Easy Snaps, Pixels Aplenty

They're called party cameras, but these digital ultracompacts also can do serious duty

Leave it to one of America's most famous painters to recognize fine design. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, LeRoy Neiman picked up a new digital camera. The camera his assistant Lynn Quayle had been using for years -- mostly to shoot the artist on his frequent travels -- had just conked out.

Rather than go with something as large as her old full-sized 35mm film camera, they picked Olympus' ultracompact Stylus Verve. Neiman was drawn to the camera's clean lines and softened edges -- it tilts to one side like the prow of a yacht. Quayle liked the size: just under four ounces and -- at about 2.2 inches tall, 3.7 inches long, and 1 inch thick -- roughly the size of a deck of cards. "You needed a purse to carry the old one," says Quayle. "This fits in an evening bag." Plus, the Stylus offers 4 megapixels, enough resolution to meet her travel-picture needs.

A batch of alluring ultracompacts has burst upon the digital-photography market. These appeal to those who prefer stylish portability over advanced features. Sometimes called "party cameras," they're attracting beginners looking for an easy-to-use first camera as well as shutterbugs who want a second, light-weight digital to keep with them all the time. We looked at five that stand out for their design and don't sacrifice too much in the way of image quality.

Two years ago, picking an ultracompact meant settling for 2- to 3-megapixel resolution -- not enough for large, high-quality prints. Today, thanks to ever-cheaper imaging and processing chips, you can buy one of these mini models for well under $400 and shoot 4- to 5-megapixel images. That's plenty for printing good-quality images at least as large as 8-by-10 in.

Of course, compact design means something has to be left out. The Pentax Optio S5i and the Casio Exilim EX-Z40 have tiny optical viewfinders. The others have none. This can be a problem in dark settings, especially at night, where the liquid crystal display (LCD) screens on these models can't pick up an image until the flash goes off. But in settings with even a little light, these models' bright LCDs do just as well or better than a small viewfinder. The Casio boasts a vibrant screen that measures a generous two inches diagonally -- big enough to pass around at parties to show off your work.

To keep prices down, manufacturers tend to skimp on the size of the memory card they include, so it's wise to lay out the extra cash for a bigger one. These models come with no more than 32 megabytes of memory -- enough to hold only a couple dozen photos at top resolution.

For about $70 (check online for the best prices), a 512-megabyte secure digital (SD) card can hold hundreds of top-quality snapshots. Expect to pay twice that price for the newer, smaller xD card the Olympus Verve uses.

The best of these cameras make simplicity a virtue. The controls on the Olympus, our top pick, are a model of intuitive design. A unique barrel switch rotates from camera mode to video to playback. When too many buttons are clustered tightly together, as on the more feature-rich Pentax, the manual becomes a must-read.

Taking snaps is just the start. Images must be downloaded and batteries recharged. Most of these models rely on a simple USB cable to zap images into a PC. For power, there's no standard solution. Olympus and Canon take the most complicated approach: a battery you remove from the camera and click into a recharger. Kyocera's Finecam SL400R and Pentax can be plugged in directly. Casio's solution is the most elegant: Its single docking station both recharges the camera and transfers files to the PC.

In a category with such similar performance features, design twists can make the difference. Like the Olympus, Canon's (CAJ ) PowerShot SD20 comes in colors to match every outfit. With its fixed lens and rectangular shape, the SD20 evokes a classic mid-20th century Brownie camera. Like those old Brownies, unfortunately, it also lacks an optical zoom -- a useful feature on the other cameras. The Kyocera's twist is a pivoting screen that makes it easy to shoot from waist level without even crouching. The screen even rotates 180 degrees so you can see yourself, making self-portraits simple.

For its smart button layout and easy-to-use menus, Olympus' Verve edges out Casio's big screen and simple docking station to win this category. But all of these cameras prove that less can be more: A camera small enough for a shirt pocket or handsome enough to wear around your neck will be ready to snap into action when the perfect image appears.

By Adam Aston

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