The Skinny on Teeny Cameras

Pocket-size digital shooters are now ready for prime time

Sure, you love your digital camera, with its ability to let you see your pictures as soon as you shoot them and delete your mistakes before anyone else sees them. But if you're like me, it's rarely within reach for those fleeting moments when you want it most. Instead, it's usually stashed away in a drawer or the glove compartment of your car.

Maybe it's time to treat yourself to another digital camera, one that slips easily and unobtrusively into a pocket. They shouldn't be hard to find: Since the beginning of the year, a number of manufacturers have introduced a dozen or so ultracompact models.

In recent weeks, I have played with eight of them with an eye toward seeing whether their diminutive size makes up for the compromises in features and picture quality. No megabuck, megapixel cameras these: They range in price from $40 to around $350. A few are not much more than glorified Webcams, those cheapie cameras you often see sitting on top of computers. And none of them could handle a resolution more than 2 million pixels, a far cry from the 5- and 6-megapixel top-of-the-line--but big and bulky--models. Still, 2 megapixels is good enough to turn out a respectable 5 x 7 inch glossy if your medium of choice is print rather than e-mail.

Best of all, most passed the ultimate test: my shirt pocket. They had to fit comfortably without making the pocket bulge or the shirt front droop. Oddly enough, one that failed was Canon's Digital ELPH, which kicked off the compact-camera trend two years ago. The current ELPH, the $350 PowerShot S2000, is a full-featured digital camera with a 2X optical-zoom lens, a rarity for these minis. With its elegant stainless-steel body, it weighs in at close to a half-pound, the heaviest of the lot. It was the weight and squared-off corners that made for an uncomfortable shirt-pocket fit.

If you never turn your pictures into prints, you may be happy with such low-end models as SiPix' $40 StyleCam Blink or Logitech's $130 Pocket Digital. With a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, they're designed mainly for snapping shots destined for posting on Web pages or e-mailing to family and friends. Picture quality is so-so: I noticed a distinct bluish cast to many of my photos. The cameras are basic point-and-shooters with no flash, no slots for memory cards, and no liquid-crystal display for getting an early peek at your images: You have to download them to a computer to see them.

But the cameras will store hundreds of snapshots. And because there's no power-hungry display, battery life isn't a problem. The Blink uses a single AAA battery; the Logitech model has a built-in battery that recharges whenever the camera is plugged into the computer. (Like all of these cameras, both hook up to the computer via a USB cable.)

Both are six-tenths of an inch thick and weigh less than two ounces. The Blink, in fact, at two inches square, can easily get lost among the keys and coins in a pants pocket. The camera I found the most fun to carry was the near credit-card-size Logitech because of its worry-free battery and, with its brushed aluminum case, its eye-catching good looks. But you wouldn't want it as your only digital camera, the one you pack for that once-in-a-lifetime photo safari in Kenya.

Another inexpensive camera I like a lot is BenQ's $100 DC1300. It has the same basic dimensions as Canon's PowerShot, but because it's plastic, it's less than half the weight. It captures 1.3 megapixels with a click of the shutter, so you can print out high-quality 3-by-5-in. or 4-by-6-in. photos. Although it has a flash, it's still a bit stripped-down, lacking a liquid-crystal display for instant gratification, for example. The biggest flaw? The inexpensive plastic lens introduces a lot of distortion unless you're shooting your subject head-on.

The next step up takes you into serious photography--and to the $300 to $350 price range. The 1-megapixel Casio EXILIM EX-S1, or the 2- megapixel Canon and Minolta Dimage X models with zoom, are no-compromise digital cameras, just smaller than most. They have bright, 1.6- inch displays on the back, slots for memory-expansion cards, and plenty of manual controls for savvy shutterbugs.

The $300 Casio has the same credit-card shape as the Canon model, but at a scant half-inch, it's half as thick. Its body is shiny stainless steel, which tends to pick up fingerprints. The $350 Minolta Dimage is squarer and thinner than the Canon, more like a deck of playing cards. Here's an interesting twist: Its 3X zoom lens, instead of protruding horizontally from the front when the camera is turned on, is engineered to fit vertically within the body to make the camera thinner.

The downside of these models is battery life. You can only shoot for a couple of hours--less if you use the display instead of the optical viewfinder for framing your pictures or for looking at them after you have shot them. To keep the size down, each of the three cameras uses a thin, rechargeable lithium-ion battery. You really need to carry a spare, and that costs $40 to $50.

I looked at two other small, 2-megapixel digital cameras: the Fujifilm FinePix 30i and the Toshiba PDR-T10, each $300. Call them pants-pocket cameras. They're an inch thick, like Canon's ELPH, but more than a half-inch taller.

The Toshiba is particularly innovative, with only two buttons: on/off and the shutter. All other options are controlled on the LCD touch-screen. Fashionistas will like the interchangeable face plates (four for $29), just like the ones available for cell phones. Still, for $50 more, I would go with the smaller Canon or Minolta models. Their optical-zoom lenses make it much easier to set up your photos and crop out undesirable background details before you grab the shot.

Whichever you choose, you're not likely to be disappointed. The full-featured megapixel models are more compact than ever and a great bargain (the original Canon Digital ELPH was $700). As for the low-end versions, they're almost an impulse buy, and more than acceptable for everyday use. What they lack in picture quality they make up for in fun.

By Larry Armstrong

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