The first camera I ever owned, back when the Nicaraguan Contras were front-page news, was a Kodak Disc—the 3600, if I'm not mistaken. My parents thought I was intelligent and responsible enough to take care of a high-tech machine; little did I know that they d scooped up the unit at a church swap meet, for significantly less than I d recently paid for my Soundwave Transformer.
Looking back, they were right to skimp; I broke the thing a few months later, trying to snap a rock hitting the lens. Lucky for them the disc cameras were being phased out, and were thus omnipresent in bargain bins. I got my feet wet with photography, and learned a bit about the technology to boot. (Geek that I am, I disassembled a couple of discs, and later conducted an "autopsy" on the busted 3600.)
My point is, low-end tech's great for putting in the hands of budding gearheads, young or old. Which is why, despite its gimpy spec sheet, I'm sort of crushing on Sakar International's 3-in-1 digital camera, which I first glimpsed in the window of that noted electronics retailer, CVS. After the jump, the skinny on the cheapest camera this side of a self-made pinhole job. PLUS: Low End Theory's first hate mail!
Sakar, for the uninitiated, is sort of the Kraft Foods of discount gadgetry, churning out everything from surge protectors to speaker systems. Aside from offering rock-bottom prices on its iConcepts line, Sakar is also notable for some hilarious packaging copy. My favorite example is its "4D Optical Wheel Scroll Mouse." Four-dimensional? You mean it'll somehow warp space-time? (Yes, I realize now that it means "four-directional," but that's equally as lame—don't you move your cursor more than four directions?)
The problem with manufacturers like Sakar is that the quality of its products tend to be all over the map. It might do a perfectly decent job of making numeric keypads, but whatever Chinese factory handles its card readers has some QA issues. In fairness, I guess this can plague some big names, too: I love my VAIO, for example, but don't get me started on the nightmare that was my CLIE.
It goes without saying that you shouldn't plan on packing the 3-in-1 camera on your next trip to Machu Picchu—it won't survive the trek. As for features, dream on: no optical zoom, no USB 2.0 support, and a measly res of 0.31 megapixels.
Yet I've come to (lightly) praise the 3-in-1, not to bury it. The unit I found was priced at $14.99, three bucks cheaper than CVS was asking for a 150-pack of Zantac. It can store up to 150 images, as well as a few minutes of video footage. (The latter attribute, combined with webcam capabilities, is where the "3-in-1" label comes from.)
CVS had the camera stored behind the photo developer's desk, so my guess is they've got it aimed toward folks who've heard about this great digicam phenomenon, but are too scared/cheap to get involved. The better strategy, though, might be too place it in the school supplies aisle, where the highest tech gadget on offer was a Dora the Explorer portable CD player. Assuming your kid's gonna break the thing within 90 days, that's not a bad return: $5 per month to get Junior his/her first taste of digital photography.