What the best cheap digital camera has

  • At least 12 megapixels: 16-megapixel is the standard for this class, but 12-megapixel is plenty. Cramming more megapixels onto the image sensor (which is usually minuscule, just 1/2.3 inches, aka 0.4 inches) doesn't necessarily result in better photos.
  • HD video: The cheapest cameras shoot high-definition video in 720p, rising to full 1080p for the high-end cheapies.
  • Focal length that starts at a wide angle: A 22 mm or 24 mm lens widens to capture bigger group shots and landscapes than the 28 mm lenses you'll see on inferior models.
  • Strong optical zoom: Most cheap cameras top out at a 5x zoom, but the best buys stretch that as far as 30x to help you grab close-ups.
  • Optical image stabilizer: This helps the lens stay centered even if your shaky hands wobble the camera body. Some super-cheapies use a digital stabilizer, which doesn't work quite as well.
  • Accepts high-capacity SDXC memory cards: You won't have to worry about carrying extra cards or swapping them throughout the day.
  • Self-timer: You can set the timer and then jump into the family photo.
  • A 3-inch LCD screen: The smaller 2.7-inch screens you'll find on some cheap cameras aren't just tinier -- they're usually lower quality and harder to see, according to expert tests.
  • No viewfinder: An eye-level viewfinder is one perk you won't find on cheap digital cameras (the ultra-cheap Canon PowerShot A1400 (Est. $100) is the odd exception). You'll have to frame your shot on the LCD screen. In fact, most point-and-shoot cameras have dropped this feature in favor of larger LCD screens.
  • No RAW file support: Pricier cameras can shoot in RAW mode, which allows for finer editing, but cheap cameras spit out pre-processed JPEGs only.

Know before you go

Is a budget camera 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 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? Most cheap compacts 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 -- slim enough to slip easily into a shirt pocket; some of the slimmest can wiggle into a skinny-jeans pocket. Expect a compact to weigh 6 ounces or less. Add a long zoom, though, and you'll definitely need at least a roomy jacket pocket (and maybe a neck strap or bag) to tote your cheap camera.

Do you shoot fast action, like sports? Look for a camera that can shoot rapid-fire bursts. A few can do this at low resolution, but the top cheap ultrazoom pick Nikon Coolpix L820 (Est. $215) can shoot eight 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 Elph 330 HS (Est. $200), reviews say. Need something really indestructible? Try the rugged, waterproof Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS (Est. $200).

Do you want manual controls? Some cheap cameras will let you tinker with settings like ISO and white balance, but with most, the camera does all of the work. The Best Reviewed ultra-cheap camera, the Canon PowerShot SX160 IS (Est. $160), is the rare exception that offers a complete set of manual controls.

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.

Rechargeable or AA batteries? Which will you find more convenient? Some travelers like getting instant juice from AA batteries -- as long as you bring spares, or you can find a convenience store, you're never stuck without power. Rechargeable batteries often last longer, though, and they make a camera lighter.

Value Expectations: The dollars and cents of it

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 a camera 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.

Buying Tactics and Strategies

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 editors say. "In our tests, some of the smallest didn't leave much room even for small fingers." When you're at the store, ask if they have a price-matching program; it's possible they'll match even online prices.

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."

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.

What's to come

Will smartphones kill cheap digital cameras?

Eventually, maybe. The very latest smartphones -- like the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 -- shoot impressive photos in a shootout at PC Advisor, leaps and bounds ahead of phones from just last year. 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).

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.

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