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For beginners, cheap is the way to go

Cheap digital cameras are good for beginners -- or anyone who wants a pocket-friendly, user-friendly point-and-shoot that won't break the bank. These cameras are truly tiny -- little bigger than a business card, less than an inch thick, and, well, cheap. Every camera in this report costs less than $250. Although good ones under $150 are rare, we did find one.

And yes, you can get decent-quality photos -- if you pick the right one. No cheap camera can compete with advanced cameras, though. If you want to shoot fast action, moody low-light scenes or great faraway or close-up photos, you'll probably be better off spending more.

But even a cheap camera will almost certainly snap nicer photos than your phone. Cheap digital cameras pack built-in zoom lenses (anywhere from a 4x to 40x optical zoom) that you won't find on any phone. Speed is another big advantage: A good cheap camera will snap the photo almost the instant you touch the shutter button. Most phones lag behind by a few seconds, so you wind up missing moments.

To find the best cheap cameras, experts shoot test photos -- outdoors, dim-light and flash. They try out all of the nifty extras, like sweep-panorama and special effects (features that make your photo look like a cartoon, oil painting, miniature scale model, etc). They film short videos. They clock each camera's startup time, shot-to-shot delays and more. The best cheap cameras handle all -- or most -- tasks with ease. Plenty fail to make the cut.

Owner feedback fills in the final pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes, a camera's flaws can sneak past the experts -- but they rarely get past the legions of owners, who point out every breakdown and blemish in online reviews.

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