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Cheapism: Best digital cameras under $100

Dec. 19, 2011 at 8:06 AM ET

The Nikon Coolpix S3100 bests rivals with 5x optical zoom.

By Kara Reinhardt, Cheapism.com

A digital camera is the sort of holiday gift that’s tempting to snap up when you spot a compelling bargain. But some models under $100 struggle to take high-quality photos and skimp on essential features. A little research can help you find a worthwhile gift or a reliable way to capture some Christmas and New Year’s memories. Here are some things to look for when you’re sizing up a low-cost digital camera.

Resolution is likely the first feature that comes to mind. About five or six megapixels used to be standard for a budget camera — maybe eight at the most. Now any camera you buy should offer at least 10 mp, and many models cram up to 14 mp onto their tiny image sensors. Higher resolution becomes crucial only if you plan to crop out large portions of an image or print photos larger than 8x10 inches. Otherwise, 10 mp should be more than sufficient.

Image stabilization helps produce sharp photos even in low light, when just a slightly unsteady hand can render an image blurry. Image stabilization on inexpensive cameras is usually software-based, relying on digital trickery to produce clear, crisp images. Optical image stabilization is preferable but rare among budget models.

The specs on a digital camera typically include both optical and digital zoom. The latter works by enlarging the individual pixels in an image, which sacrifices sharpness. Optical zoom is the number to note; it ranges from 3x to 5x in this price range. Budget cameras don’t tend to have a viewfinder for composing photos but instead employ an LCD screen on the back, which should measure at least 2.5 inches for easy viewing.

The memory cards that come with digital cameras don’t hold very many photos, so it’s nice to pick up a larger one if you’re giving a camera as a gift — or even buying one for yourself. For high-resolution photos, PhotographyReview.com suggests buying a 1GB card, which usually costs less than $10.

Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable digital cameras.

  • The Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 (starting at $80) is the only model on our list with optical image stabilization, and both experts and users rave about its image quality. It offers a solid set of features, including 14 mp resolution, 4x optical zoom, and a 2.7-inch LCD screen. (Where to buy)
  • The Canon PowerShot A1200 (starting at $85) comes with 12.1 mp resolution, 4x optical zoom, a 2.7-inch LCD, and HD video recording. Despite a lack of image stabilization, this camera takes photos that impress experts with their crisp detail and vivid colors. (Where to buy)
  • The Nikon Coolpix S3100 (starting at $97) boasts 14 mp resolution, HD video recording, and 5x optical zoom — the highest among our picks. It has a 2.7-inch LCD and relies on Nikon’s software-based Electronic VR, or vibration reduction feature, rather than optical image stabilization. Experts praise this slim model for its stylish design and simple operation. (Where to buy)
  • The Kodak EasyShare Mini M200 (starting at $50) is about the size of a gift card yet manages to fit a 2.5-inch LCD, and seems tailor-made for a child or teen. It’s easy to use, according to reviews, and comes in red, blue, or purple. The low price is reflected in the specs: 10 mp, 3x zoom, and no image stabilization. (Where to buy)

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