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Digital camera binocular basics

Digital camera binoculars bundle two devices into one: binoculars and a fairly low-resolution digital camera. If you see something through the binoculars that you want to record, you can take a photo of it, and some models can even capture video. An "instant replay" feature on some camera binoculars actually lets you record something that happened seconds earlier.

It sounds like a great idea, but reviewers say you shouldn't expect much in terms of image quality. Still, camera binoculars can be fun to use. In fact, we can't seriously recommend camera binoculars as anything but a novelty at this point.  They magnify the image eight or 10 times, which is more than the average point-and-shoot digital camera's zoom feature. Camera binoculars can be helpful for shots of birds and wildlife or sporting events.

However, reviews agree that if top-notch image quality is your aim, you're better off buying regular binoculars and/or an ultra-zoom digital camera. These cameras take sharper photos with lenses that zoom up to 18x. For even better image quality, consider an SLR camera equipped with a telephoto lens. We have separate reports on both, as well as a report on the best binoculars.

Consumer Reports includes one camera-binocular model in its Dec. 2006 comparison tests of binoculars but fails to evaluate its camera function. We found the best comparison review of digital camera binoculars in The New York Times, which tests four models for features, handling and photo quality. Reviewer David Pogue concludes that digital camera binoculars might now be worth buying, because most flaws in the digital photos can be corrected with photo-editing software. However, this review is becoming outdated.

We supplemented these comparison reviews with in-depth reviews of specific camera binoculars published in American Photo, Popular Science, Laptop Magazine, MacHome, FlightSim.com and BackpackGearTest.org. Some of these include sample photos taken with the built-in camera. We found the most owner-written ratings and reviews at Amazon.com and at another retail site, Binoculars.com, but several other sites include useful reviews of a few models.

Camera resolution ranges from VGA resolution -- 0.3 megapixels (only enough resolution for posting to the web) up to 5 megapixels. VGA resolution is typically what you find on lower-end camera phones. Camera binoculars with higher resolution usually offer some other advantages, such as better binocular optics plus more comfort for eyeglass wearers. However, studying the reviews shows that just because a pair of camera binoculars provides 5-megapixel camera resolution, doesn't mean it performs better.

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