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Cheap Digital Cameras Buying Guide

Our two top choices are the Olympus VR-340 (starting at $89), with 10x optical zoom, and the Canon PowerShot A3400 IS (starting at $89), which features a 3-inch touchscreen LCD. The Canon PowerShot A2400 IS (starting at $88) has no touchscreen but snaps better-looking photos than most budget cameras.

The Fujifilm FinePix T400 (starting at $89) is a snap to use (pardon the pun), although the photos don't always turn out the prettiest. We're less willing to forgive the Nikon Coolpix S3300 (starting at $69). Experts say photos are consistently fuzzy and a cheap lens creates fringes of color along areas of high contrast.

Digital Camera Reviews
Digital Camera Speed
Digital Camera Resolution and Zoom

These cheap digital cameras are pocket-size point-and-shoots for taking on trips and carrying around day-to-day to capture fond memories on the go. They are not what professionals use. The pros buy digital single-lens-reflex cameras, which have more bells and whistles than casual users need. Even cheap DSLRs cost about four times as much as budget point-and-shoots.

The real strong point of cheap digital cameras (besides the price) is their simplicity. If you're buying a budget point-and-shoot, you probably don't want to worry about the finer points of good photo composition. You simply want to, well, point and shoot. That makes ease of use important in a cheap digital camera. All the models we researched have automatic settings that take a lot of the guesswork out of composing photos.

Although we limited our top picks to digital cameras under $100, a couple of pricier models caught our eye for consumers seeking a bit of an upgrade from the cheapest digital cameras. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ5 (starting at $150) supports Wi-Fi connections, so users can upload photos directly to social media sites. However, reviewers warn that for many users this feature alone won't make up for some photo-quality shortcomings. The Nikon Coolpix L810 (starting at $220) is a point-and-shoot camera in the body of a small DLSR, with a big 26x zoom. Its 3-inch LCD monitor has the highest resolution of any budget camera we researched and it performs better on certain settings than cheaper cameras do, although maybe not enough so to justify spending more than twice as much.

When it comes to performance, image quality is king. Unfortunately most digital cameras under $100 abdicate that throne. It's certainly possible to snap great-looking photos with a cheap digital camera, but doing so consistently can be tricky. Generally budget cameras require a lot of light and a still subject to take an ideal photo. Most cheap digital cameras struggle in darker settings and with fast-moving subjects. Still, under the right conditions, our top picks can snap colorful, sharp, vivid photos without a lot of fuss.

Today's cheap digital cameras almost always have resolutions of 14 to 16 megapixels, which, truth be told, is more than most users need. But camera technology has advanced to where 16MP is the starting point even for a digital camera under $100. Most cheap digital cameras have 5x zoom and you can find some models with as high as 10x zoom. If possible, check out a camera's LCD display in person before you buy it. The LCD should be large -- at least 2.5 inches, if not 3 -- and easy to see.

As you move up the point-and-shoot price scale, you'll find higher optical zooms, higher-quality lenses, larger LCDs, and full high-definition (1080p) movie recording. While 720p HD video recording is easy to come by in a digital camera under $100, if you're truly interested in video, there are plenty of good, cheap camcorders out there that will do a better job than a cheap digital camera.

Digital Camera Reviews

Most inexpensive digital cameras get a mix of positive and negative feedback from experts and consumers posting online. Most budget models are easy to use, according to digital camera reviews, with myriad preset shooting modes and convenient aids designed to produce top-notch photos. The results, however, are a mixed bag, and in general the performance lags what you'd see from a pricier camera. Still, digital camera reviews indicate that the best models perform well enough and come with enough cool features to keep users content.

Camera Image Quality.

Point-and-shoot cameras are supposed to take a lot of the guesswork out of snapping great pictures. Indeed, most budget models can shoot decent-looking photos in normal lighting conditions, but in lower light the cameras' image quality dips dramatically.

In the digital camera reviews we read, the Canon PowerShot A2400 IS (starting at $88) earned the most praise for photo quality. It impressed a CNET reviewer by producing vivid, accurate colors. A PC Mag expert who reviewed both this model and the other Canon PowerShot we researched, the A3400 IS (starting at $89), notes the sharpness of the lenses on both cameras but says images suffer from "noise" or graininess in low light. More than one expert complains about the performance of the Fujifilm FinePix T400 (starting at $89) in low light. Still, testers from Tech Review Source gives the camera credit for taking sharp photos with accurate colors in good lighting conditions.

Digital camera reviews criticize the Nikon Coolpix S3300 (starting at $69) for sub-par image quality all around. Reviewers from Digital Versus found that photos lacked detail and appeared blurry around the edges. At Digital Camera Info, an expert writes that the camera renders colors accurately, but a cheap lens produces blue and yellow "fringing" along high-contrast edges, an effect known as chromatic aberration.

Spending more doesn't necessarily guarantee better photo quality. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ5 (starting at $150) comes in for criticism at Steve's Digicams because indoor photos simply don't turn out well. The reviewer accuses this camera of taking less-than-sharp images that show a lot of noise in the background.

ISO Settings.

Digital camera reviews tend to talk a lot about a camera's image quality at different ISO settings. Changing the ISO makes the camera more or less sensitive to light. Budget cameras, including our top picks, can typically be set to 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600. The ISO settings on the Fujifilm FinePix T400 go up to 3200. The higher the number, the less light you need to take a properly exposed photo, all other settings being equal. A camera set to ISO 800 doesn't require as much light to take the same photo as it would if it was set to ISO 400, so you can take photos indoors or in low light without using a flash. But there's a tradeoff, especially in budget cameras: Photos snapped at higher ISO settings tend to look "noisy" or grainy and may display other distortions known as digital artifacts. The images also may look more washed out than photos taken in bright light.

Experts highlight such issues in digital camera reviews. The Olympus VR-340 (starting at $89) can take good photos with little noise up through ISO 400, according to PC Mag's digital camera analyst. After that, images show noise and start to lose detail. The same is true even of the Canon PowerShot A2400 IS, which is otherwise lauded for photo quality. Trusted Reviews notes that the Fujifilm Finepix T400 camera's image quality deteriorates anywhere above the lowest ISO setting.

Review continues below

While you can try to always keep the camera on a low ISO setting, you're likely to wind up with blurry photos indoors or in low light. A camera with optical image stabilization (see the next page for more on that feature) can reduce the blurriness to some extent, but it can only do so much. Don't expect to take a sharp picture in a poorly lit room with the ISO set to 100, even if your camera does have image stabilization.

Digital Camera Speed

There are many ways to measure a camera's mechanical performance, from autofocusing ability to shutter lag (how long the camera takes to actually record an image after you press the button) to recycle time (how long it takes to reset for a second photo). Budget point-and-shoot digital cameras tend to be pretty slow compared with mid-range and high-end cameras. Some perform a bit better than others in certain areas, so we'll point out some highlights and lowlights of each model in our comparison.

Digital Camera Speed.

The Canon PowerShot A3400 IS has a fast and accurate autofocus, says a reviewer from Camera Labs. However, PC Mag's review of this point-and-shoot digital camera notes that the recycle time is on the slow side. The other Canon PowerShot on our list, the A2400 IS, can also take some very nice photos provided you're not in a hurry between shots. CNET measured the recycle time at about 2.8 seconds -- tolerable but still slow.

The Olympus VR-340 has noticeable shutter lag of about half a second, according to PC Mag. But a reviewer from Digital Camera Info praises the fast autofocus, without which users would struggle to take photos of moving subjects, such as kids running around. Trusted Reviews reports that the Fujifilm FinePix T400 has a hard time focusing in low light -- not an uncommon problem in point-and-shoot digital cameras but still an unwelcome one. The Nikon Coolpix S3300 likewise had trouble locking on to its subject in low light in a test of digital camera speed by experts from Digital Versus.

Ease of Use and Shooting Modes.

One area where budget point-and-shoots really shine is their simplicity. Digital cameras have become very easy to use, with automatic settings that eliminate the need for any tinkering. We noticed no complaints about these cameras having awkward interfaces or complicated menus. In fact, point-and-shoot digital cameras like the Fujifilm FinePix T400 may be almost too heavily automated for users who prefer to have the option of a few manual controls.

Pre-set shooting modes give images a little extra oomph and take some of the guesswork out of shooting nice-looking photos. Sunning at the beach? Watching a burst of fireworks? Chasing after a frisky pet? All our top picks have automatic modes that adjust shutter speed, light sensitivity, and color balance to suit a variety of occasions and venues. Professionals may cringe, but these and other convenient aids help amateurs fill albums and hard drives with photos that aren't half bad.

Image Stabilization.

When you take pictures without a tripod or a flash in low light, you need a camera with image stabilization to minimize the blurring effect of unsteady hands or a moving subject. Optical image stabilization used to be pretty rare in budget models, which relied on digital tricks to reduce blurring in photos. Now the feature is commonplace and shows up in all our top point-and-shoot digital cameras. A reviewer from Camera Labs says the optical image stabilization on the Canon PowerShot A3400 IS performs very well, steadying shots that would otherwise turn out blurry. A reviewer from Digital Camera Info praises the Olympus VR-340 camera's image stabilization, saying it effectively reduces blurring.

Digital Camera Resolution and Zoom

Even budget cameras are loaded with features and settings, some of which we've already touched on in our digital camera comparison. Many of the specs are very technical, and if you're buying point-and-shoot camera for simple, no-nonsense photography, you don't have to worry about those. Here are some of the more fundamental features and settings that will affect your experience using a digital camera.

Digital Camera Optical Zoom.

You'll often see two types of zoom listed in the specs for a digital camera: optical and digital. Optical zoom is the one to note. Digital zoom isn't widely used and doesn't preserve image quality. Instead, it simply enlarges the individual pixels in a photograph, making it less clear and crisp. Many cheap digital cameras can magnify an image at least five times, and that number is starting to go up. Both the Fujifilm FinePix T400 and the Olympus VR-340 have 10x optical zoom, as does the somewhat pricier Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ5. Jumping up to the Nikon Coolpix L810 (starting at $220) gets you a digital camera with optical zoom of 26x.

Digital Camera Resolution.

Once upon a time, 5 to 8 megapixels was the norm for digital camera resolution in the budget category. Beyond that, extra megapixels won't make much of a difference unless you plan to blow up an image beyond 8x10 inches. Yet manufacturers are packing more and more pixels onto the tiny sensors in low-priced cameras. Today, 16MP cameras are the norm, though you can still find some digital cameras with resolution of 14MP, such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ5. All the top picks in our digital camera comparison meet the 16MP mark.

A photo snapped at 16MP can easily use up a few dozen megabytes on a memory card, depending on the file type you use. Experts at Photography Review recommend buying a memory card that holds at least a gigabyte of data if you plan to shoot even 10MP pictures. Most budget cameras, including all the ones we list here, accept SD (secure digital), SDHC (secure digital high-capacity), or SDXC (secure digital extended capacity) cards. Memory cards are cheap enough nowadays that you probably want to invest in at least one or two. You can pick up an 8GB SanDisk SDHC memory card on Amazon for about $7.

Camera Screens.

LCD monitors have largely replaced viewfinders on digital cameras as a way to frame an image before you capture it. Most digital camera screens measure about 2.7 to 3 inches, so you don't need a magnifying lens to see what's in the frame.

Among the top finishers in our digital camera comparison, the Canon PowerShot A3400 IS, Olympus VR-340, and Fujifilm FinePix T400 have 3-inch camera screens. The PowerShot A3400 IS features the added convenience of a touchscreen interface. The Canon PowerShot A2400 IS and Nikon Coolpix S3300 have 2.7-inch LCDs.

Images should be visible on a camera screen both indoors and out, although bright sun can make an LCD hard to see. If possible, test a camera outside or in bright light before purchasing to make sure you can see the screen and the colors are true to life. Digital camera screens have resolutions measured in dots. The higher the resolution, the sharper an image will appear on the LCD monitor. Most of the models we looked at in our digital camera comparison have LCDs with resolutions of 230K dots. The exception is the Olympus VR-340, which boasts resolution of 460K dots.

Camera Battery Life.

Reviews often discuss camera battery life in terms of how many photos a camera can take on a single charge. This is not a particular strong suit of cheap digital cameras. Expect to shoot about 200 photos before having to recharge; some budget cameras may not manage even that many. Both the Canon PowerShot cameras we recommend tend to run dry after about 180 photos, according to reviews, and the Fujifilm FinePix T400 may top out at about 160 photos. If you're worried about camera battery life, you may want to look at a model like the Nikon Coolpix L810, which uses four AA batteries in lieu of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. That way you can carry spare batteries instead of having to find an outlet and wait for a battery to juice up. Of course, you have to factor in the cost of continually buying new batteries unless you use rechargeable AAs. The Coolpix L810 can shoot up to 300 photos before the batteries need changing.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Digital Cameras
  2. Discount Digital Cameras Features Comparison Table
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