If you're a regular reader of this site, you're probably wondering what's going on with this month's Head to Head. Usually, our mid-month comparison column gives a run-down on how two similar cameras compare. With the holiday buying season already in full swing, though, we've decided to take a slightly different approach for the November edition: think of it as an early Christmas present.
In this season's uncertain economy, camera sales continue to chug along. While no one expects the imaging industry (or any industry, really) to set sales records this quarter, the relatively low cost of digicams when you stack them up against other electronics looks to help keep them at the top of gadget buyers' lists this December.
With budget-conscious holiday shoppers in mind, we've put together a quick comparison of the relative strengths of not two, but five of our favorite $150 point-and-shoots. True to form for the sub-$200 price bracket, none of the devices discussed below are cutting edge technology. In fact, many of them are nearing a year old – an eternity in small camera model development. But with several distinct "personalities" among this group of five, you're almost guaranteed to find a model that works for you.
(If you're looking for a complete list of our most highly recommended models, I'd encourage you to check out our detailed Holiday Buyer's Guide as well.)
The Aspiring Photographer – Canon PowerShot A590 IS
It's not hard to find a great snapshot camera for under $150 if you know where to look, but finding a camera that suits the needs of advanced or advancing photographers in this price range can be a real challenge. Serious power at moderate prices may be hard to come by, but there is one device that fits the bill, and does so for well under our $150 cap: the Canon PowerShot A590 IS.
Canon's been building its affordable, AA-powered PowerShot A models for awhile now, and to many the A590 represents the culmination of this design approach. An 8.0 megapixel sensor, a 4x optically stabilized zoom, and a so-so LCD are pretty much standard fare, and build quality is fair. So what makes the A590 special? The trick up this camera's sleeve is its inclusion of manual exposure modes, the P/A/S/M settings you'll find on an SLR, and a healthy helping of excellent image quality to boot.
Combined with flexible processing controls, these advanced options give novices a chance to cut their teeth in the picture taking process, and more advanced shooters the level of control they expect. It's unusual to find a camera that meets the approval of such a broad range of photographers, but the A590 does just that. While its performance is rarely stunning, the overall competency of this little device makes it appealing for those who take picture taking seriously.
For the kind of results a camera like the A590 is capable of, its sub-$150 price tag is an amazing value. Unfortunately, it's not clear how much longer the A590 will be hanging around: its step-down sibiling (the A580) has already been replaced by a camera without either manual exposure controls or a viewfinder. Ultimately, the A590 may bet the end of an era in Canon's PowerShot line – the era of budget-friendly cameras with serious-camera features. If this speculation turns out to be true, now is definitely the time to get one while you can.
The Fashionista – Fujifilm FinePix Z20fd
If the Canon A590 anchors one end of the sub-$150 spectrum, emphasizing image quality and photographic control over style, the Fujifilm FinePix Z20fd sits about as far to the other extreme as you can go. Its loud colors and sculpted plastic shell scream "look at me," making the actual shots that come out of this fun little camera almost beside the point.
While it can be a little slow, especially indoors, using the Z20fd is, in general, a no-brainer. The camera is intentionally basic, relying heavily on scene modes to get the job done. The Z20fd's 10.0 megapixel sensor and 3x "periscope" style zoom lens aren't going to win any image quality awards, but are perfectly capable of taking shots that will look great at screen-res on Flickr or Facebook.
The Z20fd's trendiness can seem a little forced at times, and build quality could be better as well. Coming in right at the top of our $150 spectrum, the camera may feel a tad pricey when you compare image quality to some of the better performing and more cost-effective models in this group. But recognizing its limitations as an image maker, if you want premium ultracompact styling without the premium price, as well as some friendly features for capturing web-ready images and videos, it's hard to knock the value proposition that the Z20fd offers.
The Socialite – Nikon Coolpix S210
Image-conscious shooters may prefer the Z20fd, but those who are also conscious about the quality of their images will probably find a better match in Nikon's Coolpix S210. Offering one of the slimmer profiles of the group in a package that exudes high-end style, the 8.1 megapixel S210 employs Nikon's EXPEED processing concept to deliver on the manufacturer's promise of high performance as well.
Cut from the same cloth as Nikon's more expensive Coolpix S models, the S210 is one of the few cameras at this price point to bring a brushed metal finish to the table. And while it doesn't have the Z20fd's fun-loving and memorable looks, it makes up for it with stronger image performance courtesy of a very good retractable lens and Nikon's D-Lighting in-camera processing options.
In reviewing the S210, we noted that the camera doesn't wow potential buyers with on-paper specs. But acceptable low light performance, a solid focusing system, a slim and rugged metal body, and sharp images may just make this the perfect little camera to take out on the town. It's classy enough to blend in at any nightclub, and solid enough on the image capture side to bring home some great snaps, too.
But don't just take our word for it: even Ashton Kutcher thinks so.
The Generalist – Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
If you've made it this far, it's possible that you've found yourself in a dilemma: the Canon is too big and bulky, the Nikon is too small, and the Fuji is too cutesy. What many photographers are looking for in a basic tote-around camera is a device that's a bit of all of these without being too much of any of them. If versatility is your thing, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3 may be your budget camera.
The Lumix FS3, with its requisite 8.1 megapixels and 3x zoom, is small, square, extremely well-built, and also generally quite conventional in its appearance. Other than some edge softness with its lens and a bit of a red-eye problem, you won't find much to gripe about with the FS3. And good auto focus, smooth images, and some of the cleanest high ISO shots $150 can buy make the camera equally at home in good light or poor light, indoors or out.
Overall, for every one of the FS3's individual-area performance successes (except, perhaps, its high-ISO performance), there's a camera in this group that does better. It's not the fastest, the most stylish, the simplest, or the cheapest. But performance that's very competitive with class leaders across the spectrum may also make it the most practical and versatile $150 camera around.
The Traveler – Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
What makes a great travel camera? In my mind, first and foremost, it's a camera that's super-easy to use. When grabbing vacation snaps, the last thing many folks want to worry about is what settings they should be shooting with. For the family photo album, a good point-and-shoot that's as simple as the name implies is where it's at.
For photographers on the go, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 is an excellent choice. Beyond its auto-exposure simplicity, easy to understand menus, and solid performance, at $140, the S780 is also inexpensive enough that most of us won't agonize over the possibility that it might get lost or stolen. And the ability to tuck the camera into a pants pocket makes it an attractive alternative for grabbing snaps in situations where your DSLR or its bag might make you an obvious mark for thieves targeting tourists.
Cons? The S780's antiquated sensor is almost frighteningly noisy, making it hard to justify shooting above ISO 200 unless these prints are headed straight for the web at low resolution. Images can be soft as well, but keep the S780 in good light and the print sizes below 8x10 and even the pickiest shooters should be able to grab memory shots worth saving with the tiny Sony. My only other gripe, and the gripe of several others, is the use of Sony's proprietary (and expensive) Memory Stick format instead of cheaper SD cards.
As I said in reviewing the camera, in terms of both its strengths and its low-light limitations, think of the S780 as the modern equivalent of a disposable camera. But it's even better than that: after all, this one's reusable.