I've been trying out three recently introduced cameras ideal for travelers or those that always want to carry a camera with them. They are the Canon S410 ($399), the Olympus Stylus 410 ($349), and the Pentax S40 ($299).
About the size of a business card, all are small enough to fit in a pocket or purse. They weigh between 6 and 8 ounces, and are packed with probably more features than you'll ever use or even figure out. Each has 4 megapixels of resolution, a 3x optical zoom, a viewfinder, a 1 1/2-inch LCD screen, and can take videos. The Pentax and Canon can also take close-ups of objects as close as 2 inches from the lens, the Olympus from 3.5 inches. The cameras are well constructed of metal and can endure rough handling.
Most importantly, all three produce sharp, clear images. Note, however, even with 4-megapixel sensors, image quality is not as good as what you get from larger, advanced-amateur cameras, which have bigger 4mp sensors, a stronger flash and sharper lenses. Still, images from these cameras can be cropped, enlarged and will make good quality prints for most uses.
Canon PowerShot S410 Digital Elph
Canon's S410 (www.powershot.com) is the fourth generation of their Digital Elph series, cameras known for their high image quality, small size and beautifully finished, almost jewelry-like metal cases. However, because of new competition, it's no longer the smallest, lightest, nor most feature-laden camera.
The S410 doesn't have a scene selection option and uses the larger compact flash memory cards. But it excels in the most important areas. In my tests it produced the best images -- well exposed, sharp, with high contrast and good colors under a wide range of lighting conditions. It is also superbly finished. The Canon uses a proprietary Li-Ion battery and has a cleverly designed compact charger, good for traveling, that plugs directly into an outlet without requiring a power cord.
Olympus Stylus 410
The Olympus S410 (www.olympusamerica.com) is the latest version of the Stylus series with a large, sliding lens cover that activates the camera. Its doors and openings are sealed with rubber gaskets to make it weatherproof enough to endure a splash or rain.
The S410 is the largest of the three but an ounce lighter than the Canon. The images were very good, but not quite up to Canon's. Instead of using rotating dials and lots of buttons for settings, the Olympus relies more on color menu displays. It takes a little getting used to, but works well, and the menus are large, clear and easy to read. The S410 offers nine scene selections to optimize the settings for the subject. As with the Canon, this is an upgrade from an older model.
Both upgrades incorporate new processors to reduce startup and lag time (the time between pushing the shutter and capturing the image). These upgrades help, but all three cameras could use further improvement in this area.
Olympus uses a proprietary Li-Ion battery with a recharger and cord, less convenient than the Canon for traveling. An xD memory card is used for image storage.
Pentax Optio S40
Pentax (www.pentaxusa.com) took its Altoids container-sized cameras, the Optio S and S4 with unique collapsing lens, beefed-up the aluminum body, improved the controls and replaced the Li-Ion battery with 2-AA cells.
While AAs have a shorter life than Li-Ion and cost more over the long run, they eliminate the need for carrying a recharger and spare backup Li-Ion battery (which can cost $50). A downside is the LCD goes black while the flash is charging, which prevents you from composing your next shot.
The S40 is a newer design than the others. It's also the smallest and lightest of the three, and is packed with the most features, including a world time-zone map, voice recorder, custom keys, help menus, seven-scene dial and 11mb of internal memory to shoot, without its SD memory card. Images were about equal to the Olympus. At $299 it's the bargain of the group.
All three of these cameras perform well. If this is your only camera or you want the best possible images, I recommend the Canon, since I place the highest importance on image quality. But don't rule out the smaller and more up-to-date Pentax if you want the tiniest and least expensive, or the Olympus if you expect to subject the camera to abuse, weather or San Diego beaches.
Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at email@example.com.