More leftovers from the would-have-been-great photography feature for the late Cargo magazine.
One of the many categories I was evaluating was budget cameras. I got through 4 new models before it all ended: The 4-megapixel Canon PowerShot A430 (about $160, street price) and Nikon CoolPix L4 ($130) and the 5-megapixel HP Photosmart M425 ($150) and Olympus FE-115 ($140).
For various reasons, I was unimpressed with the Canon and the Olympus. And for various other reasons, I'm quite fond of both the HP and the Nikon.
I have to admit, though, that my heart goes to the Nikon L4. This is the first truly attractive budget camera I have seen. It's quite slim for a model in this class - especially considering that it has to hold two AA batteries. And it looks so darn cute. Plus it fits quite nicely in the hand, or in a pants pocket. The latter is out of the question with the bloated Canon and Olympus models. That in itself is a huge strike against the Canon and Olympus. You can't take any good photos with a camera if its clunkiness causes you to leave it at home. Another nasty thing about he Canon: It gorges on batteries. I got through perhaps two-dozen shots before the included AAs were drained. Yikes!
Also in the Nikon L4's favor: It is the only one of the cameras with a respectable LCD. It's 2-inch screen, though not huge, looks like a plasma TV compared to the 1.8-incher on the Canon and the 1.5-inch LCDs on the HP and Olympus cameras. The little screen on the back of the camera is probably the most important place for displaying photos -- more important than prints or even online galleries. I am yet to see someone (myself included) who doesn’t regularly hold up the camera and show friends the image onscreen right after taking a shot. With a 2-inch LCD, viewers can at least get a decent idea of what you have photographed.
The Nikon is also pretty good on image quality. I found it quite capable for both indoor and outdoor shots. Here are some samples. (Click small image for a larger popup.)
The Canon and Olympus were about as good under bright light, but had trouble when things got dim. As with all point-and-shoot Canons, the A430 produced fine colors under flash and abundant natural light but stumbled in low-light situations, where images were marred by excessive pixel noise.
The Olympus produced pleasant images with flash but suffered a complete meltdown in low light - in which everything turned Pepto Bismal pink. See below for comparison images from the Olympus (left) and the Canon -- each shot without flash. (Click small image for a larger popup.)
The Nikon image got a little pink without flash (though less so than the Olympus's), and the HP performs amazingly well - with very accurate color and minimal pixel noise. (Remember, this is essentially a torture test -- so I don't expect any of the photos to come out looking beautiful.)
Oddly, the HP fairs rather poorly with flash -- having more trouble with colors than when it shot without flash. For details, see this comparison of shots from the Nikon (left), which shot about as well as the Canon and Olympus, vs. an image from the HP, which appears rather dreary.
Since people are more likely to shoot with flash than without, and since they are more likely to carry a camera that is compact and has a large LCD, I feel the Nikon is the best pick here.
But I want to say a few more nice things about the HP. First, like the Canon, it has a full complement of controls -- including light sensitivity (ISO), white balance, and exposure compensation. The Nikon and the Olympus both omit sensitivity, and the Olympus even fails to include white balance. The HP also has a handy Design Gallery menu, which lets you do basic photo tweaks -- including removing redeye, rotating images, and adjusting colors right in the camera -- without a PC. Also, the HP is faster at processing photos, allowing you to shoot more pictures in a row than the Nikon can. And the extra megapixel could come in handy for making largish prints (say 8.5 by 11 inches or larger).
So there is no clear winner between the HP and the Nikon -- each has strengths and glaring weaknesses. But given the Nikon's better performance under flash and far nicer physical design (plus it's ultra-low price), I'm inclined to name it the best of this bunch.