More and more people are ditching cheap digital cameras and just snapping photos with their smartphones -- so the best cheap digital cameras have added built-in Wi-Fi, to make them more like a smartphone. With Wi-Fi, you can instantly send photos from your camera to Facebook, Twitter, etc., or to your phone, tablet, computer or printer (as long as you're within range of a Wi-Fi network you can connect to).
Of course, you also get the traditional advantages of a real camera: A bigger sensor for better photos than a smartphone (especially in low light), and something no smartphone has -- a zoom lens. Canon and Nikon have both trotted out Wi-Fi cheapies this year, but reviewers prefer the Canon version. In fact, they say the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS (Est. $200) is easily the best all-around camera you can buy for less than $250.
"A joy to use," says Matt Grayson at PhotographyBlog.com. "Takes beautiful pictures," PCMag.com's Jim Fisher says. Both award the Canon 330 HS their top cheap camera pick. So do experts at the U.K.'s Which? magazine and Australia's Choice magazine (it outscores all other digital cameras in both tests, including some that cost twice as much) and owners at Amazon.com.
The Canon 330 HS nearly has it all, reviews say. It's tiny -- a little bigger than a credit card -- and less than an inch slim, slipping easily into a shirt pocket. It's comfortable to hold and extremely simple to use. The 10x zoom lens shoots everything from a wide-angle 24 mm to an impressive 240 mm telephoto. And it just works, testers say: It turns on quickly, focuses fast, and captures very nice 12.1-megapixel photos and full-HD videos straight out of the box.
Experts struggle to find any faults with the Canon. They do point out that video is limited to 24 frames per second (fps). That gives a nice film-like look, but there's no 30 fps option if you're looking for even smoother footage.
The Nikon Coolpix S6500 (Est. $195) throws in more megapixels (16) and a longer 12x zoom for the same price -- but its photos just don't look as nice as the Canon's in reviews. Even in bright light, in an effort to scrub out graininess, the Nikon scrubs away details. Dim light makes matters worse. Autofocus gets "sluggish" even in ordinary light, EPhotoZine.com editors say, and some owners complain that they've missed shots as a result. Videos look good in full HD, but zooming makes the Nikon lose focus in tests.
Bottom line? Experts and owners overwhelmingly prefer the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS over other digital cameras in this price range.
Competent digital cameras that sell for about $150 or less are few and far between. You certainly won't find a stellar camera with incredible image quality at this price, but it is possible to find a decent point-and-shoot -- as long as you keep your expectations reasonable. Ultra-cheap digital cameras have few features and don't take the best pictures, but they're useful to have on hand for capturing everyday moments.
The Canon PowerShot SX160 IS (Est. $160) packs unexpected features for a cheapie. You'll get an impressive 16x zoom and -- surprisingly -- full manual controls. The 16-megapixel photos and 720p HD videos look good in bright light, fine for photo albums and web sharing.
The drawbacks? The SX160 IS runs on AA batteries, which it absolutely gobbles, reviews say. The big zoom lens makes this camera bulkier than most; at nearly 2 inches thick, it won't slip into your shirt pocket. Otherwise, the SX160 IS's flaws are simply standard for this price. It struggles in low light, but flash photos look good. The camera tends to dawdle, too -- for example, the flash takes 7 seconds to recharge in CNET's test.
For a cheapest-of-the-cheap, basic digital camera, reviews recommend the runner-up Canon PowerShot A1400 (Est. $100). It slashes almost all features -- but, surprisingly, you do get an optical viewfinder. Those are almost impossible to find these days (unless you shell out hundreds of dollars for an advanced camera), and owners at Amazon.com and BHPhotoVideo.com are overjoyed to find one on the A1400.
There's a 2.7-inch LCD screen, too, and a modest 5x zoom. That's pretty much it as far as features go. The A1400 is strictly point-and-shoot, with a 720p HD video mode (but no optical zoom while shooting video). Bright-light photos and videos don't look too shabby for the price, but the A1400 suffers from the same flaws as other cheap cameras: sluggish speed and poor dim-light images.
Cheap ultrazoom cameras give you the power of a massive zoom lens -- for the price of a pocket cheapie. You'll be able to sneak snapshots of shy birds and wildlife, capture your kids' sports moments from way up in the stands, and snap photos of even faraway sights on your vacation. These cameras are way too big to fit in your shirt pocket, though. Usually, image quality suffers, too. Grainy photos, blown-out highlights and purple fringing are too often the price you pay for a big zoom.
But the Nikon Coolpix L820 (Est. $215) manages that rarest of feats: It's a cheap ultrazoom that's actually a really good camera. "A revelation," PhotographyBlog.com's Matt Grayson calls the Nikon L820. "Such a relief to see." Its 16-megapixel photos and full-HD videos look crisp, clear and colorful, even in somewhat dim light. Speed is snappy: "This is a camera that you can use around children when they do funny, candid stuff," Grayson says.
The 30x zoom lens can handle everything from 22.5 mm wide-angle shots to 675 mm super-close-ups (you'll be able to see water droplets on Big Ben's clock face). Everything's easy -- just point and shoot -- and you won't have to worry about running out of juice, because the L820 runs on AA batteries (and gets good battery life, too).
The downside? It's bulky. It's nearly 3½ inches thick and weighs over a pound, so you'll need a carrying bag or a really roomy jacket pocket (it comes with a neck strap). Still, no other cheap ultrazoom shoots photos and videos as well. The Nikon L820 is a best buy at three top expert sources, and owner-reviewers at Amazon.com and Walmart.com love it, too.
For something smaller, try the runner-up Olympus Stylus SZ-16 iHS (Est. $230). You'll still get a 24x zoom lens, but with less than half the bulk of the Nikon L820. At just 8 ounces and 1.5 inches thick, the Olympus is one of the tiniest ultrazooms you can buy, and a breeze to shoot with in tests. Photos and videos generally look good, but they're a little grainier than those you'll get from the top-rated Nikon L820, especially in dim light.
If you'd like full manual controls, you can get them on the Canon PowerShot SX500 IS (Est. $245). That's almost unheard-of at this price. You also get built-in help features (so beginners can learn what all those controls do) and a rock-solid 30x zoom lens. The Canon can't handle fast action or dim light nearly as well as the strictly point-and-shoot Nikon and Olympus, though. Still, plenty of owners adore the Canon SX500 for bright outdoor shots, and experts say it can be a good starter camera for beginners who want to learn.
Waterproof, drop-proof and freeze-proof, the Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS ($200) can take abuse. "This camera is tough," writes one owner at Amazon.com. "It has been to an outdoor concert, zip lining, in the jungle, in the ocean, and covered in sand with no signs of wear and tear. I did not worry about a case. This camera traveled in back pockets, backpacks, purses or dry sacks."
Owners adore the TG-630. It has survived a tumble off a cliff and the log flume ride at a water park. "Dropped it in the water for about 5 minutes and it was fine," reports one owner at BHPhotoVideo.com. Olympus says it can withstand a 5-foot drop, freezing temperatures down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's waterproof to 16 feet.
Since it's so cheap and relatively indestructible, owners say kids have a blast playing with it in the pool. Slim and light (less than 6 ounces and under an inch thick), the TG-630 is comfortable to carry around. Snappy performance and strong battery life mean you won't miss moments. Image quality is good: 12-megapixel photos and full-1080p HD videos look sharp, especially in bright sunlight. Dim indoor light requires a flash, though.
For the same price, a top-rated non-waterproof camera will deliver better images, especially in low light -- but you won't be able to take it snorkeling.