Throughout this test it has become obvious that when shooting in good light there's little to choose between most of the cameras in the group in terms of picture quality; all can take a perfectly good picture that will make a decent print. Though there are small differences in the color, contrast and overall sharpness - and at a pixel level it's clear there is considerable variation - the truth is that few of the cameras here would disappoint anyone who bought them, provided they had reasonable expectations of what a $100-150 camera can produce.
So what is there to choose between them? As it turns out, quite a lot. Obviously from a specification point of view the cameras here represent a fairly wide spread, from the basic point and shoot simplicity of the Kodak C1013 and Nikon L18 to the comprehensive photographic controls of the Canon PowerShot A590 IS and Panasonic Lumix LZ8. For many buyers at this end of the market styling is of utmost importance, and there are several models here that offer slimline metal bodies that give the impression of being far more expensive than they are.
We'll leave most of those decisions to you; what we're more interested in is how well each camera does what it was actually made for (taking pictures), how useful the features included are, and whether there are any common shooting situations where one camera performs considerably better or worse than its peers.
Every bit of research ever done on how consumer compact cameras are used has come to the same conclusion; the majority of failed shots are those taken in low light and/or with flash; partly because that's what these cameras are mainly used for, and partly because that's where they struggle most. Research also shows that scene modes are rarely used, so the reliability of the 'full auto' mode is of paramount importance. People have a reasonable expectation that they can just press the button and the camera will work out what to do and capture a well exposed, relatively sharp picture. For this reason we've put a lot of emphasis on these aspects of each camera's performance in our tests. You should already have an idea which are the winners and losers in most respects from reading the preceding pages, but for anyone in a real hurry here's a summary of our findings.
Image quality: outdoors / daylight
If you mainly shoot outdoors in good light any of the cameras here will do the job, with little to choose between the better cameras here and only the Fujifilm Z20fd, Kodak C1013 and Olympus FE-360 causing any concern (due to slightly flaky metering and auto white balance systems). We were surprised to see how well the really basic models from Canon and Nikon did in the real world, outperforming several more expensive cameras.
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot A590 IS, Panasonic LZ8, Sony W120
- Middle of the road: Samsung L210, Canon PowerShot A470, Nikon L18
- Bottom of the class: Fujifilm Z20fd, Kodak C1013, Olympus FE-360
Image quality: Low light / High ISO
Shooting at anything over base ISO, and particularly when you start to get to the higher reaches of the ISO range, produces far more variation in the performance of the different models, with some clear winners and some obvious losers (though even the best ain't that good and all are suitable only for small prints). If you do a lot of photography in low light without flash these results will be important to you:
- Best of the bunch: (in order) Panasonic LZ8, Sony W120, , Nikon L18*, Fujifilm Z20fd
- Middle of the road: Canon PowerShot A590 IS, Canon PowerShot A470
- Bottom of the class: Samsung L210, Kodak C1013, Olympus FE-360
*The Nikon L18 has some of the best high ISO output, but unfortunately you can't actually set ISO manually, nor does the camera use anything over ISO 400 unless it really has to
Image quality / performance: Flash
For this we took the overall flash performance; exposure, color, low light focus and ability to remove red-eye (which actually none of them did very reliably). None of the test cameras has the ultra fast flash recycling you get if you spend a lot more on a premium model, but some are worse than others. The cameras indicated with * are those that have what we would consider to be an unacceptably long flash recycle time (important if you like to take shots in rapid succession).
- Best of the bunch: Canon A590IS*, Nikon L18, Panasonic LZ8, Olympus FE-360, Sony W120
- Middle of the road: Samsung L210, Canon PowerShot A470*
- Bottom of the class: Fujifilm Z20fd, Kodak C1013*
Ratings and recommendations
There's no clear, simple winner here, but there are a few models that really stand out as being the best of the bunch, and some we'd advise you steer clear of. The only camera everyone agreed they would struggle to recommend to anyone was the Kodak C1013 - for just $10-15 more you can have a considerably more capable camera and one that's a lot prettier too. It seems pointless putting a 10 MP CCD in a camera like the C1013, especially a 10MP CCD that doesn't perform very well, so it may be worth investigating the other models in the range that are cheaper and have less ambitious sensors.
We weren't overly impressed with the Fujifilm Z20fd either, mainly because it consistently failed the 'point and shoot' test, both outdoors in good light and indoors with flash. It's a pity because it's one of the more attractive cameras here, has some nice features and can take a decent picture when it gets things right (though it is also one of the more expensive in our group).
The only other camera we had serious doubts about was the Olympus FE-360, because it produced disappointing and/or inconsistent results in our outdoor tests and has truly awful high ISO performance. It actually does flash pretty well (so if you want a cheap pocket camera to take to the pub it may well be the perfect choice), but the overall image quality and slowness of operation made it a hard camera to recommend.
Two cameras in the group offer considerably more photographic control than the others, and either (the Panasonic LZ8 or Canon A590 IS) would make ideal first digital cameras for anyone wanting to do a bit more than merely point and shoot, and both offer image stabilization and wider zoom ranges to boot. Of the two our vote has to go to the Panasonic LZ8, which you can pick up for as little as $100-130, making it the bargain of the group by far.
Of the simpler point and shoot cameras the Sony W120 is the standout winner, closely followed by the Samsung L210, though the latter loses points for poor low light performance. We should also mention the Nikon L18, which surprised us with its consistently good results and speedy performance, and has the largest screen here - though it is let down slightly by the lack of manual controls.
In the end we picked two winners; the best budget point and shoot pocket camera, and the best budget camera for the more serious photographer:
Best pocket point and shoot camera: Sony Cyber-Shot W120
The W120 came out near the top of all our image quality tests and produced consistently well exposed shots with good color, focus and sharpness. Equally importantly it is fast and responsive, even in low light. Throw in the slightly wider angle 4x zoom and image stabilization and stylish metal body and you've got the perfect pocket camera. Yes it's the most expensive camera here, but we think it's well worth paying that little bit more.
Overall winner: Panasonic Lumix LZ8
This being dpreview we couldn't help but choose a camera as the overall winner that combines surprisingly good image quality with a comprehensive feature set - including full photographic control, effective lens-based image stabilization and a versatile 32-160mm zoom lens. The Panasonic LZ8 isn't the smallest or prettiest camera here, but it is undoubtedly the best camera here and is actually very well put together and is a lot less bulky than it appears. You can buy it online for around $99 - $130, which in our book makes it an absolute bargain.
Group test written by Simon Joinson with lots of help from Richard Butler and Lars Rehm.