Pointed, shot: Best tested 2009 compact cams

So many cameras, so little time. Here's a list of favorite snapshot cameras for 2009.

Canon's PowerShot S90 is one of 2009's best cameras. Sarah Tew/CNET

If camera phones have got people thinking twice about the need for a decent snapshot camera, no one's told the camera manufacturers. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Fujifilm, Kodak, Pentax, Casio, Samsung, and Olympus all continue to produce point-and-shoot cameras in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and abilities. The variety is amazing, bordering on downright silly.

This is why the question "What's the best point-and-shoot?" is difficult to answer; while one camera might excel in low-light conditions or photo quality, it'll more than likely come up short in design, usability, performance, price, or in some other area. Sure, I can stack up some cameras with some similar features and prices, but with so many variables it's very difficult to be specific. But, I'll give it a shot.

Below is a list of the best cameras--or at least those worth considering--that fall under a particular type, size, or feature. These are ones that left a strong enough impression on me to make me recommend them again and again to readers, friends, and family. None of them is perfect, but they have pluses that outweigh the minuses. If you're after the best photo quality in a compact camera, Canon's PowerShots are your best bet. However, their shooting performance tends to be behind those from Panasonic and Sony.

While I'm at it, there are a few things you should keep in mind when shopping for any point-and-shoot camera. For capturing kids, pets, or any other fast-moving subjects, you really need a digital SLR. A couple here are pretty quick--the Panasonic ZR1 and Sony WX1 come to mind--but if you're regularly shooting things in motion you'll want to step up to at least an entry-level dSLR. I suggest the same for those wanting the best in low-light shooting without a flash (though again, there are a couple here worth buying).

Optical viewfinders are all but gone from new models. Canon still has a few, but the rest of them are nothing but LCD. Lastly, most of these models use proprietary something or other: a memory card, cable, or, most typically, a battery. It's irritating, occasionally frustrating, and adds to the overall cost of a product--definitely worth keeping in mind when you're shopping.

While I did my best to review as many cameras as possible this year, not every model from all manufacturers were tested. For better or worse, we dive into traffic numbers to figure out what you're most interested in seeing reviewed. Personal requests are considered as well, so if there's a camera we didn't get to that you're interested in, please feel free to let me know. Also, we're presently testing the Sony Cyber-shot TX1, the Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR (aka the F72EXR at Best Buy), the Nikon Coolpix S1000pj and S640, the Casio Exilim EX-H10, EX-Z33, and EX-Z450, and the Kodak EasyShare Z950 and M381. Look for those over the next few weeks.

Best $100: Canon PowerShot A480
The good: Simple; cheap; relatively small; AA battery powered.

The bad: Chunky, plastic design; leisurely performance.

The bottom line: The Canon PowerShot A480 may be a basic low-priced compact camera, but at least it takes good photos.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Casio Exilim EX-S5

Best sub-$200 compact: Nikon Coolpix S570
The good: Good lens specifications; Smart Portrait System works well; nice design, feature set.

The bad: Middle-of-the-road performance; ISO 1,600, 3,200 not worth using.

The bottom line: The Nikon Coolpix S570 is a respectable ultracompact camera, despite average point-and-shoot performance and some high-ISO overpromising.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Kodak EasyShare M1093 IS

Best $200 compact: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290
The good: Terrific design, interface, and controls; wide-angle, 5x zoom lens; excellent price-to-feature ratio.

The bad: No optical zoom while recording video; soft photos.

The bottom line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 is an excellent, well-balanced compact camera.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Best ultracompact: Canon PowerShot SD940 IS
The good: Very small; simple operation; very good photo, HD movie quality; HDMI out.

The bad: No optical zoom in Movie mode; mixed performance.

The bottom line: One of the best ultracompacts available, the Canon PowerShot SD940 IS nonetheless falls short of greatness in performance and photo quality.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Best low-light performance: Fujifilm FinePix F200EXR
The good: Excellent photo quality; lots of useful features; very good dynamic range and high ISO performance in EXR modes; takes SDHC and xD cards.

The bad: Basic Movie mode for its price; limited aperture settings; menu systems take some getting used to.

The bottom line: Don't let its new sensor technology scare you off: the Fujifilm FinePix F200EXR is an excellent compact camera with shooting features for just about every type of user.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1, Canon PowerShot S90

Best compact megazoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1
The good: Simple to use; nice design; excellent performance, photo quality.

The bad: No AV output cable included; no shutter speed, aperture controls.

The bottom line: With a wide-angle, megazoom lens, a quick AF system, and generally high-quality snapshot photos, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1 is a standout compact megazoom.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

Best hobbyist/semipro compact: Canon PowerShot S90
The good: Excellent control system for manual, semimanual shooting; fantastic wide-angle f2 lens; very good low-light photo quality.

The bad: Performance is merely average; no HD movie mode or optical zoom while recording; a couple design miscues.

The bottom line: As long as you're not expecting dSLR speed in a tiny body, the Canon PowerShot S90 is an excellent compact camera for advanced amateurs.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3

Best touchscreen camera: Samsung DualView TL225/TL220
The good: Large automatic shooting feature set; responsive touch-screen navigation; unique dual-screen design.

The bad: Adapter needed for HDMI output; microSD card requirement might irk some; touch-screen interface not for everyone; battery charges in camera; whole screen not used for framing shots at full resolution.

The bottom line: The technology-packed Samsung DualView TL225 is the ultimate ultracompact for those who like to be in front of the camera more than they like being behind it.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Nikon Coolpix S70

Best rugged camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1
The good: Well designed; very good performance, photo, and video quality.

The bad: Expensive; soft photos.

The bottom line: A full-featured waterproof/shockproof pocket point-and-shoot, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1 is a near-perfect rugged camera for everyday use.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Canon PowerShot D10

Best shooting performance: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1
The good: Well-designed; several fun, useful features; good low-light and overall performance.

The bad: Mixed photo quality.

The bottom line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 is a great, fast-performing snapshot camera that falters on photo quality.

Read the full review here.

Also consider: Casio Exilim EX-FC100

Best overall photo quality: Canon PowerShot S90
The good: Excellent control system for manual, semimanual shooting; fantastic wide-angle f2 lens; very good low-light photo quality.

The bad: Performance is merely average; no HD movie mode or optical zoom while recording; a couple design miscues.

The bottom line: As long as you're not expecting dSLR speed in a tiny body, the Canon PowerShot S90 is an excellent compact camera for advanced amateurs.

Read the full review here.

 

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