Wednesday, July 9, 2008

$100 Digital Cameras: Junk or Steals?

These days one hundred dollars can get you a brand new business suit or a brand new digital camera. Are either one of them a steal or cheap junk? We'll leave the business suits to the GQ business types, and talk about digital cameras here.

Hundreds of new digital cameras are flooding the market each year. The competition is tough. Prices are dropping all the time. So what can you get for one hundred bucks?

Oh it looks so adorable! And $100 bucks. It's the Samsung L100. But is it worth it? On looks alone, you can dig(g) it as high-tech fashion. Okay how about some reviews? Well, good luck with that! With hundreds of new cameras per year, and the average digital camera review site having one to four reviewers on hand, they can't even review the "cameras of interest", let alone the entry-level models. Sometimes you are lucky if you can find the press releases and specs posted by the major sites.

And we are picking on the L100 because it embodies the new wave of $100 digicams. If you flash back a couple of years ago, the $100 cameras were very basic entry-level cameras without a zoom lens, and with very few of anything. The new wave $100 cameras have things like face detection, 3x optical zoom lens, 2.5" LCDs, some come with Li-Ion batteries (slimmer and slicker design), and use the latest or second-to-most-latest 1/2.5" sensors, not leftover sensors from three generations ago. And not all of them look like ugly shiny silvers, although quite a few of them still do.

Kodak said they were leaving the entry-level digital camera market. Perhaps the executive who said that left instead - just like the Leica CEO. Spot the differences between the three cameras above and win fabulous prizes! But despite that, they all feature 3x optical zoom lenses, 2.4+" LCDs, and they even work when you turn them on. And their current prices range from $80 to $90. Again, good luck getting any of the big review sites to review them. Instead you have to hope for some good user reviews. The three cameras above are the Easyshare C613, C713, and C813, and as their names suggest, they have six, seven and eight megapixel sensors. Yes, eight is the latest general use 1/2.5" sensor, yet here it is, in a $90 camera.

There's a new player in town, and their slogan seems to be "everything you can do, we can do cheaper". $90 too much? Well, how about $80? That's what GE charges for their new entry-level GE A735 model. But fear not, there's more choice under $100, you can also get the A730 and A830. And yes, they all have a 3x optical zoom lens, and some form of face detection, and a 2.5" LCD, and 7 or 8 megapixel sensors.

But we are not done with Samsung. Not to be outdone by Kodak and GE, Samsung has lowered the prices of its AA-based line-up, the S-series. Buy a microwave get a camera free? Well, we are getting there, but not just yet :) This text is surrounded by pictures of the Samsung S860, available in many colors, with the 8mp 1/2.5" sensor, 3x optical zoom lens, face detection, and things like that. But the S860 is not alone under $100, the S760 and S73 among other models are there to keep it company ;-) While you won't find reviews of this at the Big Six, it was "blessed" by a profile page at Pop Photo.

Phased out again, time it right, grab a deal?
The maddening pace of new model introductions accelerates the phasing out process as well, and if you happen to look at the right place at the right time, you may find a good camera for $100 or less. Such is perhaps the case for the Pentax M30 which is getting cleared out at Adorama for just $100. And this camera has a review from one of the Big Six, Steve's Digicams and one of the print magazines, Digital Camera Magazine (USA). The M30 was the first among the Optio M-series to switch to LiIon batteries from AAs, which allows it to get "slimmer".

Oh my, even CANON?
But it's not just the "smaller" brands, even the once feared Canon has a digital camera under $100. Granted it's the previous model on its way out, but it's a Canon at $100. Oh my! We are talking about the "old" Canon A460 which features a 4x optical zoom. This is the entry-level of their entry-level. But regular A-series fans know that the A5xx-IS series are where you can get the best bang for the A-series buck, even if they cost more. Or the A7xx-IS and A6xx-IS.

Nikon Too!
Nikon has a $100 skeleton in its closet as well, it's the older Coolpix L10, which just like the Canon A460, uses a 5mp 1/2.5" sensor. Are these two in lockstep or what? But neither one has face detection if that's any consolation :)

Getting close to $100 but not there yet
In the ever-sliding world of digital camera prices, the two entry-level digital cameras from the Fuji and Olympus are getting close to the $100 magic mark as well.
We are talking about the Fuji J10 and the Olympus FE-310. They are just $10 to $15 away from sliding into double digits. And again, these are not zoomless cameras, they have trendy features like face detection, and look like cameras, not matchboxes with generic soda bottle bottoms. (Coke bottles too expensive)

But wait, there's more!
A trio of colors of an older Kodak 1/1.8" digital cameras have just crossed under $100 at J&R World. Again, these don't look like your older sibling's $100 digicams. These use the now "old" 8mp 1/1.8" sensor, whose manufacturer is probably not Sony, since Kodak has been known to use various sensors, including of course some of their own. After all they are making the new 50-megapixel sensor. The pictures below are links to the J&R pages for each camera. Infact this camera has the luxury of multiple "Big Six" reviews, including Jeff Kelelr at DC Resource, along with Imaging Resource. Many other websites have reviewed these, including Photography Blog, Photoxels, and DCI which has nice multiple angle pictures of the red body, a good camera for people who are loud and larger than life (or obnoxious and annoying, depending on who you ask).

The "Other" votes are not showing in the poll, so here what our readers wrote-in, paraphrasing: These are good because they allow people with tight budgets to enjoy digital photography as well.

Boring stuff no one is going to read
For the purposes of this post we are focusing on the major manufacturers only, not the "generics" and "clones". You can see how and where these cameras fit in each manufacturer's line-up in the new Digital Camera List.

For a list of review sites, be sure to check the who reviews digital cameras marathon post.

If the format and tone of this post sounds a little bit different to regular readers, there's a reason for that: this is the first in a series of "gadget blog appreciation week" posts :) Stay tuned for more!

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