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Budget shopping tips: Point-and-shoot digital cameras

CNET Reviews Senior Editor Josh Goldman shares some general tips and things to consider when shopping for a new point-and-shoot digital camera.

Panasonic's FX150 is nearly a year old, but it's currently an amazing deal.

There are so many snapshot cameras available that it can actually be a fairly miserable experience shopping for one. Add in concerns about pricing and you're likely going to continue using your camera phone as your primary point-and-shoot for digital photos.

Finding the right camera at the right price is easier if you start by asking yourself two questions: how will I use the camera and how will I use the photos? These are important for determining what type of user you are and how little you can expect to spend without being disappointed with your choice.

Check out our full digital camera buying guide to help determine what specs will meet your needs. Then, use the tips below for finding the best deal on your new camera. Happy hunting.

Eliminate features
There are three key components most people look for when picking a camera: megapixels, LCD size, and zoom range. Current entry-level models start at 10 megapixels for the most part, which is plenty of resolution for snapshot prints of 8x10 or smaller. The common LCD size on these models is 2.5 inches, and they typically have a 3x or 4x zoom. Features on these cameras usually include basic face detection, a dozen scene modes, a low-resolution movie mode, a full automatic mode, and a program auto mode giving you controls for ISO, white balance, light metering, and focus. (Here are some good examples.)

Any additional features start to drive the price up--in other words, they are things used to upsell you to another model. So if you don't think you'll ever want to control shutter speed or aperture settings, don't need a 3.5-inch touch-screen display, you won't be using the movie mode for anything except YouTube clips, or a 10x zoom will get you way closer to your subject than you want to get, feel free to skip them.

Sometimes older is better
Camera manufacturers usually announce new models twice a year: in January and February and in July and August. Models typically remain available for about a year, though. If a camera you're interested in was released in July 2008, chances are it's going to be replaced around that time in 2009.

Depending on the make and model this can mean steep discounts when products reach their end of life on the market. For example, the $399.95 14-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX150 originally launched in August 2008, but the once top-of-the-line model can now be found for nearly half that price.

Shop compacts, not ultracompacts
Small and eye-catching is great, but in general the more compact a camera is the more you'll pay--and in some cases the less you'll get. If you don't need it to fit in a pants pocket or very small handbag, chances are you'll get much more for your money with a slightly larger model.

Sony's Cyber-shot W series and Canon's PowerShot A series both are bigger than the companies' ultracompact T series and SD series models, respectively, but have many of the same features at lower prices.

Batteries, batteries, batteries
If you don't want to start laying out more money after the first few hundred photos from a camera, get a model that includes rechargeable Lithium ion or NiMH batteries.

While we can't deny the convenience of AA batteries as a power source for a digital camera, the cost of replacing them every 300-400 shots can be painful. If the camera you're eying runs on AAs, check if the model can use rechargeable NiMH batteries (some low-end models can't). The upfront cost is a little more, but you'll typically get better performance than alkalines and of course they don't need to be replaced for a long while.

Know your media cards
While internal memory may have been a good feature to hype at some point, flash memory prices have fallen so much that any built-in memory is an afterthought. SD and its higher-capacity counterpart, SDHC, are the most common media cards used in point-and-shoot cameras. (Sony cameras use the company's Memory Stick format and Olympus' latest cameras still use xD memory cards, but will also use microSD cards with an adapter.)

SD/SDHC cards are available from what seems like a never-ending number of manufacturers. Camera companies usually list in their manuals and on their customer support sites preferred brands that they've tested in each model. However, just because you've never heard of a brand and it isn't recommended from your manufacturer doesn't mean it won't work. On that same note, buying from a reputable source is important. Counterfeit SD/SDHC cards are not uncommon and can be virtually indistinguishable from the real deal.

Buy used
Cameras are definitely products that are easy to find used--online and at local camera shops while they still exist. Just make sure you get some guarantee that it's in working condition and warranty information (most cameras come with one year of coverage).