There are a lot of $200-$300 point and shoots on the market right now, and there's no way the test display at Best Buy is going to tell you which to buy. How is elbowing other shoppers while analyzing your hasty snapshots on a 3-inch, low-rez screen going to help you make an informed buying decision?
Instead, I put six of the most popular point-and-shoots on the market through some major testing. Then I decided on the one that you should buy without the hedging BS.
Meet our competitors
Each of these compact point and shoots features optical image stabilization and is priced around $250:
Samsung TL9 ($280)
10MP, 5X zoom, 2.7-inch LCD
Canon SD790 ($250)
10MP, 3X zoom, 3-inch LCD
Nikon S560 ($250)
10MP, 5X zoom, 2.7-inch LCD
Sony W170 ($250)
10MP, 5x zoom, 2.7-inch LCD
Panasonic FS20 ($250)
10MP, 4x zoom, 3-inch LCD
Kodak M1093 ($200)
10MP, 3x zoom, 3-inch LCD
The shots inside were captured under diffused sunlight in full auto mode at max (10MP) resolution. I won't say that it wasn't an extreme disappointment that only one camera, the Kodak, was able to shoot with proper white balance in this situation and offer us colors as they really look (you'll have to trust me on this one). The other cameras compensated poorly, possibly metering the diffused light as tungsten light, and producing a fairly cold image because of it.
Other than the color, you can't make out much from the wide shots. But if you blow the images up to their native resolution, there are huge differences. Even in the web-compressed images here, it's obvious that Canon captures the most detail:
It's basically a tie between Sony and Kodak for second place. Here's what Kodak looks like:
And then there's a pretty hard drop in quality. Panasonic comes in a solid last place here:
You can fix the color by manually choosing a smarter white balance (color temperature), or adjusting the balance in post. But you can't get the texture of those cookies back. Big win for Canon here.
It's no secret that many point-and-shoots are horrible for capturing the spontaneity of a child or pet, in part due to focus lag and often an additional wait before the shot is actually taken. While DSLRs are the best solution, I wanted to see if any point-and-shoots could rise to the challenge of capturing some action.
So I put them to the test on a Chicago side street where cars get up to 15-20mph. After repeat testing on each model, once again, we had a clear winner. Trouble is, it's Panasonic, loser of the resolution match! Panasonic features more shooting settings than any of its competitors, so my guess is that they spent a lot of time on optimizing at least this particular preset optimization.
The remainder of the competition was fairly close, and I can't say that even the Panasonic model will capture any incredible sports action photography. But I will say that the Nikon and Samsung seemed to lag more than the others from button press to shot acquisition. They both tended to have the blurriest shots as well. Here's a typical result of the Nikon:
Like high-speed photography, point-and-shoots aren't fundamentally designed for video. But then again, since they all shoot video, people have begun using them more frequently than they ever used their bigger, more specialized camcorders, so a test was necessary.
After playing some billiards, I found Canon's image, though not technically the highest resolution, to be the best. A point as well to its realistic sound capture of ball on ball action.
Second place goes to Kodak. Even though you can make out a great deal of grain on the table's felt surface, it also captures a relatively sharp, pleasantly contrasty image when you examine each ball.
Last place? This title is, once again, reserved for Panasonic. For some reason, the camera interpreted the red table as some sort of blurry pastel. And the sound was a like a fast food drive-through speaker.
We've all been there. It's late. A friend is in town. Your cameraphone can't hope to capture a shot in your drunken stupor, especially as you're hanging out in a smokey bar. I'd loved to have recreated this scene precisely in its brilliance, but instead I opted to take pictures of my cat with the lights low.
It's an unfair challenge for a small-lensed, small-chipped camera to capture a decent picture in low light, even with flash as a crutch, but the Sony did as well as I could have hoped, illuminating my subject and her background alike, lacking the hotspots of most flash photography.
The other cameras were predictably mediocre, but the absolute worst at handling flash had to be the Nikon. Not only did it give my cat a washed-out glow, but it didn't even consider properly exposing that obnoxious pile of boxes behind her. The shame.
Weird Features and Gimmicks
None of these items should probably determine your buying decision, but I wanted to mention a few of the more...interesting features of the cameras. The Samsung TL9 has a set of snazzy analog dials on top that display battery life and remaining memory like a car's dash—plus it plays music and movies. The Panasonic has categorized an Intelligent Auto Mode that gives a lazy but informed user a nice way to tell the camera, "hey, you may need to boost the ISO," without messing with any other controls or gimmicky menus. The Nikon will warn you if a subject's eyes are closed. The Canon has ditched the standard up, down, left, right menu dial for a spinning ring...that's bold, if not always intuitive. And Sony will shoot in 16x9 or stretch images to that ratio for quick HDTV slideshows. Plus, smile/face detectors are everywhere. How did we ever take pictures before boxes enclosed a loved one's face?
So What Should You Buy?
After all my testing, I'd recommend the Canon SD790. Sure, it didn't win every category, but it won the one that counts most—detail. It came first in the video category. And it never ever fell flat on its face.
Maybe this conclusion sounds a little too clinical to you. If so, let me say that there are less tangible elements I appreciate about the Canon SD790: It includes the best built battery charger and it is the only model tested to sync with a computer via mini USB (as opposed to some annoying proprietary cable or dock). On top of those, it always seems quick to capture a shot after I pressed for the shutter, though it's still not nearly as responsive as my prosumer DSLR. The one thing I'd ask for in this camera is a more powerful zoom lens (something you can get in the Canon line for a few bucks more).
If you know an extreme technophobe, you might tell them about the Kodak M1093. It offers the simplest shooting experience with one button to choose a photo mode, one button for flash toggling and one button to actually take a picture. Digital cameras don't get simpler than that, and I have to admit, as the cheapest model in this roundup ($200), with the least techie brand name, it performs better than I expected—though it does have a propensity to bump the ISO, producing some unwanted noise.
But as for the Sony W170, while it does feature the widest angle lens with 5x of zoom, it's clunky in the hand and rarely brilliant in quality. As for the Nikon S560, it takes mediocre shots. The Panasonic FS20 is inconsistent—bordering on horrendous much of the time—and features a small screen and a dated interface. Meanwhile, the Samsung TL9 just completely fails to impress me.
So go ahead, pick up the Canon. It seems the company's overwhelming market share is well deserved. Or don't. I won't lose sleep or anything. Just don't come crying to me when all your pictures look like crap.