Megapixel Mania

Published Date
01 - Sep - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Sep - 2005
Megapixel  Mania

Spread across three categories, these 40 digital cameras are the best available in the market today. We decided the categories mainly on the basis of price. The categories are Casual Clickers (including cameras that cost less than Rs 10,000), Aspiring Amateurs (where the cameras cost between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000), and Serious Shutterbugs (with cameras costing over Rs 20,000, while some cost as high as Rs 30,000).

So without much further ado, let's get started with the tests.

The Casual Clickers category consisted of cameras between Rs 6,500 and Rs 10,000. For a casual user, these cameras form the entry point to the world of digital photography without putting a major dent in the pocket. Although expensive when compared  to entry-level film cameras, which retail at around Rs 500 to Rs 1,000, entry-level digital cameras have the inherent advantage of low running cost.

For this category, we rounded up nine contenders that fit  our parameters.

While better-known brands such as Canon, Olympus and HP had one model each, this category was well-represented by other brands such as BenQ, Orite, Yashica and Techcom.

The most obvious feature that sells cameras in this category is the megapixel (mp) count. Higher the count, better the performance is the general idea. While this might be true to a certain degree, it is not always the case- and we will prove this as we go along.

Of the nine minnows, three were fitted with a 5 mp CCD sensor. Orite's VC-R500 and VC-5000Z and Techcom's DSC-512X were the three that offered a 5 mp CCD, even in this low a price range. Canon's A400, HP's M307 and Olympus' C-370 Zoom came with a category standard 3.2 mp CCD sensor. The BenQ DC-C35 and Yashica EZ3011 were fitted with a slightly lower 3 mp sensor. The 5 mp sensor on the Orite and Techcom provided them an edge over other cameras, and one expected that this, logically, would help them dominate.

There wasn't too much lens variation in this category. BenQ and Yashica offered fixed-lens solutions, which restricted their zooming capabilities to just digital zoom-something you're better off avoiding when shooting. Barring the Canon A400, with a 2.2X optical zoom lens, all cameras featured a 3X optical zoom lens, which is fairly standard and useful for zooming without quality loss.

Macro mode has become a standard on most digital cameras, and allows you to get really close to the subject and shoot from a distance of about an inch or so. This is often denoted on the camera with a flower-like icon. With Macro mode enabled, some cameras even let you get as close as 6 cm to the subject.

Going one step further, though, was the C-370 from Olympus, which features a Super-macro mode, and lets you get close to within 2 cm of the subject-pretty impressive. With Canon's A400 and Orite's VC-5000Z, you can shoot an object at a distance of 5 cm from the lens. All other cameras offered a Macro focus distance of about 10 cm and above-still good enough for reasonable shots.

One of the best things about digital photography is the fact that you can view results instantly on the LCD screen. While most cameras have at least a good 1.2-inch display or so, there are some that surpass all expectations. HP's PhotoSmart M307 was one such camera, with a brilliant 1.8-inch display. All the others offered a comparatively dinky 1.5-inch LCD display.

During our testing, when indoors, almost all the LCDs were sharp and readable, but once in the sun, the LCDs were practically useless.

Features such as white balance, exposure metering, self-timer, multiple flash modes, USB connectivity and A/V out for connecting the camera to a TV have become common, and none of the nine contenders missed out on any of these. Canon's A400 and Orite's VC-R500 even allowed for extra control by letting you tweak the white balance or ISO manually.

Ever since Kodak introduced this feature in its entry-level range about two years ago, others have followed suit.

Today, almost all cameras have a small amount of onboard memory that can accommodate 8 to 10 shots at full resolution. However, it is strongly recommended that you buy a memory card to be able to make full use of your camera.

Most cameras in this category offered an SD/MMC slot, Olympus being the only exception, using proprietary xD cards.

Overall, in the features department, Canon's A400 came in at the top, with HP's M 307 close on its heels. Orite's VC-R500 and Olympus's C-370 tied for third position.

Performance-wise, in this category, it is tough to point out a camera that dominated the show as much as the Canon PowerShot A400 did. It simply thrashed the competition in every parameter. The Olympus C-370Z came in second, followed closely by the Orite VC-R500 for third spot.

In the colour reproduction test, Canon's A400 was the only camera that faithfully reproduced all colours closest to their true form. The photograph was near-perfect as far as colour rendition goes-the tones being neither too warm nor too cool.

While Olympus did match up to Canon's output, it was let down by the overwhelming warmness of tone in the colours, which robbed the photograph of its natural feel. Orite's VC-R500 was next in line to faithfully reproduce colours vividly.

BenQ's DC-C35 was the worst of the lot when it came to colour reproduction; the colours were too pale, and the photograph lacked any vividness whatsoever. For all other cameras, the colour reproduction was reasonable, but definitely not in the class of the A400 or C-370Z.

Detailing a scene was another area where the Canon A400 scored better-it was able to pick most of the smaller details on the motherboard (part of our test scene) without a problem. The picture was clean and without any hint of noise, despite its 3 mp sensor. The Olympus and the HP, though having the same specifications, weren't able to keep the noise in check, and the photograph displayed red speckles all over.  Photographs clicked using the HP, in particular, were very noisy.

Despite their 5 mp sensors, the Techcom and Orite weren't able to deliver the goods one would expect from cameras with so much firepower. The picture was noisy and lost out on detail. To make a point, sometimes a lower megapixel count but better optics can deliver better results.

BenQ and Yashica were the worst when it came to capturing details. The fact that the noise was spread across the photo didn't help either.
In the zoom test, to be honest, none of the cameras did too well. But then, you don't expect them to latch on to distant objects with their dinky lenses either, do you? All in all, the Canon A400, the Orite VC-R500 and the HP M307 did better than the rest.

In the Macro test, Olympus delivered a stunning shot, thanks to its Super-macro mode. Canon's A400 was also up to the task, but lacked the depth the Olympus was able to lend. While HP's M307, Orite's VC-R500 and Techcom's DSC-512X could focus on their subject, the photos had no depth.

In the movie test, there was hardly any noticeable difference amongst the cameras we tested. Our suggestion: get yourself a good video camera!

With features and performance combined, it was Canon's A400 that was topping the chart. Adding price to the equation didn't make much of a difference; Canon's A400 was still ahead, although by a small margin.

Good performance, a decent feature set and sensible pricing make the Canon PowerShot A400 stand tall in the competitive entry- level segment.

In second place was HP's PhotoSmart M307. Good features, decent performance and rock-bottom pricing enabled it to pip the otherwise well-performing Olympus. If you can overlook the Rs 3,000 price difference, we think the Olympus offers better performance than the HP M 307. 

As for Orite and Techcom, they are good in their own right, but there's still plenty of room for improvement here.

 How We Tested 

To ensure that all 40 cameras we received got fair treatment, we decided to divide and rule! We divided the cameras into three broad categories based on their price, since we believe that's the first consideration when buying a camera. The next parameter that is considered is megapixel count, and this was given due weightage as well.
We evaluated the cameras on four parameters:
Features, Ergonomics, Performance and Price. Weightages
varied, depending on the importance of a parameter to a particular category.

Points were awarded on the basis of various features and capabilities, such as CCD (Charged Couple Device) resolution, optical and digital zoom, manual focusing, metering modes, white balance implementation, number of flash modes, shutter speed range, storage, battery type and video-out capabilities.
Points were also awarded to packaged contents such as the battery charger, camera pouch and so on. The software bundled with the camera and support for various OSes was also taken
into consideration.

Ergonomics plays an important role in the general usability of a camera. We noted various aspects of the camera's build and looked for features that enhanced its user-friendliness-such as how comfortable it was to hold, the ease with which the menu can be navigated, the size of the buttons, the placement of the flash and whether it avoids the finger-over-flash syndrome, and the inclusion of special menu-navigation buttons. The size and weight of the cameras were also taken into consideration.

Image test: We created a target scene to test the camera's CCD ability to reproduce colour and capture details correctly. The lighting was kept constant for every shot. We shot this scene by mounting the camera on a tripod, and chose the highest possible resolution and quality setting.
We used the camera's flash and set other settings, such as the white balance, metering and flash modes to Auto mode. The target scene comprised a motherboard with red as a base colour and various slots and connectors in blue, yellow and red. These provided us with a wide tonal range. For the background we used an 18 per cent grey colour sheet (also known as thunder-grey) so as to provide a neutral background on which the vividness of the colours could be rendered best.
For specular effects, we had a small metallic wristwatch in the test scene in addition to the metal connectors on the motherboard. For fine details, we had the CPU socket, RAM and PCI slots of the motherboard to consider. The cameras were graded on the level of accuracy with which each of these details was captured. We also placed two wine glasses at an angle so as
to give the illusion of depth-and then check how the cameras captured depth.
Landscape: For landscape mode we shot a mountain covering half the frame, while the rest of the frame included the sky. This shot was taken using the 'Landscape' mode, leaving the rest of the settings such as white balance and shutter speed for the camera to decide. This also tested the metering capabilities of the camera, since the sky tends to wreak havoc with the inbuilt meter.
Movie Mode: In movie mode, we set the camera to the 'best' setting for capturing the movie, and then left it to capture the bustle in and around the JDM office complex. In the captured video, we looked for clean, jerk-free videos with proper sound.  
Macro: In Macro mode, we used a bottle cork with engravings as our subject. With the cameras mounted on the tripod, we shot the cork from the minimum distance specified by the manufacturer. If the image turned out blurred, we shifted the tripod forward or backward till we got a clear, sharply focused shot of the subject.

Price index
The price index was calculated taking into account the price at which the cameras are available. Extra weightage was given to prices for low-end cameras compared to the mid-range and
high-end cameras.

How The Winners Were Decided
The scores from Features, Ergonomics, Performance and Price Index were given weightages relevant to the specific category. An overall score out of 100 was calculated. The product that scored highest was adjudged the winner of the Digit 'Best Buy Gold' award for its category. The second-highest scorer got the Digit 'Best Buy Silver' award. 

In the Macro test, Olympus delivered a stunning shot, thanks to its Super-macro mode

This category comprised digital cameras priced roughly between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000. The target audience for this segment includes those who want to upgrade from an entry-level model, and are well versed with the basics. This range also makes up the bread and butter for most camera manufacturers and hence, there is a noticeable difference in the features, build quality and overall performance of these cameras. This is by far the best segment to choose from if you want a quality point-and-shoot and have a medium-sized budget.

It's not surprising that almost every manufacturer has a model in this price range. We chose 16 of the best from vendors including Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Sony and Samsung.

To make it more interesting, we also included cameras from brands such as HP, Konica-Minolta (KM), Panasonic and Yashica. Most cameras in this category featured a CCD sensor above 4 mp. Only Canon's A510 sported a 3.2 mp sensor. Here's how they fared.

Before we get down to comparing these cameras based on their features, let's separate some odd ones from the bunch. Except for the HP PhotoSmart 945, Konica Minolta Z3 and Fuji S3500, all other cameras are designed to be 'pocketable'. On the other hand, these three have a unique design, giving them an edge when it comes to ergonomics and lens power to compensate for their size.

These three cameras sport a traditional SLR look, with a large grip and massive, protruding lenses that offer extraordinary ergonomics. Unfortunately, this design also makes them rather big and bulky to carry.

While Kodak's Z700 is also built along similar lines, it's not as tough to carry since the proportions have been kept in control. So it has all the positives of an SLR-like body, sans the bulkiness, though.

For any point-and-shoot camera, pocketability is an important issue. Canon's A510, Sony's DSC-W5, Panasonic's LZ1, Samsung's A400 and KM's G600 and G530 were some of the cameras that featured a compact form factor. They will slip easily into a pocket.

The same can be said about Yashica's models as well. Kodak's Z700, despite its pseudo-SLR styling, does not go overboard, and remains within acceptable limits; however, your pocket will find it uninviting. Our three musketeers, true to their traditions, are not cute-looking models, and lugging them around on your shoulder is pretty much the only option. Unless, of course, you have pockets the size of shopping bags!

On the megapixel scale, KM's G600 tops the chart with a 6 mp CCD sensor-impressive for its small size. Sony's DSC-W5, Yashica's EZ-5030, KM's G530 and HP's PhotoSmart 945 fall in the 5 mp bracket-with a sensor that size, these cameras should deliver good photographs. The 4 mp list is a slightly longer one with two cameras from Kodak, one each from Fuji, KM and Panasonic, and two from Samsung and Sony. Canon's PowerShot A510 was the only camera in this category to feature a 3.2 mp sensor-logically, it should have been trounced by the rest. Was it? Read on!

As we mentioned earlier, these cameras do offer some advanced features. Relatively better optics is also an important aspect of these cameras. By today's standards, a 3X optical zoom lens would be the norm on most point-and-shoot cameras. All Sony cameras were equipped with 3X zoom; the Samsung A400 featured a 2.8X zoom, while the twins from Yashica, too, sported a 3X zoom lens.

Kodak's Z700 and Panasonic's LZ1 were equipped with 5X and 6X zoom lenses respectively-rather impressive considering the rest of the cameras. Panasonic, in fact, went a step further and stabilised the zoom lens to compensate for shaky hands, which often mar a photograph.

For all the brickbats our three musketeers would face for their size, they do possess some of the best lenses in the business. KM's Z3 had a whopping 12X zoom lens-good enough to use them as a telescope; HP's PhotoSmart 945 came with an 8X lens, and Fuji's S3500 had a 6X zoom lens. With those massive zooming lenses, these cameras are great for taking some good telephoto shots. May we suggest you try them at a cricket match?

Digital zoom has been a standard feature on all digital cameras. Our suggestion-the less you use it, the better your photos will look.

For a sharp picture, the camera should have a good focusing system. Almost all digital cameras today employ sophisticated focusing systems that are reliable and don't (often) disappoint. These systems are susceptible to errors only when the lighting conditions fall below a certain threshold, or are tricky.

In general, during low light conditions, take more than two or three photos of your subject to get the best results. It's also advisable to use the 'bracketing' feature on your camera if it's available.

Only a few cameras in this category were equipped with manual focus-a boon if you want to do some tinkering and add that extra touch of creativity to your photos. Canon's A510, HP's PhotoSmart 945 and KM's Z3 were the only three of the 16 to offer manual focus. All the cameras, though, were equipped with Macro mode. None of the cameras here offered the Super Macro mode we saw on the Olympus C-370 Zoom in the Casual Clickers category.

The LCD screen on digital cameras has certainly replaced the old, true image optical view finder in some cases. Take the case of Samsung cameras, which completely rely on the LCD screen for composing the frame-not the best option, since such setups are prone to shakes, and one often ends up with a blurry image. Moreover, this consumes a great deal more power as compared to using an optical viewfinder. As a golden rule, always use the optical viewfinder to compose the frame and use the LCD panel only for reviewing the photograph. This will avoid unnecessary camera shake and also improve battery life.

Kodak Z700

Our original three were the only cameras to feature electronic viewfinders (EVF-see box Jargon Buster). The others used a combination of optical viewfinders and LCD screens.

Canon Digital IXUS-700

Sony's DSC-W5 had the widest LCD screen of all, and the 2.5-inch screen offered good space for viewing photos. The rest were equipped with either a standard 1.5-inch or slightly bigger 1.8- to 2-inch LCD screen. During testing, we once again faced problems using these screens outdoors. Indoors, though, they performed admirably.

All 16 cameras had an integrated flash, offering various modes for different settings. Reading the manual will give you a better understanding of how and when to use these modes. None of the cameras in this category had a hot shoe for an external flash.

Coming to storage, SD/MMC seems to be the format favoured by  most manufacturers. Sony uses its proprietary Memory Stick, and Fuji goes with its (and Olympus') xD format. KM's G600 offers support for three different formats-SD/MMC and Memory Stick. Now that's thoughtful!

For transferring photos to your computer, USB has become the standard for digital cameras. It offers easy plug-n-play capability. Almost all the cameras here use either Li-ion or NiMH batteries.

Always choose cameras using AA batteries over proprietary ones, as you can use alkaline AAs if you run out of charge.

Standard features apart, some cameras also offered some unique features, like the Kodak Z700. This camera comes with a printer dock, which allows you to print photographs directly from the camera, without the need of transferring them to a PC. We're not sure about its practicality and design, though. On the one hand, this is a good solution for people who don't have a PC, but on the other, the beauty of digital photography lies in the post-shooting touches that you can add to the photograph-for which downloading and touching up the photos on your PC is a must.

Other cameras such as the HP PhotoSmart 945 and Fuji S3500 provided a lens hood and an adapter ring for attaching filters, and other shooting aids.

Overall, in the features department, we found Canon's A510 better armed than the others. One of its major strengths is the manual focus. HP's PhotoSmart 945 comes in second with the barrage of features that it offers. Do keep in mind that this is no compact camera, and it took a big hammering in the pocketability department, which pushed it to second position. 

Jargon Buster 

Shutter Speed: This indicates how long the shutter of the camera stays open to expose the film or sensor to light. Shutter speeds are normally less than a second, but since it's tough to refer to them as 1/60 of a second and so on, they are referred to simply as 60, 90, 250 and so on. Hence, 1/250 is faster than 1/60.
Faster shutter speeds are used to take clearer still pictures of moving objects such as speeding cars or a sports event, which would otherwise turn out blurred. For artistic photography, sometimes, a blur is preferred-for example, a flowing river. With really low shutter speeds, you can even capture the entire trail of the tail-lights of a car as it travels through a road filled with curves.
Aperture: The aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that decides the amount of light falling on the film or sensor. A larger aperture (represented by a lower f-value, e.g. f/2) offers a shallow depth of field. Focus is locked to the main subject, causing anything ahead of or behind it to appear out of focus. A smaller aperture (i.e. a higher f-value, e.g. f/16) offers greater depth of field. This lets you focus on other objects that appear within a certain distance ahead or behind from the main subject.
White Balance: To the naked human eye, white objects appear white no matter what the light source colour is. But digital cameras pick up a change in colour. This results in incorrect hues in the picture. Depending on the source, you can adjust the white balance in the camera to ensure correct reproduction of the colours in the frame. The most common settings are daylight, cloudy, fluorescent (to be used when the light source is a tube light), and incandescent (to be used in bulb lighting).
Red-Eye Reduction: When a flash is used, the light is powerful enough to reflect back from the retina of the eye, causing a red circle to be formed within the eye due to the blood vessels around it. In Red-Eye Reduction mode, the flash goes off multiple times, causing the pupils of the eye to contract, preventing the final one from reaching the retina. The photo is taken with the last flash, whose light doesn't reflect, thus preventing Red-Eye.
Burst Mode: Also known as Continuous Mode, this is the camera's ability to take several images in quick succession. How fast, how many, and at what quality, depends on the inbuilt buffer memory of the camera. Most consumer digital cameras manage one to four shots per second, while professional ones do up to seven. Usually the quality increases with the decrease in the number of shots, and vice-versa.
Electronic Viewfinder (EVF): An EVF is a small LCD in place of the optical viewfinder that you hold close to your eye. The EVF gets its image through the lens and does not suffer from parallax errors. Since it is enclosed in a casing, it is usable even in bright light when the LCD may be unreadable. 


On the ergonomics front, we found HP's Photosmart 945 the best, thanks to its large grip, rubberised body and good build quality. Next in line was KM's Z3, followed by Fuji's S3500 zoom. Among the compact cameras, Sony's DSC-W5 and Panasonic's LZ1 offer good grip, and are put together well.

Konica-Minolta's G530 and G600 looked sturdy with their steel casings, but were slippery because of the smooth finish. Kodak's Z700 offered the best of both worlds-good grip and good button placement, and it sure is solidly put together.

Canon's A510 with its slightly curved body offers decent grip, and the good button layout makes one-handed operation a breeze.

HP Photosmart 945

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W5

For a more detailed look at the performance of the cameras, we decided to look at the various aspects of shooting a photograph:
Colour Rendition: When it comes to colour reproduction, Sony's DSC-W5 had no competition. The photos we got with this camera had all colours reproduced faithfully without any hint of excessive warmness. In fact, this was the only camera in the test to capture colours accurately. The crayons in the test scene looked natural on the grey background.

HP's PhotoSmart 945 was only slightly behind the Sony in terms of colour rendition. The image, however, was overly sharp, and hence lost out on natural feel. The combination of the big lens and the 5 mp sensor, though, made sure that any noise that may have crept in was kept out.

Panasonic's DMC-LZ1 was almost at par with Sony's DSC-W5 as far as colour reproduction was concerned. Canon's A510 too, bought out the colours in their full glory, but the lowly 3.2 mp sensor added unwanted noise.

In the case of the Konica-Minolta Z3, its 4 mp sensor could hardly exploit the potential of the 12X zoom lens; the picture was too noisy and colours were overly saturated. The pictures taken with Kodak's Z700 and LS 473 were a little too warm. With the Samsung cameras, the colours were too pale for our liking, and they were completely wiped out of the competition.

Reproduction of detail: Thanks to its big lens, HP's PhotoSmart 945 was able to capture even the smallest detail in our test scene. In fact, Sony's DSC-W5 was equally good when it came to capturing the finer details. Panasonic's DMC-LZ1 was also at par with them when it came to detail.

Konica-Minolta's Z3 did a good job in capturing details, but noise interrupted what would otherwise have been a fine photograph. Sony's S60 and S40 also put up a commendable performance in capturing detail, as did the Kodak and Samsung cameras. The Yashicas were marginally better, but lost out due to the high amount of noise.

Macro: The big lens does it again for HP 945! It brought out the minutest detail on the macro subject to life. Sony's W5 wasn't much behind, and despite the smaller lens, delivered an exceptional macro photograph. Panasonic, too, fared well in the macro test but the surprise of the pack was Kodak's Z700, which captured a near-perfect close-up shot along with its sibling, the LS473. The rest of the cameras just brought up the rear!

Zoom: Konica-Minolta's Z3, with its 12X zoom, finally proved its worth. It brought the subject so close you could count the speckles on the bark of a tree trunk. Next in line was HP's 945, with the 8X lens poking right into the tree trunk. The rest of the cameras were nowhere in the competition-their performance was average.

Overall, on the basis of pure performance, Sony's DSC-W5 tops the chart with top-class performance on every parameter. HP's Photosmart 945 and Panasonic's DMC-LZ1 also put up some commendable performances for second place. The younger siblings from Sony-the DSC-S40 and S60-also put up good performances.

Defining a clear winner in this category was tricky. After factoring in price, the Sony DSC-W5 and the HP PhotoSmart 945 were so close that giving out a clear verdict would be an injustice to either. So we settled on awarding them both the Digit 'Best Buy Gold' award.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-540

If you want a compact point-and-shoot camera with good features and excellent performance, we recommend the Sony DSC-W5. If you want a SLR-like camera with super zoom features, the HP Photosmart 945 is the one for you. But if value for money is what you are most in the market for, go for Sony's DSC-S40-which is our 'Best Buy Silver' winner.

This category consisted of some recently-launched cameras boasting 7 mp sensors. All these were priced above Rs 20,000. The cameras here are mostly top-of-the-line, and offer the best in terms of features, performance and technology. Just to give you an idea, this category also includes the slimmest camera, a camera that can double as a video recorder, and many more such additions.

What distinguishes these babies from the cameras in the previous category is that the features and specifications have been bumped up. Also, many models in this category are lifestyle products, and sport unique designs that make them stand out.

Shooting Modes 

To allow for better control over the final output, manual overrides for white balance and flash modes have become standard on all cameras. Instead of relying completely on Auto mode, where the camera decides most of the settings for you, try tweaking these settings to get better pictures.
For example, when shooting in incandescent light (tube lights), switch the white balance setting to incandescent-this will balance the colour scheme and adjust to the artificial ambient light. Similarly, if the room is too dark, activate your fill flash to light up the subject and the surroundings.
Today, most digital cameras offer a variety of preset shooting modes such as Landscape, Portrait, Beach, Party and many more. These presets are tweaked so that the camera adjusts to the ambient lighting. These modes come in handy on most occasions and all you need to do is select the right preset for the right situation. It is recommended that you educate yourself about all available presets on your camera by reading the manual. 

We had about 15 models  here. Canon, Casio, Fuji, Kodak, Nikon, Samsung and Sony were the players, and had cameras ranging from 4.2 to 7 megapixels. Warning: this category has products that would make a geek go gaga!

In this category, too, we had three cameras that were radically different from the rest in terms of their design. The DSC-H1 from Sony, the S5500 from Fuji and the EasyShare DX-7590 from Kodak all sported SLR-like styling. This inherently makes them bulky and a pain to lug around.

The star in this category is probably Sony's DSC-T7, which is only 15 mm thick. It's compact, light and easily fits into a shirt pocket. Nikon's S1 is also designed in the same mould, but at 20 mm, is slightly thicker than the Sony DSC-T7.

The Digimax i5 from Samsung also tries to break new ground in the ultra-compact category, but its appeal is nowhere near that of the Sony T7 or the jet-black Nikon S1. Casio was the frontrunner in the ultra-compact camera category-their Exilim range of cameras set the stage for the others to follow.

The Exilim EX-Z57, though, no longer looks or feels like an ultra-compact, especially when viewed alongside the Sony-T7. The EX-P505 is an interesting camera since it can also double as a video recorder. For a dual device, it is very compact.

Canon, too, has put a lot of effort into shrinking the Digital IXUS 700. The other cameras in this category sport run-of-the-mill, rectangular, silver-box designs, with protruding lenses.

The DSC-P200 and DSC-W7 are the latest 7 mp cameras from Sony. The P200 carries the legacy of the P100-the winner of last year's Digit shootout-one step further with a higher mp sensor. The DSC-W7 is basically a spruced-up version of the DSC-W5 (the winner in the Aspiring Amateurs category).

Our test aapparatus with all the elements neede to trick a CCD

The Digimax V700 and Digital IXUS 700 are Samsung's and Canon's respective contenders in the 7 mp line-ups. The 5 mp line-up has the Casio Exilim Z57 and P505, the Kodak LS755 and DX-7590, the Nikon Coolpix S1 and 5900, Samsung's Digimax U-CA5 and Digimax i5, and Sony's DSC-T7 and DSC-H1. It was interesting to see whether the 2 mp deficit made a big difference.

Sony's DSC-H1 comes fitted with a huge 12X zoom lens, making it possible to target unsuspecting subjects sitting meters away! A point to note is that Sony hasn't equipped this camera with the Carl-Zeiss line of lenses it uses on its other models.

Next in line are the Kodak DX-7590 and Fuji FinePix S5500 with their 10X lenses, which are as good as the Sony ones. Casio's Exilim EX-P505 was the only camera that came with a 5X optical lens. All other cameras offered the standard 3X optical zoom.

As far as the Nikon S1, Sony DSC-T7 and Samsung Digimax i5 are concerned, they have an internal moving 3X optical zoom lens and hence, unlike other cameras, their lenses do not protrude-the secret behind their thin look.

Auto-focus is a standard feature in cameras in this range, and all cameras we reviewed here had it. To make the focusing system effective, AF assist lamps were also fitted on most cameras. Manual focusing, though, was found only on a handful of cameras. Canon's IXUS 700, both Casios, Fuji's S5500, Nikon's Coolpix 5900, Sony's P200 and DSC-H1 were the  ones to offer manual focusing-it should come in handy if you decide to try your hands at some professional stuff.

Macro mode has also become fairly standard, and was available on all cameras.

Sony's DSC-H1 had the best Macro focus, and allowed us to get as close as 2 cm to the subject. With the DSC-H1, we got the best Macro shot of the comparison. Nikon allows you to get within 4 cm of the subject, but the other cameras had a typical Macro focus range of around 6 cm.

For some reason, most cameras in this category relied heavily on the LCD screen for composing a shot. In fact, of the fifteen models, only five were equipped with a proper optical viewfinder. We stick to our advice: use the optical viewfinder and not the LCD, and we'll repeat why: the LCD is a battery guzzler, and using it may cause camera shake.

The three big-lens cameras-the DSC-H1 from Sony, the S5500 from Fuji and the DX-7590 from Kodak-were equipped with electronic viewfinders (EVF) instead of the optical kind, and when shooting in low light, these screens were too weak to be useful.

Casio's EX-Z57 had a huge 2.7-inch screen. The screen is bright and can be seen well in outdoor light. On the other hand, the screen on Sony's T7 was not quite up to the mark, and lacked the clarity and vividness of Casio's screens. The S1's 2.5-inch LCD was much better, and makes reviewing your photos a breeze.    

As for exposure control, all cameras were provided with presets for one-touch selection of the appropriate settings. Canon's IXUS 700, Nikon's S1 and 5900, Kodak's DX-7590, and Samsung's Digimax V700 and Digimax i5 had 12 presets, apart from the manual override that allows you to change the settings to suit your needs.

Self-timers and integrated flashes were standard on all cameras. The DSC-T7 has a small flash range (guide number) and as a result, photos in low light conditions were underexposed and too dark. Similar was the case with Nikon's Coolpix S1 and Samsung's Digimax i5. Sony's DSC-H1 had the most powerful flash of all, and covered a huge area.

Sony Cyber-shot P200

Unfortunately, none of big- lens models had support for an external flash-these help when you want to cover a larger area where the inbuilt flash is not enough. Flash modes were present on all cameras, and manual overrides allow you to choose the mode appropriate for the situation.

In this category, most cameras came bundled with a few accessories. All the slim cameras had a dock to connect to a PC. The downside of this is that it adds to the hardware you have to lug around to transfer pictures.

The big-lens cameras were supplied with lens hoods and adapter rings for attaching filters or conversion lenses. All the cameras connected via USB, and almost all supported plug-and-play-except for Casio's P505, which asked for drivers to be installed on Windows XP. Only Casio, Nikon and Samsung were generous enough to provide a carry case.

Overall, it was Casio's Exilim EX-P505 that took the features crown, followed closely by Nikon's Coolpix 5900. Both cameras have good features, but were not too far ahead of Canon's IXUS 700.

Without a doubt, Sony's DSC-H1 sported the best ergonomics of all. The big grip ensured the camera never slipped, and the buttons, too, are placed within easy reach. The menu, too, is simple to use.

The Fuji Finepix S5500 came in next, and was high on our ergonomics scale. Sony's DSC-W7 and Nikon Coolpix 5900, too, are similar on ergonomics. We did like Nikon's simple-to-use menu structure a tad more, though.

Sony's DSC-P200 also offers decent ergonomics, but at times, the smooth body tends to get slippery. Due to its small size, the Canon IXUS 700 feels a little cramped-especially when looking through the viewfinder and trying to operate the mode selection button. They're simply too close for comfort.

The DSC-T7, thanks to its ultra-thin profile, is prone to camera shake. Kodak's LS755 is slippery, and may also just slip out of your hands! Moreover, the buttons are too recessed into the body and tough to operate. The Casio Exilims have a good button layout and offer easy access, but the menu is unnecessarily complicated. You just can't win 'em all!

Colour Rendition: Sony's DSC-H1 was the only camera in the entire test process to reproduce the test scene as accurately as the original. The tonal balance was maintained throughout the scene and the colours were natural and vivid. The only other camera that came close was the DSC-W7.

Canon's IXUS 700 and Sony's DSC-200 also put up a commendable performance as far as colour reproduction was concerned. Cameras from Nikon, Fuji and Kodak were at par with each other and gave a slightly warmer tone to the overall picture. Casio's EX-P505's reproduction of colours was a little pale and the picture looked dull whereas the other Casio, the EX-Z57, did capture all colours well. The Samsungs were strictly OK in reproducing colour, but were no match to the DSC-H1. 

Nikon Coolpix 5900

Detail: In the detail test, it was again Sony with the DSC-W7 and DSC-P200 that ruled the roost. They were so good that we were tempted to rush out and buy one ourselves! The details it captured were extremely clear and without a speck of noise-pretty impressive.

Sony's DSC-H1, too, showed its mettle by picking up a reasonable amount of detail without losing anything to noise. Canon's IXUS 700, Nikon's Coolpix 5900, the Samsung Digimax V700 and the Kodak DX-7590 were able to display fairly good details from the test scene, but they failed to get the finer details that the Sony cameras could. Both Casio's models were below par, largely due to the noise that marred the otherwise well-rendered pictures.

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Macro Mode:
With that big lens, the DSC-H1 was right up there to deliver the best Macro shot we got, capturing details we couldn't even see with the naked eye. However, Canon's IXUS 700, Casio's EX-Z57, Nikon's Coolpix 5900 and Fuji's FinePix S5500 also churned out some real good Macro shots despite the lack of big lenses. Size doesn't always matter, does it?

The Kodak DX-7590 did a good job in the Macro mode, but fell short of the benchmark set by the above cameras. It was not all that bad, though. The remaining cameras were also able to get the Macro shot, but failed to reproduce the depth the above cameras offered.

Movie Mode: This was the only arena where the Samsung cameras outshone every other camera. In fact, the Casio EX-P505 should have done better, but was trounced comprehensively by the Samsungs. The other cameras are no good when it comes to video recording. At best, all one can say is they offer the possibility of capturing video for the sake of it.

Overall, it was Sony's DSC-H1 that put in the best performance. This was followed closely by the DSC-P200 and the DSC-W7. Nikon's Coolpix 5900 and S1 trailed the Sony group by a small margin.

We've seen the respective winners in features and performance, and after factoring in price, Sony's DSC-P200 is Digit's 'Best Buy Gold' winner thanks to its steady performance, good feature set and decent ergonomics.

Nikon's Coolpix 5900 comes in second, and wins the Digit 'Best Buy Silver' largely due to its sensible pricing. It pipped Sony's DSC-H1 by an extremely small margin. If you want a super-zoom camera and are ready to lug it around, you could consider the Sony DSC-H1 over the Nikon Coolpix 5900.


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