Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Sizing Up the Latest Crop of Digital Cameras

Pocket-size digital cameras keep getting slimmer and more powerful, with larger viewing screens and added features. But there are some trade-offs. For instance, the optical viewfinder has largely disappeared from these models, as bigger and bigger screens have claimed more of the limited real estate available.

This week, we took a look at three pocket-size models that will hit shelves next month. They are the Olympus Stylus 710 and the Nikon Coolpix S5, each $350, and the $400 Canon PowerShot SD630.

These cameras are impressively svelte. All three are less than four inches in length, a little more than two inches wide and only four-fifths of an inch thick. The Olympus weighs in at just 3.6 ounces, the Nikon at 4.8 ounces and the Canon at 5.11 ounces.

Yet they all have plenty of power to take very good pictures. The Nikon and the Canon boast a maximum resolution of six megapixels, while the Olympus can reach 7.1 megapixels. That means all three can take images that can fill a large, high-resolution computer screen or be blown up to large sizes when printed. Each has a 3X optical zoom.

The Nikon and the Olympus, which feature curved or tapered bodies, have 2½-inch screens. The Canon, which is squarer, squeezes in a three-inch screen. In our tests, all the screens remained usable, if somewhat washed out, in bright sunlight. But only one of the cameras, the Olympus, has any form of image stabilization, which can prevent blurring of photos caused by a slight shaking of the camera when holding it at arm’s length to frame a shot using the screen.

Two of the three models, the Nikon and the Canon, offered iPod-like navigation controls: dials or wheels that scrolled through menus and photos. The Nikon S5’s wheel has tiny ridged marks for easier turning and can also be pressed down in three places. Canon calls the SD630’s wheel a touch control dial — it doesn’t physically turn but instead comes to life when your thumb rests on it, displaying an on-screen icon of the dial and its functions.

We tested the three cameras indoors and out, at parks and shops and in houses and offices. We found all three easy to use and got good pictures from each. But we preferred the photos from the Canon and Nikon to those from the Olympus. The Olympus seemed weaker at handling dark areas and shadows in our outdoor tests, and its indoor flash pictures were too washed out. The Canon and Nikon pictures seemed about equal outdoors, but the Canon was slightly better at indoor flash shots.

Camera Comparison

Overall, we preferred the Canon. In addition to its superior pictures and larger screen, the Canon had a much cleaner user interface than the others. Many things about the Canon felt more like a tiny computer than a digital camera. Selecting an option, such as no flash, automatically moved that icon from the center to the edge of your screen. And when the touch control dial was used, the function upon which your thumb was hovering would suddenly be magnified on the viewing screen.

Also, when viewing images in playback mode, the Canon automatically rotates them if you merely turn the camera vertically or horizontally.

Our first impression of using the Nikon Coolpix S5 was how quiet it was. It turns on almost unnoticeably and zooms in and out without much sound at all — quite a switch from the typical whir of most zoom lenses. Unlike the Canon and Olympus lenses, the S5’s lens doesn’t protrude from the camera, even when zooming.

A special portrait button is positioned on the top ridge of the Coolpix S5 so that whenever you’re taking pictures of people, which happens often, you can press that button and automatically set the camera for the best portrait results. A Mode button on the back of the camera generates a circular on-screen image labeled with eight different modes, and the scroll wheel easily navigates around these options.

The Nikon also has some nice features, including a special setting that can combine 10 of your pictures into a little movie, complete with music. Unfortunately, you can’t play back these movies on a computer — they only play on the camera itself or on a TV using included AV wires. Nikon also provides an adapter that allows the S5 to dock with Kodak’s EasyShare printers. But, in our tests, the Kodak printer couldn’t locate the pictures stored in the Nikon.

One big downside of the Nikon: It’s the only camera in this group that requires a cradle to connect to a computer or TV. The others can be connected from ports right on the camera body.

The Olympus Stylus 710 has the best combination of specs and weight among the three. For instance, in its continuous-shooting mode, it can take 3.7 frames per second, versus a bit more than two frames for the other cameras.

But its user interface seemed old and clumsy, and its picture quality fell short in our tests. Also, the Olympus uses the oddball xD storage cards, rather than the more common SD cards found in the Canon and the Nikon.

The Stylus 710 offers 23 different scene modes, including such specifics as Night + Portrait, Self Portrait, Fireworks and Cuisine. But we were dubious about who would take the time to choose the correct scene setting before taking a picture. We tested a few of these scene-specific settings, including one called Night Scene, but we waited a full five seconds for our photo to appear on the screen after it was captured. When it was displayed, it looked blurry.

Without a clever scroll wheel, like those found on the Nikon and Canon, the Olympus was more of a pain to use. For example, when we looked through the 23 scene options, we had to press down the control arrow 23 times. Scrolling would have been nicer.

Each of these cameras has its strengths, but we like the Canon SD630 best in this group, followed closely by the Nikon Coolpix S5.

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