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Technology

Cheap Shots: $100 Digicams

You’ll be pleasantly surprised by some features, but don’t be swayed by pixel hype.

Just a few years ago, you had to spend a bundle to get a digital camera with the prowess to produce crisp prints. But now major brands sell quality point-and-shoot models for less than $100. For that price, you can risk taking one along on your next kayak trip or bungee jump—not to mention that they make great stocking stuffers.

Granted, some $100 cameras are junk. But we found four that take good pictures, are easy to use and have features you might not expect in a budget box.

What you get. Manufacturers often tout the number of megapixels their cameras have. But that can be misleading. A bargain-price 10-megapixel model doesn’t necessarily take better shots than its 7-megapixel competitor, so don’t be dazzled by the higher number. The $100 cameras we tested, which range from 7.1 to 10.2 megapixels, offer more than enough resolution to produce fine prints from shots taken under average conditions.

All four of these models boast features that not long ago were limited to pricier cameras: at least a 3X optical zoom lens, a color LCD screen, a built-in flash, automatic face detection, and the ability to shoot video. And, of course, each comes with a USB cable to port photos to a Mac or PC.

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What you don’t get. These models, however, aren’t recommended for action shots that require fast shutter speeds. And don’t count on good results in low light without the flash.

Some bargain cameras have no internal memory, and others come with just enough to store a handful of shots. So you’ll need a memory card; memory cards start at about $15 for 4 gigabytes of storage. That will hold hundreds of high-quality photos.

All of the models we tested use two AA batteries rather than a rechargeable unit, which are the standard on more expensive models. To extend battery life, the camera turns itself off after a couple of minutes of inactivity. Unless you’re shooting constantly, there’s no reason that a single pair of AAs can’t last a few days.

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Four That Make the Grade

Canon PowerShot A470
Stats:
3.4X optical zoom, 7.1-megapixel resolution.

Although the Canon PowerShot A480 is a bit chunkier than its rivals, it is small enough to fit in a pocket or handbag. Under good conditions, it takes photos that are crisp and clear, but low-light shots can be a bit grainy. The 2.5-inch LCD is bright, and the controls and screen menus simple. The flash is slow to recover after a shot, but otherwise the A480 is a solid value.


Kodak Easyshare c180
Stats:
3X optical zoom, 10.2-megapixel resolution.

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The Kodak EasyShare C180 is a good choice for someone new to digital photography. The camera offers helpful hints on its LCD that explain various shooting modes. The 10.2-megapixel resolution may be overkill for an entry-level camera, but the added pixels do make it easier to crop photos on your computer and still have an image that will print well.


Olympus FE-25
Stats:
3X optical zoom, 10-megapixel resolution.

We’ve stretched the price limit a bit for the Olympus FE-25, which lists for $109.99 but can be found for around $100. With its slim design and 2.4-inch LCD, the FE-25 is a solid low-end shooter. It’s not great for low-light shots, but image quality is good when the flash is on. One gripe: The FE-25 doesn’t record audio, so it’s not a great choice for video clips.


Samsung SL30
Stats:
3X optical zoom, 10.2-megapixel resolution.

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Like the Kodak and Olympus models, the Samsung SL30 has a slim, compact design that’s great for smaller hands, including kids’. Screen menus are easy to navigate, and the camera takes quality photos and videos in bright settings. The 2.5-inch LCD is the clearest of the bunch, and photo croppers will appreciate the 10.2-megapixel resolution.