The best compact cameras: 6 models reviewed, plus what to look for in a compact


In the world of cameras there is no more variation of choice than in the compact market. Manufacturers as diverse as GE to Sony and Panasonic to Olympus all have their toes in the water and models can vary from a couple of hundred dollars to even a few thousand when talking top-shelf models such as those from Leica. Styles of compacts swing between a “block†with an LCD on the back for both playback and viewfinder to more SLR-like bodies with handgrips and occasionally a proper viewfinder.

Storage is usually on SD card although Sony is sticking to its Memory Stick format in most cases. Sometimes a micro SD card may sneak in but while in the past there was quite a mix of cards used standardisation thankfully seems to have gained traction. PC connectivity is generally via USB – Wi-Fi is on its way probably via Bluetooth. Inbuilt GPS system for geo-logging of photos is starting to appear and PictBridge connectivity for printing is commonplace.

The quality of images has improved too. This time last year 8-10 megapixels were the norm and this was better than many DSLR cameras 10 times the price! Today 10-15 seems more the go which in real terms of postcard sized prints is a slight overkill. While the very nature of compacts means they are targeted at the beginner to intermediate user the more sophisticated units are full of advanced features such as aperture and shutter speed control white balance ISO speed and so on. Of course there is always the fall back to the “Auto†everything modes making it almost impossible to take a bad shot. Low light is also compensated for with built-in flash units that pop up automatically.

Battery life has been improved as well with 300 shots/charge now the norm. Much of this is due to the switch from “AA†to inbuilt rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries. And two other things should be in the box: a lens cap and a basic (at least 1GB) SD card. If they’re not haggle for a better price.

What do I look for in a compact digital camera?
In the sub-$300 price range there are certain features and functions that are a must. Not that they are essential to taking a good image; more that they are essential to getting a good deal.

PRICE
Anything more than $300 and you’re most likely paying for features you won’t want or need.

BATTERY
AA batteries are popular at this price range. Although they are convenient to replace they represent an ongoing (and unnecessary) cost. Where possible grab yourself a camera with a rechargeable Li-Ion battery to save even more cash.

MEGAPIXELS
Look for at least 10 megapixels in this price range.

ISO AND SENSORS
Like megapixels ISO has settled into an average and 1600 is it. Minor variances in sensor specs and shutter speeds will make little or no difference to image quality.

FUNCTIONS
Face detection red-eye reduction and image stabilisation are must-haves that will improve your image quality. Everything else is just a gimmick or a luxury.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Canon Powershot SX210#]

Canon Powershot SX210

Excellent LCD and lens.

The first thing that leaps out at you when you open the box of a Canon PowerShot SX210 is the size of the LCD screen. It is a massive 3in widescreen monster that still allows room on the rear of the camera for the function rotary dial thumbwheel and display menu print and record (for video) buttons. On the day of testing it was a stinking hot and very bright day and even then the image could be seen clearly. Big tick.

As well as taking 14.1-megapixel images using its 1/2.3in sensor and the tried and proven Canon DiGIC processor the SX210 shoots hi-def H.264 compliant 1280 x 720 footage using the Quicktime MOV wrapper. There is an HDMI slot to play back the footage to a compatible TV but – and it continues to anger and mystify me – no HDMI cable is supplied. Why oh why do they do it – or not as in this case? There is no memory card (SD) either which is really penny pinching for a $600 camera.

The SX210 feels meaty to hold and although the ergonomics of an SLR are not there (and the layout of controls could be improved somewhat to space them out a bit – fat fingered types could have some issues) the on-screen menus thankfully not touchscreen are easy to follow and setup.

The lens is a cracker with a zoom range of 28mm-392mm however I found the shutter lag is a tad slow for sporting multiple shots. Stabilisation is of the better optical type.

Startup time was pretty quick and although no rating is quoted it compared more than favourably to other cameras tested. Power is supplied by a Lithium Ion rechargeable and good for 280 shots.

Available from Canon retailing for $599.
APC rating: 8/10

[#PAGE-BREAK#GE X5#]

GE X5

Compact in an SLR-style body.

Is there anything that GE doesn’t have its fingers in these days? Yes from finance to fridges and now photos GE has entered the world of the digital camera.

The X5 is a compact of the “mini-SLR†style as against the rectangular variety with the “hump†– where the mirror would be – containing a pop-up flash instead. The lens is equivalent to 27 ~ 405mm and focuses on to a 1/2.3in CCD giving 14 megapixels. Match this to a 15x optical zoom and stability system and you have some optics that are not too shabby at all.

The fixed LCD is 2.7in and shares its space with the standard fare of a rotary push button for function select delete macro flash and timer along with button switches for viewfinder display menu aperture +/- and play.
 
The top of the X5 contains a rotary dial for scene settings an on/off switch tele-wide rocker with central shutter release smile detection button and stabiliser on/off.

There is a massive handgrip on the right-hand side which is also the compartment for the “AA†alkalines the X5 uses as well as being the locale of the SD card slot. Opening it is a double-handed movement and those without nails may have a problem…

One nice feature and pioneered by Sony is the ability to capture a panorama during a “sweep†of the camera with the shutter held down but to work this out you’ll have to experiment as the manual (27 pages in English) only explains what functions menu options and buttons are not how they can be used.

The X5 is a nice little camera. Its shape is not really suited to a pocket or purse but that is offset by the stability of the handgrip.

Available from GE retailing for $299.
APC rating: 9/10

[#PAGE-BREAK#Olympus Tough 8010#]

Olympus Tough 8010

Tough as old boots.

I dropped it kicked it put it in a bucket of water and even – with eyes closed – dropped a box of books on it and the 8010 kept on a-hummin’. Well it’s supposed to be rated higher than whatever pain I gave it so one would hope so. For the record you can (allegedly) clobber it from a height with 100kg submerge it 10 metres and even freeze it to -10 degrees before it coughs.

All well and good but how does it shape up as a camera? Well it is rated at 14-megapixel via a 1/2.3in sensor and has a 2.7in LCD which is not by any stretch as good outside as in but nonetheless viewable without squinting. Zoom is 28mm to 140mm so not huge but for the environment it is designed for it’s adequate – snorkelling and snow skiing specifically spring to mind. It can shoot HD too and has an HDMI port for that purpose – but yes you guessed it no supplied cable.

Speaking of which shooting underwater and in snow has its own set of problems and for this reason I’d suggest getting to know the 8010 controls intimately as the labelling is far too small. The buttons are quite close together too so with gloves on for example operations could be tricky.

The on-screen menu system is easy to follow however and very comprehensive. The documentation side lets the 8010 down. Apart from a fold-out quickstart there is nothing to speak of not even a CD. Nor any rudimentary editing applications.

And finally it amazes me that people who make cameras that can go underwater or in snow never seem to think what happens if it is dropped – because you will at some point – and a silver colour in the briny is very hard to see.

Available from Olympus retailing for $599.
APC rating: 7/10

[#PAGE-BREAK#Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT2#]

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT2

It may sink but it’ll still work.

The Lumix brand from Panasonic has leapt into prominence in the last couple of years not least in part due to it’s strong TV ad campaign – “lake skipping†compact anyone?

The Lumix DMC-FT2 is a tough little beast that – like its competitor from Olympus – is shock freeze and dust-proof. The Lumix also takes hi-def video using the AVCHD format and as a bonus is $100 cheaper than the Olympus.

Panasonic says that the stabilisation system has twice the power of “hand shake†correction as a standard system but that sounds a little like a washing powder ad. However what can be quantified is the inclusion of Intelligent ISO Face and Scene Detection with a “snorkelling mode†Auto Focus/Exposure and a “Happy†mode to optimise saturation and colour saturation. One important feature if the FT2 is to be used for snorkelling is the inclusion of an LED light; lighting of coral and fish is almost mandatory to get the colours you see in those Barrier Reef documentaries.

14.1 megapixels can be expected from the Lumix and the exceptional Leica lens zooms from a wide 28mm to 128mm. The rear of the camera sports a 2.7in LCD to the left with all controls grouped logically to the right-hand side. Most functions are selected with sealed square push buttons and a rotary dial is used for scene selections etc.

Power is obtained via a Lithium-Ion battery. The review unit was a bright yellow easy to see if dropped on the ocean floor but the DMC-FT2 is also available in blue silver and orange.

Available from Panasonic retailing for $499.
APC rating: 9/10

[#PAGE-BREAK#Ricoh CX4#]

Ricoh CX4

No surprises here.

In a world of 12 megapixels and more it is interesting to see that the new Ricoh CX4 only has a “miserable†10-megapixel capacity. In reality for the market the CX4 is designed this is more than enough. Similarly the zoom is “only†28mm to 300mm which in real terms is bigger than I used to get decent newspaper motor sport shots back in the ’70s. In other words just as ridiculous digital zoom figures quoted more is not best in all cases.

Having said that there are a bunch of functions embedded into the CX4 just ripe for those that love their special effects including the new darling of “miniaturise†to make your scene look like a toy set – something the photorati call “tilt shiftâ€.

The LCD is big at 3in but doesn’t have the widescreen quality of the Canon SX210. It’s nice and crisp and contrasty too until you take it into bright sunlight at which point you cannot tell. There is an on-screen histogram that is updated on-the-fly and this is a bonus that even raw beginners should use to get the best images.

The control layout on the rear of the CX4 is simple logical and minimalist to make it easy with four function buttons a play button and a combination set of arrow keys/flash/macro/enter wheel. The top of the camera has power zoom/shutter release and a function wheel. When powering on the inbuilt lens cover automatically slides away and the body mounted flash to the right of the lens has five settings including an auto.

The only ports available are USB and AV out. The CX4 can shoot movies but only in Motion JPEG so no HDMI port is needed.

Documentation is very good and explains the on-screen menu system succinctly and in depth.

Available from Ricoh retailing for $499.
APC rating: 7/10

[#PAGE-BREAK#Sony DSCW310B#]

Sony DSCW310B

A camera for the budget-conscious.

So you need a new camera but are perhaps a student or otherwise financially challenged? If you told the buyer of the first serious digital camera (that cost US$6000) you could buy one today with more features for AU$150 he would laugh at you.

But indeed you can and the Sony DSCW310B is not a toy having 12-megapixel functionality from its 1/2.3in sensor a 4x optical zoom and a 2.7in LCD. The lens goes from 28mm wide to 112mm.
It shoots movies up to 2GB in Motion JPG as well as stills (220 shots/charge to its Li-Ion battery).

As you can imagine this camera is pretty much auto-everything and also has smile detection and intelligent auto for scene detection auto focus and motion detection. Face Detection automatically adjusts the focus exposure white balance and flash settings to get the best results and Sony says it can even distinguish between children and adults.

User-selectable scene modes include Twilight / Twilight Portrait / Landscape / Soft Snap / Snow / Beach / High Sensitivity and Gourmet. Sony seem to be gradually either moving away from its proprietary Memory Stick format – or at least co-habiting happily with the more accepted SD format – as the DSCW310B can cope with both. Connectivity for download is via USB 2.0. And there are three body colours too with black silver and pink available.

So it’s not a feature-all bells and whistles snapper. But be comforted that it is still better than what we could get in 1997! And the best camera doesn’t necessarily take the best picture.

Available from Sony retailing for $149.
APC rating: 9/10