If you are a shutterbug needing more than a plain point-and-shoot digital camera to satisfy your photography itch, the 2005 holiday season offers several new developments.
Our first look at these recent arrivals confirms that all are fine cameras, providing exciting new features or greater value than older models. Here's the focus:
¢ Low-priced SLRs. Three new cameras have joined the pioneering Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT as single-lens reflex models priced below $1,000: the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D ($900); the Nikon D50 ($800); and the Pentax *ist DL ($800). They are the equal (and sometimes the better) of the Canon in all capabilities except image resolution. (The three newcomers are 6-megapixel cameras, while the $900 Canon is an 8-megapixel model.) Like their higher-priced siblings, these SLRs can accept interchangeable lenses; have relatively large, high-quality sensors for capturing images; and shoot without a noticeable next-shot delay. But their controls are not as precise, and their bodies are usually made of less-rugged material. Such cameras typically come with a bottom-of-the-line (though adequate) lens, and they might not accept all lenses made for a more expensive SLR.
¢ Wi-Fi on the fly. The 4-megapixel compact Kodak EasyShare-One ($600) and the 8-megapixel subcompact Nikon Coolpix P1 ($550) all but eliminate cables and cards from the digital-photography process. Both let you send pictures to a nearby computer - either directly or through a home network - or to a printer. The EasyShare-One also can send photos over the Internet via your home network or through free hot spots - at airports or other public spaces - or T-Mobile hot spots. (To use the Internet features, you must register with Kodak's free EasyShare Gallery online service.) The Coolpix P1 takes a different (though equally innovative) approach to Wi-Fi. While it can't access the Internet, it can wirelessly transfer images as you shoot them, bypassing the camera's memory card. For these cameras to be used with a home network, they must recognize and be recognized by a Wi-Fi-enabled device such as a router. The EasyShare-One automatically detects a network's presence; with the Coolpix P1, you enter all network information manually into a PC on that network, to which the camera is cabled.
¢ High-quality hybrids. If you can't decide whether to bring a still camera or a camcorder on vacation, two new digital cameras may resolve your dilemma. The Canon PowerShot S2 IS ($470) and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1 ($440), both offer excellent 5-megapixel stills plus a combination of video-recording features that no other digital camera does: digital camcorder video quality; optical image stabilization (superior to digital stabilization); and a 12x zoom lens. Both models can store a video clip up to an hour in length, at a lower quality setting, depending on the memory card's capacity. The PowerShot S2 IS can zoom in or out while you're shooting; the DSC-H1 can zoom before you shoot, but not during. And it can shoot at 30 frames per second only if you use a memory card that holds 1 gigabyte or more.
Not quite ready for this next wave in digital imaging? Our ongoing tests of point-and-shoot models continue to highlight fine choices. Among compact 3- or 4-megapixel models that should provide the best value for most people are the Canon Power Shot A510 ($170), the Olympus D-580 Zoom ($240), and the Sony Cyber-shot S60 ($200). The Canon and the Olympus combine top performance with comparatively low price, qualifying them as CR Best Buys. If you want manual controls, go with the Canon. If long battery life is important, choose the Olympus or the Sony. If your only interest is excellent print quality, any of the three will deliver.