Buying Guides -> Hardware -> Digital Camera
Team CHIP | 22 December 2010
We pit 11 point-and-shoot cameras priced below Rs 8,000 against each other. Read on to see which one came out on top.
By SANDEEP BALACHANDRAN
Cameras have become more and more affordable over the years. With time, they’ve also shrunk in size from large and bulky devices to the sleek compact works of art they are today. Moreover, camera manufacturers are moving away from the standard plastic body to more robust metal frames, and all cameras now include the standard SD card slot and slimmer and more efficient Lithium Ion batteries. Even with their diminishing size, some cameras still manage to fit in a decent 3-inch screen. However, with all these features packed in, such cameras always make some sort of compromise; maybe average image quality, poor battery life or issues with the overall functionality.
We have tested many point-and-shoot cameras over the years; from entry-level to high-end. For this group test, however, we chose 11 cameras that fell within a budget of Rs 8,000. Testing all 11 was not an easy task, as each image and video needed to be intricately examined. Since these are basic cameras, the user will not get options to manually adjust the aperture and shutter speed. However, they do come with a number of pre-defined shooting modes that do all the thinking for you. Surprisingly, these entry-level cameras featured apertures as large as f/2.7, which basically allows you to capture a wider view of the subject.
Other than their ability to capture still images, video recording can also be considered as an added advantage. Cameras that feature high definition video recording over standard definition offer much higher value for money, but the quality of the video recording is equally important. The Fujifilm AV100 was the only camera in this group that was capable of capturing high definition (720p) video.
With so little to choose between the cameras available in the market, picking out one or two is a tough task. With a plethora of cameras available in various sizes for every budget, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of information. So if you’re looking to pick up a compact digital camera this holiday season, read on to help make your decision a little easier.
The test process for this digital camera round-up was broken up into five parameters – features, build quality, ergonomics, performance and warranty. So let’s take you through each of the parameters and what they entail.
Features: It is the feature set that determines the versatility of a digital camera. We allotted greater scores to those with better specifications. We noted down the overall resolution of the CCD, zoom, focal length, white balance settings, ISO speeds, shutter speed and preset scenes. We didn’t give much importance to the metering mode and manual modes, since the camera now decides the best setting required for the shot. ISO values play a very important role when it comes to capturing the perfect picture. The resolution of the camera and the quality of the optics are vital for capturing fine details. Image stabilization also plays a crucial role, especially when using the zoom as the images tend to get blurry due to camera shake. Package contents were checked for accessories like battery, memory card and carrying case. Cameras that came bundled with these were awarded higher points. The features accounted for 30 percent of the overall score.
Build quality: When it comes to cameras, build quality is a factor you must carefully consider. Since these cameras are portable and delicate devices, they should be sturdy and ruggedly built to be able to withstand knocks and the occasional drop. Here, we evaluated the quality of construction, and the firmness of moving parts, such as the battery lid and port flaps. We’ve assigned 10 percent of the overall to the build quality category.
Ergonomics: The camera should be built in a way that the user finds it easy to use and navigate between various functions. The overall design, size and spacing of buttons, and user interface were taken into account. The camera should offer good grip, and the controls should also be easily accessible. The presence of navigational aids such as directional pads, touchscreen and mode selection dial were also noted. Ergonomics contributed 15 percent towards the overall score.
Performance: To get a good idea of the performance of each camera, we shot an indoor scene that we had set up, and an outdoor scene. To evaluate all cameras fairly, both scenes were taken with the mode set to automatic. To test the quality of the optics, a noise test was conducted at three different ISO levels. We used a tripod to make sure that the picture remained consistent. We evaluated the overall replication of color, contrast and details produced by each image. A macro range test was carried out, where we measured the minimum distance from which the camera could focus. Since performance is a vital aspect, it made up 40 percent of the overall score.
Warranty: it is important for cameras to be backed by good warranty and support. For this, we made note of the number of service centers in the country, the number of cities in which these centers are present, and the warranty period each camera offered. This section accounted for 5 percent of the overall score.
Value for Money: The value of money score was arrived at by pitting the features, build quality, ergonomics, performance and features against the price. The higher the score, the greater the camera’s value for money. Based on the scores, we’ve awarded cameras for Best Performance and Best Value.
Comparing 11 cameras might not seem like a lot, but it’s one of the most tiring and time-consuming tests. Besides image and video quality, every inch and detail needs to be inspected before assigning scores. From the build quality to their overall usability, all aspects need to be accounted for.
Budget cameras tend to look a little boxy and bulky, but that doesn’t mean that they would underperform. In terms of looks, all cameras just about averaged out, except for the Kodak and Canon cameras. The Kodak M550 and M531 were definitely the best looking of the lot. The M531’s rubberized front and back offers good grip. The M550 features almost the same controls as the M531, but comes in a full metal body that gives it a professional and more robust look. In addition, the M550 features a wide angle lens, which adds more value since the price difference between the two is just a couple of hundred Rupees. Both Canon PowerShots - the A495 and the A3000IS, score high in the looks department as well. However, the A495 was a bit on the bulky side since it is powered by two AA batteries rather than Lithium Ion batteries. Having said that, the A495 was the only camera that could capture macro shots from a distance of just 0.5 cm. Both cameras were equally good performers, but it was the A495s image details that made all the difference. If you’re looking for a point-and-shoot that has a bit of style as well as good performance, the PowerShot A3000IS would be a good choice. This compact camera was the only point-and-shoot that featured a mode selection dial. That’s not all; the A3000IS features large enough buttons to make operation extremely easy. Even though it came fourth in the overall performance, the A3000IS will keep most users happy.
However, it was the Panasonic F2 that came out as the winner. It held its own by maintaining good contrast, but fell a bit short on outdoor details. The best feature of the F2 is its ability to capture clear images even at ISO 400. Its noise reduction ability is the best in this category. So if you are on a budget and need a camera that does justice to the price tag, the Panasonic F2 should be the one to get.
The Panasonic F2 might not be a show-stopper in terms of looks, but it bagged our Best Performance award thanks to its superlative overall image quality and astounding noise reduction capabilities. The camera comes in an all plastic body that feels a little tacky when held, but its matte finish ensures that smudges and fingerprints won’t be an issue. At 2.5 inches, the F2s screen might feel a tad small, but it performs quite well in all conditions. The camera features a rather intuitive navigation system and comes with decently sized buttons that make it even easier to use. The useful Quick Menu button allows you to change various settings without having to juggle through the cameras individual settings. However, the list of settings depends on the mode that has been selected.
The overall interface comes across as a little childish. While navigation is considerably easy, the UI could definitely use a face lift. There are a total of 22 scene modes to choose from, and two of them in particular stand out. ‘Starry sky’ puts the camera on a 60-second shutter priority, while in ‘Hi-Speed Burst’ the camera takes a series of shots at a maximum of 3 megapixels each. A few strange features such as world time and travel date are also included. While world time is an understandable, if unnecessary, addition, travel date, which allows you to set your journey departure and return dates, seems of little use in a camera. There is nothing much one can complain about as far as performance is concerned.
The camera did decently well in maintaining the overall contrast in both the indoor and outdoor shoots. However, it wasn’t the best at capturing details when shooting indoors. Having said that, the Panasonic F2 excelled in noise tests, which were carried out at three different ISO values. It performed best till ISO 400, but any higher and it started losing out on details.
Verdict: A perfect balance between performance and price.
For: Excellent noise reduction, 60 second shutter speed, compact construction.
The Fujifilm AV100 is probably the tackiest looking point-and-shoot of the lot. However, it does sport a few features that make it our Best Value awardee. Featuring a full glossy plastic body, the AV100 is a fingerprint magnet, and also prone to scratches. The camera comes with standard 3x optical zoom, and a 32 mm lens, in addition to an effective resolution of 12 megapixels. It’s quite big and it might look a little bulky, but it feels quite comfortable when held. Unlike other cameras that come with standard Lithium-Ion batteries, the AV100 makes use of two AA batteries instead. While AA batteries add to the camera’s size, the fact that AA batteries are easily available work in its favor. The camera features a rich and vivid 2.7-inch screen that performs well even under broad daylight. However, the screen is extremely prone to fingerprints, and you’ll have to keep cleaning it from time to time. Frequent smudges also hinder the screen’s overall visibility. Its directional pad and display and preview buttons are placed just beside the screen. Standard buttons are present for zooming in and out, but the presence of a zoom rocker would have allowed for more precise control over zoom. The AV100 features a slick menu that doesn’t take long to get used to. All options are clearly explained and well detailed, so even inexperienced users will have no trouble using it. It may not have scored highly in the looks department, but the camera more than made up for it with its features. For instance, this was the only camera in this comparison that could record video in high definition (720p). The video quality can’t be compared to that offered by expensive high-end models, but it does well enough for its price. The AV100 is also the only camera in this round-up to support optical zoom during video recording. It performed decently both outdoors and indoors, but the camera struggled a bit when it came to overall picture details and macro range.
Verdict: A camera well-suited for casual users.
For: HD recording, Optical zoom for video recording.
Against: Tacky design, pictures lack sharpness and focus at times.