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Choosing a Digital Camera
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By Daniel Grotta and Sally Wiener Grotta

Shopping for a digital camera is stressful. Most stores carry a fraction of the 200-plus cameras on the market, and except at specialty stores, salespeople aren't much help. You can ask friends for recommendations, but even if they love their camera, it might be discontinued, given short product cycles. Don't throw up your hands and give up. A little information, some strategizing, and our reviews can make the process less traumatic.

Like PCs, cell phones, and cars, digital cameras come in many sizes, shapes, and configurations. And your buying decision is likewise one you'll have to live with for a while. So break the decision down into a series of factors, then compare cameras based on how well they meet your needs, factor by factor. To determine which camera is best for you, consider image quality, performance, ergonomics, and style, your level (current or hoped for) of photographic skills, and price.

Megapixels make great sound bites, but optics and processing algorithms are also important. Indeed, just a few sensor manufacturers supply camera makers, so two cameras with the same MP rating may have the same sensor. And we've seen cameras produce better pictures than cameras in the same class with a higher MP count.

MP ratings are useful for determining how large you can print images�as well as how much you can crop images and still retain acceptable image quality. See "Get to Know Your Camera" and "More Than Just Megapixels" for more on megapixels.

Image quality is a more useful measure. Most digital cameras produce good images, with color fidelity, sharpness, and dynamic range that will satisfy most users. We rate image capabilities by sharpness (the more lines of resolution a camera can distinguish, the better) and the percentage of transition pixels on a subject's edges (the fewer, the better). We also consider color reproduction and exposure accuracy. For more on image quality and how we measure it, see our explanation in "Super Zooms".

If you plan to e-mail your pictures or print them on your ink jet using low-grade paper, you needn't be picky. Other criteria, such as price and size, may be more important. If you want razor-sharp, professionally finished 8-by-10 prints with colors that pop, then image quality is key.

To get top image quality, select from among cameras that we rate at 4 or 5 stars. We won't give a camera these scores if its pictures aren't good, no matter how cool it looks or what bells and whistles it has.

Digital cameras are getting faster, but they're still slower than film cameras. We test each camera's boot time (how quickly it can start up and be ready to shoot) and recycle time (how long it takes to shoot, process, and be ready for another shot). Long boot times are annoying, long recycle times more so. Make sure you can live with a camera's speeds. Try it out, or, if you can't, use a stopwatch to see what a 5-second recycle time really means.

Is the feature set right? Taking digital photos can be as simple as pointing the camera and pressing the shutter button. But digital cameras can also provide as much control over exposure, color, dynamic range, and so on as you want. Also consider extras like in-camera red-eye removal and panorama modes. In general, however, we'd pick a camera that takes better pictures over one with many features. You can always remove red-eye later, but you can't add in detail that a poor camera missed.

Ergonomics and style matter, too. When you try on shoes, you consider what they look like and how they feel. Apply similar criteria to each camera: How does it feel to hold? Is it too large or too heavy? Does a plastic body feel too flimsy? Are the controls sensibly placed? Are there too many or too few? Are the menus easy to navigate? The best menus explain features and settings and even give shooting advice. And don't forget vanity: Does the camera suit your style, or will it embarrass you?

We categorize digital cameras into compact, ultracompact, superzoom, enthusiast, and digital SLR, or D-SLR.

Compact cameras aren't the best, fastest, most stylish, smallest, or most flexible digital cameras. They take reasonable pictures and have reasonable feature sets. They generally also offer better performance, LCDs, and optics than the sexier, pricier ultracompacts.

Compacts lack the pro features and performance characteristics of higher-end cameras but fit into handbags or roomy pockets. This is by far the most popular camera category�particularly among bargain-conscious shooters and women�and it represents the best value for the average user. Unless you need a higher-end or smaller camera, this is the type of camera you should consider first.

Typical compacts include the Canon PowerShot S60 and the Kodak EasyShare LS743 , which offer great value for money. But not all compacts offer sensibility over luxury; the Casio Exilim Pro EX-P600 is an all-metal camera loaded with extras�and priced accordingly.

Ultracompacts are small enough to fit in your palm and stylish enough for any social milieu: They'll fit into tiny bags or suit jacket pockets without ruining their lines. They can be simple�or sophisticated high-megapixel powerhouses. Either way, performance, features, and image quality generally take a back seat to form factor and style. Ultracompacts are for those who want the coolest toys and a camera always on hand. Examples include the Pentax Optio S4 and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1 .

Enthusiast cameras are full-size models built on bigger budgets than compacts. They offer more precise controls, better lenses, and more features. Most important, they provide superior images, suitable for larger prints. They tend to have lenses that can zoom in closer, faster performance, histograms, exposure bracketing, high resolution, and manual controls for shutter speed, f-stop, and white balance. They're for users who don't want to spend the money on a D-SLR but still want versatility, quick and sure handling, and fast shooting. Examples include the Konica Minolta DiMage A2 and the Leica Digilux 2.

Superzooms, which have 10X or greater optical zoom lenses, are a subset of enthusiast cameras. Their large lenses put them into the full-size category, but their prices tend to fall between those of compact and enthusiast models. While some superzooms have high-end features, their users often prefer automatic settings. Examples include the Olympus Camedia C-765 Ultra Zoom and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10. Some, like the Panasonic, correct for camera shake�which is greater the more you zoom in�via image stabilization. We recently looked at six of these cameras (see "Super Zooms ").

D-SLRs are at the pinnacle of digital cameras, with true reflex through-the-lens viewfinders, interchangeable lenses, total control over exposure and color, and a host of accessories. Besides pro features and functions, D-SLRs yield performance similar to those of 35-mm film cameras. Most important, they also produce the best image quality of any type of digital camera. D-SLRs usually have fully automatic settings, but to get your money's worth, you'll have to be the kind of shutterbug who likes manual controls. D-SLR users include avid amateurs, pros, and those who need top-of-the-line equipment, regardless of cost. Examples are the Canon EOS Digital Rebel, the Nikon D70, and the Olympus E-1.

The bottom line is money. When shopping for any luxury item, the best strategy is first to decide what you can pay. Decide on form factor, features, and the rest based on what you're actually likely to use. Then look for a camera that meets your budget. We present 20 of this year's favorites to help you get started. Some, like the Leica Digilux 2, represent money-is-no-object quality; others, like the Concord Eye-Q 4360z, represent good quality at an impressively low price. Most fall somewhere in between. Examine our recommendations, pick one, try it in a store if you can, and shop around for the best deal.

Our contributors: Daniel Grotta is a frequent contributor to PC Magazine, and Sally Wiener Grotta is a contributing editor. Their newest book, PC Magazine's Guide to Digital Photography, will be published by John Wiley this October. Les Freed is a contributing editor, and Michael Kobrin is a staff editor. PC Magazine Labs lead analyst Glenn Menin and associate editor Sean Carroll were in charge of this story.

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Reprinted from PC Magazine with permission.
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