Choosing a digital camera isn't just about getting the most megapixels for your money. Even basic cameras - those costing about $200 - now offer all the resolution many photographers need.
For example, if you want mainly to make standard 4-by-6-inch snapshot prints, a basic camera with 3- or 4-megapixel resolution should be fine. (One megapixel equals 1 million "picture elements." The more megapixels a camera has, the greater its resolution, and the larger the uncropped image it can produce sharply.) But if you plan to enlarge images more than that or to blow up only parts of them, you'll want a 6- to 8-megapixel camera.
We looked beyond mere megapixels for our recent ratings of digital cameras, taking into consideration other attributes, such as the ability to fit your camera into a purse or to zoom in on distant subjects. Based on that, we divided the market into five distinct types:
¢ Compacts. Simple to use and inexpensive (around $150 to $300), these are best for everyday shooting situations. As a consequence of their simplicity, however, they may have limited manual controls for exposure and composition. Models from our tests whose combination of low price and high performance qualify them as CR Best Buys are the top-rated Canon PowerShot A510 (3 megapixels; $180), the Kodak EasyShare CX7430 (4 megapixels; $180), and the Olympus D-580 Zoom (4 megapixels; $160). The Canon has manual controls and a 4x zoom lens. The Kodak and Olympus have 3x zooms and longer battery life.
¢ Subcompacts. Their small size and light weight let you carry these anywhere, although that smallness may make them awkward to operate. Expect to pay from $200 to $350. We like the Canon PowerShot SD300 (4 megapixels; $310), the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1 (4 megapixels; $240), and the Nikon Coolpix 7900 (7 megapixels; $350). All have a 3x zoom and all lack manual controls.
¢ Advanced compacts. These have versatile controls, long zoom ranges, and can store a shot as a "RAW" image - preserving the original data the sensor captured, eliminating any undesirable effects of the camera's built-in processing. Cost: $300 to $600. The Fujifilm FinePix E550 (6 megapixels; $300) and the bulky Olympus C-7070 Wide Zoom (7 pixels; $390) have 4x zoom lenses. The Canon Powershot S60 (5 megapixels; $360) has a 3.6x lens.
¢ Super zooms. Larger, bulkier, heavier, and - at $250 to $450 - costlier than most compact models, these have a very long zoom range with powerful telephoto settings. They're a good choice for travel, nature and sports photography. Our choices are the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 (5 megapixels; $420), the Olympus C-765 Ultra Zoom (4 megapixels; $270), and the Canon PowerShot S1IS (3 megapixels; $270). The Olympus and Canon have 10x zooms; the Panasonic, 12x.
¢ SLRs. Serious photographers who want more control over their images than most point-and-shoots provide have that option in single-lens-reflex (SLR) digital cameras. These accept interchangeable lenses, and lack or minimize some of the shortcomings of point-and-shoots. (For example: Shutter lag, the delay between the time you trip the shutter and when the camera takes the picture, is almost nonexistent in SLRs. In other digital cameras, the lag is about 1 second.) Expect to pay $900 to $1,500 for these big, heavy models. We like the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (8 megapixels; $1,000) for its near-professional power and controls. It comes with an 18mm-55mm zoom lens, and at 27 ounces is the lightest of the SLRs we tested.
In addition to still photography, more digital cameras can record video clips with sound at a respectable resolution. Although image stabilizers on some models minimize the effects of camera shake, video quality is still nowhere near that of a camcorder.