COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Compact digital cameras

The ability to have a camera with you at all times has been one of the dreams since the technology's introduction. Kodak introduced smaller and smaller film sizes to allow cameras to be more pocketable. Remember the Instamatic? Minox became famous for developing a spy camera that was so small it could almost disappear in your pocket. The disadvantage of these cameras was that the pictures were not of very good quality.

With the advent of digital cameras, the value of having a camera anywhere with instant access to the image is even more compelling. Now there are small digital cameras that are comparable to the bigger digitals.

This week's column is about finding the best small digital cameras capable of producing very good images. I define "small" as small enough to carry in your pocket or purse, and light enough that it would be unlikely you would leave home without it. Maybe that's why many aim to be the size of a credit card!

I also limited the choice to cameras with resolution of 3 megapixels (millions of pixels) or higher. Higher resolution allows you to crop a picture and still have an image of sufficient sharpness to see detail or make an enlarged print. While cell phones and PDAs are beginning to include built-in cameras, they are 1mp or less, fixed focus and not useful for viewing other than on small screens. At the other end of the spectrum, professional cameras have resolution of 6mp and higher.

Although I cannot possibly discuss all the cameras out there, I have examined cameras from many of the major manufacturers including Canon, Nikon, Sony, Minolta, Casio and Olympus and reviewed the most popular models of these ultra-small cameras. With the intense competition, every manufacturer is trying to make its cameras as small as possible while maintaining many of the capabilities of its larger models. The new products show great innovation but also, sometimes, some serious compromises.

In the reviews below I put the strongest weight on image quality, both outdoors and indoors. Without a sharp, clear image it makes little sense to carry a camera at all. Some cameras perform adequately outdoors, but are poor indoors because of a weak flash and grainy images. Next most important were camera size and weight. Third was the feature set such as zoom range, manual settings, etc. These features, better suited on a larger camera, are less important for grabbing quick, spontaneous shots.

Canon Elph S230 ($350, 3mp, 3x zoom)

Elph digital cameras are some of the most successful models because of their uncompromising image quality, compactness and sturdiness. Their bodies are made of stainless steel which makes them a little heavier, but also sturdier than others. While not quite as pocketable and as light as some of the smallest, this is a good choice and has very high user sattisfaction. Overall rating B

Also consider the Canon Elph S400 ($500, 4mp, 4x zoom). The latest and best digital Elph is slightly larger than the S230, but has higher resolution and a bigger zoom. While not quite pocketable, the images are excellent. B+

Both of the above would rate an A if they were smaller.

Casio EX-S3 ($350, 3mp, no zoom)

The third in a series of credit card-sized cameras, this is the smallest 3mp camera made. There's a lot to like about this camera, particularly the small size, solid construction and ability to take a picture very quickly. Unfortunately, the images are just fair. Because the lens is fixed (it does not focus), the images are not very clear and you lose the advantage of the 3mp rating. Unlike a film camera being out of focus, the digital camera creates artifacts and degrades the image more noticeably, in this case, curved lines become jagged. Indoor images are even worse with lots of granularity and noise. Overall rating C.

Minolta Dimage XT ($400, 3mp, 4x zoom)

Minolta designed a new form factor for their most compact cameras. The lens is built-in along the width of the squarish body and peers out of a small opening through a mirror. This design eliminates the need for the lens to extend out from the body, which would add mechanical complexity and bulk. The XT is the latest model of this design, being the smallest and best performing of the series. Its images are very good, the camera is light and very pocketable. While the image is not quite as good as the Canon's, this has the best combination of image quality and small size. Overall rating A.

Olympus Stylus 300 Digital ($400, 3mp, 4x zoom)

This weather-resistant camera is relatively rugged. It takes good pictures and is easy to use. It's not one of the smallest cameras, but is a good choice, albeit somewhat pricey for its features. It also is available as a 4mp model (Stylus 400) for $100 more. Overall rating B.

Pentax OptioS ($400, 4mp, 2x zoom)

The Pentax OptioS has been causing quite a stir in the digital photography community. It is the smallest and most feature complete camera yet. Not only does the lens retract into the body, but part of the lens also moves sideways in the body after it retracts to make the camera extremely thin. It also has many of the features that some of the larger cameras have, including many manual settings, focus options and adjustments. Its footprint is the size of a credit card, and the camera is small enough, as their ad says, to fit into an Altoids can. One downside is that because of the complex moving lens some images show softness at the corners and it is difficult to use the primary control button. It also is not quite as rugged as the Minolta XT due to its complex mechanism. Overall rating A-

While there are other choices, in my opinion these represent a good range of the most popular and imaginatively designed pocketable cameras. Is there room for improvement? Yes. I'm waiting for a camera the size of the Casio EX-S3 with the image quality of the Canon S400.


Baker is San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000 for successfully bringing to market Think Outside's folding keyboard for the Palm and other PDAs. He also has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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