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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

by Michael Sweet (Google+ Profile)

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