Search for the perfect digital camera all about features

By Larry Magid

For the past few weeks I’ve been in search of the perfect digital camera. If such a camera existed it would take incredibly great pictures, be small enough to easily fit into a pocket, would use AA rechargeable batteries, have both an LCD display and an electronic viewfinder for holding up to your eye and would have a large optical zoom lens. And of course it would be really inexpensive.

So far, I’m still looking but I have found a couple of cameras from Canon that meet at least some of my criteria. Of course, Canon isn’t the only vendor with interesting offerings. A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Kodak’s excellent Z812, and I’ll be looking at cameras from other companies later this year.

The two cameras I looked at are the PowerShot A720 IS ($193) and the PowerShot 650 IS ($289). Both have 6x optical zoom lenses. The A720 is eight megapixels and the 650 IS shoots 12.1 megapixels. Eight megapixels is more than enough for most applications.

What attracted me to both cameras is that they satisfy two of my pet peeves by using AA batteries and having an optical viewfinder.

Given a choice, I prefer a camera (or any other device) to use standard batteries. AA rechargeable batteries and rechargers are inexpensive, and it’s easy to carry around extra batteries. In a pinch you can always buy throwaway AA’s, though I don’t recommend that for both financial and environmental reasons.

The optical viewfinder has become an endangered species with digital cameras, but I prefer them for two reasons. First, they don’t wash out in bright sunlight like the LCD display on the back of the camera. Also, I find the camera is more stable if I hold it up against my eye, compared to looking through the LCD at arm’s length, where you’re most likely to get some extra shaking from your outstretched arms.

The downside to the optical viewfinder on these two cameras is that you are not looking at an exact replica of what the lens picks up. There can be a discrepancy between what you see and what the lens sees. Of course, both cameras also have an LCD screen, which does show you what the lens sees. Some digital cameras (like the Kodak Z812) have an electronic viewfinder that you hold up to your eye but instead of an optical view, it’s a small LCD screen that shows you exactly what your picture will look like.

The PowerShot A720 – the lighter, smaller and less expensive of the two, uses two AA batteries, while the 650 uses four batteries. Those extra two batteries not only give you more shots but enable the flash to recycle faster. My biggest complaint about the A720 is that it takes about 10 seconds between flash pictures while the A650 lets you take a flash picture about every three seconds.

Other than that, the A720 is an excellent camera. At about 3.83 by 2.64 by 1.65 inches, it’s far from the smallest or lightest camera on the market, but there is something to be said for a camera that has a certain heft. It feels good in the hand and gives you a bit of stability when you use it. It’s not quite small enough to fit into the pockets of tight jeans, but it fits easily into a jacket pocket or deep trouser pocket.

Both cameras also have image stabilization, which consists of sensors inside the camera that compensate for shaking that can cause your photos to blur. Image stabilization is especially useful with longer-zoom cameras because a zoom can exaggerate any hand movement while you shoot.

Another common theme of both cameras is manual control. Although there is an automatic setting which adjusts the aperture, ISO and shutter speed based on the camera’s analysis of the best settings, you have the ability to override these settings. You can also manually focus, although I find I get best results when I use the cameras’ auto-focus feature by pressing the shutter halfway down when I aim at a subject and pressing it fully after the camera beeps to tell me that it is in focus.

The A650 IS is actually closer to a professional-level camera. It’s bigger (4.41 x 2.67 x 2.21 inches) and heavier (10.6 ounces) than the 720. In fact it’s one of the biggest and heaviest digital cameras in its class. In terms of specifications, it’s actually very close to Canon’s PowerShot G9, which the company classifies as one of its “high-end, advanced” cameras. The only difference I can decipher between the G9 and the A650 is that the G9 is black instead of silver and has a proprietary battery, which is actually a disadvantage. Another advantage of the A650 is that its LCD can tilt and swivel to almost any angle so you can face it forward if you’re including yourself in a picture. If you’re taking a picture from overhead you could angle the LCD toward yourself and see what you’re about to capture. It’s a very cool feature.

The extra size and weight of the camera could be seen as a negative, but I view it as a plus. It has heft, which is something I like if I’m taking serious pictures. Sure, there are times when I prefer an ultra small camera in my shirt pocket, but the A650 is a compromise between such a small camera and a much bigger and bulkier digital SLR. One nice thing about this compared with larger cameras is that the lens fully retracts and is covered when the camera is turned off, which is pretty good for a camera with a 6-to-1 zoom lens.

As for pictures, the A650 is quite good whether photographing people, zooming in on distant shots or using the macro function to get super closeups of flowers.

Larry Magid’s technology column appears Tuesdays in the Daily News. E-mail can be sent to larry@larrymagid.com.

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