My old Canon 4 MP ELPH finally died of CCD failure, and it was time to look for a replacement. The timing couldn’t be worse, however. With more items to sell, I need pics- and now. But, with horrible noise problems and rushed software from the recent megapixel wars, reviews of current cameras were pretty dim. What’s worse, it seems some reviewers were beginning to simply accept the diminishing capabilities of the new point-and-shoot cameras to focus-on the “good” parts. Everyone seems so enamored with the megapixel count that they forget picture quality and the ability to actually capture a photo (something amazingly missing from recent cameras). I know 10 years is a long time to ask of my old ELPH, but why couldn’t it have survived a year longer?

So, with time to waste while waiting for an oil-change, I went to play with the camera display at the end of aisle 200 in the local super-mega-happy-mart. Looking at P/S cameras having from 10-12MP and prices from $80-$120, I found many surprises. Both good and bad.

I tested each camera for shutter-lag, start-up-to-1st-photo time, macro/telephoto focus, and picture quality. Quality is difficult to tell without printing a pic or carrying a laptop around with you. I didn’t have my laptop, but there is an interesting alternative. Using the built-in view screen, you can zoom-in close on photos taken (in the built-in picture browser), and inspect photographs under a virtual microscope. Though not as good as a real lab test, defects of some of these cameras are so obvious that they will show up here even on their small, low-resolution screens.

My first recent replacement for my beloved ELPH lasted all but a week before it unexpectedly ended-up in a garbage can in the lobby of Cleveland Cavaliers Stadium. With its lens smashed-in. In a barrage of explicit language. After missing, yet again, another million-dollar photo, another irreplaceable moment, because it was nothing but a shiny piece of shit. Hey… let’s start there!

Samsung SL310W had 13+ MP (the plus denotes anywhere between 13.0 to 13.8MP, depending on who’s advertising it that day), and a 3.6x optical zoom. Although the specs are amazing, the camera doesn’t live up. Switching modes (or changing and setting) can take up to 50 seconds to register in the software, keeping you from taking a picture. Worse, it can take up to 5 minutes (YES, I SAID “MINUTES”) for the camera to snap the shutter after the shutter button is pressed. This gives the illusion that the camera takes random pictures at random times. It does this regardless of the flash setting or battery charge. And, if you are lucky to get a picture, it will most likely be out of focus. This thing, even after extended re-thinking about the focus of a particular scene, will still focus incorrectly about 70% of the time. How could any company produce a camera that can’t even take a photo? After horrible reviews and now pulled from the market, the SL310 shows that Samsung has no problem releasing crap to the public. I’m giving Samsung gets 1/5 stars for shutter lag (1 being no-photo, 5 being film-speed shutter); 1/5 stars for picture quality (1 for crap and 5 for Pro-quality)

The Casio Exilim EX-z33 is 10MP, has 3x Optical Zoom, and almost no expectations from me. The last Casio-anything I owned was called an SK-1. It was under a hundred bucks, and sampled sounds that could be played-it back on the keyboard. Coolest synthesizer ever, especially for a junior highschooler like me. So, what’s up with this camera? The cheap feel didn’t help, until I took a picture. I was shocked. Shutter lag was almost non-existent (non-flash). The picture quality was clear, saturated, and contrasty. It’s amazing how even the little screens on the cameras can even show the shortcomings of a camera’s photos. NOTE: If you build a crappy camera, disable the in-camera editing zoom so people can’t see how crappy you’re pics are until they’re bought it and tried printing. Casio shocked me with it’s photo quality and capabilities. The new S-10’s look even better! Even a real-time histogram feature! It gets 4/5 for shutter lag, 4/5 for picture quality from me.

Nikon CoolPix L20 has 10MP with 3.6x Optical Zoom. Nikon name was synonymous with quality (and pricyness) for decades. For professionals, it’s Canon or Nikon (Zeiss and Olympus lenses are another thing) and that’s it. That’s why I so surprised to find a shutter lag reminiscent of my Samsung. About 5 seconds (no-flash test, of course) after 3 tries. Unacceptable. And, the image was actually under-saturated. This is fixable, of course. But in its full auto, default, idiot-proof mode, I expected much more. 2/5 shutter-lag, 3/5 quality.

Kodak EasyShare M381. 12.2 Megapixels and a 5x optical zoom put this camera’s specs above most in this price range. Shutter lag is poor, but average with the others I tested. It was the photo quality that surprised me. Even after several photos (and several angry looks from the photo-counter lady), the pics had soft focus (kind way of saying out-of-focus) and bad contrast under close inspection. 3/5 for lag and 2/5 for quality.

The Fujifilm FinePix J20 with 10MP and 3x Optical Zoom, is as about middle-of-the-road as you can get. Felt solid, but that’s all I can remember. Didn’t leave much of an impression. Guess what! 3/5 for lag, 3/5 quality, too.

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The Sanyo VPC-E1292 has 12MP and 3x optical zoom lens. I don’t know too much about Sanyo other than it seems have been around forever but still only focuses on consumer-level stuff. Amazingly, the VPC’s photos looked better than most here, and it had a shutter-lag just behind the Casio. Surprised, again. 4/5 lag and 3/5 quality.

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W180 is another 10 MP Digital Camera with 3x Optical Zoom. See a pattern? Sony is a quality name in consumer and pro products. The shutter-lag reflected that matching the Sanyo easily. The photo quality was oddly unimpressive. Not so sharp, not good looking. Disappointing, but for that price- you get a Sony. A Sony. Can’t bitch too much about that, I guess. 4/5 lag, 3/5 quality.

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The Canon ELPH SD1200 was a little above the bargin-bin price I was looking for ($150), but there doesn’t seem to be any alternatives for Canon in stores. A much larger (and older) Powershot was supposedly availble, but not displayed. I had high hopes here. I’ve used Canon’s for years with good results. A 3rd ELPH for me sounds kind-of nice- I could have lived with that. My first 1.3MP got me a lot of attention- nice attention. But, those were the good ol’ days, and the novelty of a DIGITAL camera has definitely worn off. Oh well. The SD1200’s shutter lag was very good, on par with the Casio, Sanyo and Sony. Unfortunately, in both stores I tried, the Canon’s were displayed without memory cards. And, since Canon doesn’t have any internal memory, the photo’s I took couldn’t be stored (and more importantly, examined). I have no idea how these pictures look close-up. I did notice that this ELPH had the same macro focusing problems as my previous 2 ELPHs. Sometimes when photographing objects less than 2ft away (MACRO mode), it takes 2 or 3 pictures to get one in focus. Minor quibble, because most of my macro shots are still-life, and easily repeatable. Still, it seems good. 4/5 lag, Quality unknown.

I didn’t bother with Olympus because they’re still using their own proprietary memory cards and adapters that aren’t compatible with, well… anything. Unfortunate because they’re known for great film cameras and using super glass. I’ve captured billboard-worthy shots with my old Stylus, and still use it when needed.

My conclusion? As much as it pains me to say… Sanyo and Casio are out-performing everything on the discount camera shelf. If I had to buy right now, I’d probably get the Casio. And until camera software, noise levels, and glass quality start matching pixel levels, it’s probably not going to get better. Hopefully, about 6 months. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can wait.