A cry for attention, or simply an exuberant display of personal style--that's the question provoked by the colorful looks we found in this roundup of compact digital cameras. The answer, though, is probably simple: For camera makers and camera owners, it's tough to stand out in a crowd where so many products have lots of megapixels, tiny bodies, and low prices--hence, many new point-and-shoot models come clad in electric blue, powder-puff pink, race-car red, or foreboding black.
But while camera makers are producing snazzier-looking models, they're not getting by on looks alone; they're also making better units. Of the 16 cameras we tested for this roundup, the lowest resolution we saw was 7 megapixels, and the highest was 12.2 megapixels. We saw some excellent shots in our tests, and unlike the compact cameras that we've tested in years past, nearly all models had strong, long-running batteries. The Casio Exilim EX-1080 held out for 500 shots--our test maximum--and even the most power-hungry camera in this group, the Nikon Coolpix S51, took 190 shots.
All but one of the units we tested had image stabilization features--some use hardware-based systems, while others can boost their light sensitivity to as high as ISO 6400, which allows the camera to use a higher shutter speed, thus reducing blur (but risking increased image noise). Many had face-detection features to help capture portraits with the proper focus and exposure. Fujifilm's FinePix F50fd, our top-rated model, had the company's newest face-detection circuitry, which helped it recognize people's mugs whether they were looking straight at the camera or at our feet.
None came with full-manual exposure settings, but a few had aperture- and shutter-priority modes--useful for challenging conditions and subjects. Still, all rely heavily on having lots of scene modes (the Exilim EX-1080 tops the field with an indecision-inducing 41).
The other significant trend among point-and-shoot cameras, even small pocketable models like these: big, beautiful LCDs. Screens in pocket cameras used to be tiny, but the latest units have ones measuring as large as 3.1 inches. A few have a wide screen--they capture wide-screen stills and, in a very few, video; Kodak offers an optional docking station for its EasyShare V1253 to connect to your HDTV.
The lenses on all the cameras in this review retract within their bodies when you shut them down, so you can carry them on your person easily. But some are more pocket-friendly than others: The Canon SD950 IS, for example, weighs 6.7 ounces--it easily earns a "chunky" label. The Olympus FE-280, on the other hand, weighs just 3.9 ounces, and it's as thin as a standard deck of cards.
The Fujifilm FinePix F50fd won our best buy with the top overall performance score, tons of useful features, and a fair price--but flashy, it's not.
The cameras that we also tested but that did not make our Top 10 chart include the Canon PowerShot SD870 IS, the HP Photosmart R742, the Kodak EasyShare M853, the Olympus Stylus 820, the Nikon Coolpix S51, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70.