You would think camera makers could come up with a decent digital point-and-shoot camera. After all, they've been turning out stylish, simple-to-use film cameras for decades, under-$200 numbers for folks who just want to take a few snapshots now and then and don't want to bother with such mysteries as f-stops or white balance.
Sadly, most digital cameras would still befuddle the average shutterbug. I learned this when I set out recently to find a good, relatively inexpensive digital camera that I could use right out of the box. By "use," I mean not only take snapshots but also transfer the pictures to a computer where I could print them out myself or upload them to a photo-processing Web site that would mail me the prints. My ground rules: The camera had to be priced under $300, and the images it took had to have a resolution of at least 1 megapixel, or a million pixels, the tiny dots of color that make up the picture. That's the minimum you need to get a satisfying 4x6-inch print. Twice that and you'll get wonderful 8x10-in. glossies, suitable for framing.
I looked at a half-dozen popular brands. Only two cameras truly measured up: Hewlett-Packard's $299 Photosmart 315 and Kodak's $299 DX3500. The Photosmart's bargain 2.1-megapixel resolution and ease of use made it the best-selling camera--film or digital--last Christmas. Kodak's (EK) product is the entry-level model in its brand-new EasyShare series, a line of cameras that fit into an optional $79 docking station that stays permanently connected to your computer. I'd recommend any of the other models I tried--with an important caveat: You must know your way around your computer or be prepared to call the camera maker's tech support staff for help.
Digital cameras have some very compelling advantages. By and large, even the most expensive digitals have an automatic mode that takes over such chores as focusing on the subject and setting the appropriate light exposure. That means you can pick up almost any digital camera and get a decent shot.
SNEAK PREVIEW. On the advanced models, you can use manual settings to match your shooting conditions exactly. As you move down the line from professional to amateur cameras, the manual operating choices become fewer and fewer. Still, on most of the cameras I looked at (although not my two top picks), you could tweak the exposure to compensate for overly bright outdoor shots, such as beach scenes, and change the white balance on indoor shots to offset incandescent or fluorescent lights.
Digitals have an electronic display on the back, so unlike with film cameras, you always get a sneak preview of what you've just shot. You can delete mistakes before other people see them or before you pay to have them printed. And you can get your snapshots immediately, without waiting for an occasion to fill up the roll before you get them developed.
The problem I found wasn't so much with the cameras themselves but the software that came with them. Despite the USB port on all new computers that's supposed to make digital cameras plug-and-play, most camera makers haven't figured out how to make transparent the process of transferring images to your PC.
My favorite camera was the Olympus Brio D-100, the first of a new, supposedly easy-to-use line. It's lightweight, just 7.2 ounces with batteries, and small enough to fit into a shirt pocket. But the company's Camedia software hasn't caught up to today's technology. Even when the camera is hooked up correctly, if you click on "My Camera"--the logical place to look for your pictures, right?--you'll get an error message saying that the software can't find the camera. It's there all right. Like all USB cameras, if you click on Windows Explorer or My Computer, you'll find the camera listed as an additional hard drive.
Likewise, the software for Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-P30 installed beautifully, but I had to figure it out on my own. The poorly translated owner's manual and various addenda instruct you where to find your pictures, but the picture retrieval and editing software that comes with the camera doesn't. An incredible goof: One menu choice lets you get pictures "from a Sanyo camera," but there's no similar option for Sony (SNE) cameras.
NO CLUTTER. It took Hewlett-Packard (HWP) to make a consumer-friendly camera. The software in the Photosmart 315 loads without a hitch--and without annoying questions from your computer about where to look for the camera's drivers and other related geek-speak. Once it's installed, a five-minute job, every time you plug in the camera, an HP program automatically opens up to let you transfer pictures and view, edit, print, or e-mail them.
The camera's design is clean and simple, though a tad bulky--at 12.1 ounces, it is 2 oz. heavier than the next heaviest, the Fujifilm FinePix. Like the others, it has an optical viewfinder in addition to the electronic display, but it alone has a tiny LCD status screen like those on film cameras. It shows the settings for resolution, flash, pictures remaining, and battery life instead of cluttering up the color display with icons. Buttons on the camera body let you change most settings without turning on the color display and drilling through menus, a battery drain.
The Kodak model features simple controls and an almost identical approach to the software. Its docking station is a useful accessory that recharges the camera's battery when it's not transferring shots to the computer. But the camera works fine without it. Whatever camera you buy, pick up a set of fast-charge NiMH batteries and an external charger for about $35 or $40. These cameras use AA batteries and burn them quickly.
Another tip: Each camera has a "digital zoom" feature; use it sparingly. While that can help you compose the perfect shot, it simply blows up the center of the picture and could cost you the resolution you need to get good prints. If zoom is a must-have for you, you need to get a camera with an optical zoom lens, such as the Sony or the step-up version of the Olympus, the Brio Zoom D-150. That one costs about $70 more.
Someday, perhaps even later this year, all digital cameras will be as simple as the HP and Kodak. But for now, there are few options for those who think that getting digital snapshots ought to be fun, not a puzzle or a chore. By Larry Armstrong