Pocket Perfect Compact Digital Cameras

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Where Have all the Advanced Cameras Gone?

Canon PowerShot G9. Photograph by Marc Simon.
Photograph: Marc Simon
Canon's introduction of the Digital Rebel single-lens reflex (SLR) camera in fall 2003--soon followed by inexpensive digital SLRs from other makers--put a serious dent in a category of digital cameras that PC World calls "advanced." Neither as large as SLRs nor as simple as point-and-shoots, advanced models have fixed lenses much smaller than an SLR's, as well as sophisticated manual exposure controls, fast lenses, and high resolution. They were the best digital cameras most people could get, because, until the Rebel hit with its sub-$1000 price, they also had better prices than SLRs. If you can get an SLR for nearly the same price as a fixed-lens model, why would you want to buy the latter?

The advanced models that are still available provide some conveniences that SLRs don't: They are smaller and lighter than an SLR. Canon's PowerShot G9 weighs nearly a third less than the original PowerShot G1 (an advanced model), and roughly half what the latest Digital Rebel weighs with a lens attached. All advanced models offer a live image preview on their LCDs, whereas most SLRs still lack one. Few people buy wide-angle or telephoto adapters for advanced cameras now--those who want those features usually buy SLRs--but underwater housings are smaller and much less expensive for the advanced models.

Prices have come down on advanced units, too; Nikon's recent Coolpix P5100 costs $400, or less than half of the Coolpix 8800's price in 2005; Olympus' SP-560Z costs $500, or half what the company sold its C-8080 for in 2004.

But SLRs still have a decided edge in several important areas, according to Canon spokesperson Chuck Westfall. SLRs have much less shutter lag than a compact camera will; and of course they accept multiple lenses.

SLRs also offer better image quality, especially at higher ISOs, in large part because their bodies can accommodate larger sensors, which require less signal amplification and thus generate less image noise. Westfall says that camera makers are capable of fitting an SLR-size sensor into a camera the size of the PowerShot G9, but that the supporting circuitry still needs to be scaled down from what's in a current SLR.

But before you complain about the scarcity of advanced models, pause to celebrate the declining prices of consumer digital SLRs. Not only do many new SLRs cost less than before, they cost less than many advanced models used to.

Alan Stafford

This story, "Pocket Perfect Compact Digital Cameras" was originally published by PCWorld.

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