Is a budget camera is right for you? If you want a tiny camera that's truly point-and-shoot and costs as little as possible, a budget digital camera may be the best fit. However, if you want to snap lots of long shots, close-ups or action photos, or you want to shoot in low light (dimmer than a normally lit room), consider a more sophisticated camera.
How skinny does your camera need to be? Every single camera in this report is tiny -- but some are tinier than others. Most are just a bit bigger than a business card (a little over 2 inches high and less than 4 inches wide) and less than an inch thick. Expect it to weigh 5 ounces or less. All will slip easily into a shirt pocket, but some of the slimmest can wiggle into a skinny-jeans pocket.
Do you shoot fast action, like sports? Look for a camera that can shoot rapid-fire bursts -- like 10 photos per second. A few can do this at low resolution, but the top pick Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX150 (*Est. $220) can shoot 10 high-res photos in one second -- a rare feat for a cheap camera.
Are you rough on cameras? If so, look for a camera with a metal -- not plastic -- body, like the top pick Canon PowerShot A4000 IS (*Est. $130), reviews say.
Will you use extras like 3D shooting and kooky photo effects? Every cheap camera in this report gives you at least a few nifty features to play with -- like turning your photo a nostalgic sepia tone, or making it look like a miniature scale model. Some cameras go way beyond these basics, loading down with 3D shooting (which you need a 3D TV to view), sweep panorama and more.
Budget an extra $10 to $60 to buy a memory card (depending on capacity). Cameras used to come with a memory card, but nowadays that's rare, and if it is bundled with a card, it's likely very low capacity (less than 1 GB).
Skip the extended warranty, ConsumerReports.org advises. "Digital cameras have been among the most reliable products in our surveys," editors say. Only 4 percent of digital cameras bought between 2006 and 2010 suffered a severe problem or needed repair.
Do you shop at a store or online? Shop in a brick-and-mortar store, and you can try cameras before you buy. "That way, you'll know which one fits your hands best," ConsumerReports.org says. "In our tests, some of the smallest didn't leave much room even for small fingers."
On the other hand, many ConsumerReports.org subscribers say they prefer shopping online for cameras: "Most walk-in retailers offer either low prices or wide selection. But some online retailers offer both."
When you're at the store, ask if they have a price-matching program; it's possible they'll match even online prices.
Read the fine print with deep discounts. Sometimes, bargain-basement prices come with a hitch: the camera is either refurbished or a gray-market item. A gray-market digital camera is intended for distribution and sale in certain markets, such as Europe or Asia, but it may be sold to buyers in other countries via Internet vendors. Purchase your camera from a reliable source.
Will smartphones kill cheap digital cameras?
Eventually, maybe. The very latest smartphones -- like the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III -- shoot impressive photos in a shootout at Mashable.com, leaps and bounds ahead of phones from just a few months ago. Colors look natural, and they've solved that irritating shutter-lag problem (where you hit the button, but it takes the phone a few seconds to snap the photo).
"What good is a truly pocketable camera if you've already got a camera in your pocket?" says Ben Keough at DigitalCameraInfo.com.
Still, you can't get a zoom lens on a phone. It's just too bulky. That's one reason why, "absent a technological breakthrough, it's possible that no camera phone will provide competition for a garden-variety $120 point-and-shoot," says Time magazine tech blogger Harry McCracken (even though he personally loves shooting with his iPhone 4).
And, of course, cameras don't carry hefty monthly fees like smartphones do. Once you spend the $100 or $200 for the camera, you're done.