconds per scene at that size).No, this camera won't pass for a tiny, gleaming fashion accessory. It's more like that unattractive guy from high school who grew up to be a witty, brainy, genius millionaire.The Samsung Digimax V3 has an average-size, average-looking capsule design whose defining characteristics are all internal. Samsung starts you off with a 32-megabyte memory card, for example, and it's equally generous with the different ways you can power this camera: AA's, CRV3's, or even an optional ''brick'' battery. And compared with the muffled tinniness of its competitors, the built-in speaker sounds like James Earl Jones with a megaphone. The plastic controls feel just the tiniest bit cheap. But you'd be hard pressed to find a camera with this many features (including all manual controls) at a price like $230.The only camera that might outdo Samsung in sheer jaw-dropping value is Casio's QV-R40 ($240), the only four-megapixel camera in this batch. (That means you can print 13-by-19-inch prints, or make smaller prints with the luxury of trimming away unwanted background or family members.) It's not only tiny, but fast: hit the power button and it's ready to shoot in one second, a handy bonus for anyone with children, pets or a train to catch.As usual, Casio offers BestShot, a foolproof menu of illustrated shooting situations (Fireworks, Candlelight Portrait, and so on) that makes all the manual settings automatically, if that makes any sense. And just when you thought this model couldn't get any more irresistible, it even comes with a set of rechargeable NiMH AA's and a charger.In short, there's a terrific camera in here somewhere for just about every sort of shutterbug, including the technophobe (the Kodak), the style maven (the Minolta), the outdoorsy types (Pentax), the quality diva (Canon) and the bargain hunter (Casio and Samsung).In any case, your dollar goes much farther than it did two years ago. In fact, only one thing should stop you from jumping on these superb offerings: contemplating how much better and cheaper they'll be in 2005.