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Digital Camera Features

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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