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Digital picture keeps getting clearer

Canon A300 www.usa.canon.com
Price: $200
Extras: Can also take 30-second video clips with sound. Can print photos directly to some Canon printers without a computer. No optical zoom.
Highs and lows: Good picture quality. As replacement for fixed-lens 35mm point-and-shoot camera, it can’t be beat. Poor battery life (rechargeables run about $50); icons on screen menus are confusing.

Sony Cybershot DSC-P32
www.sonystyle.com

Price: $230
Extras: 30-second video clips with sound; two “scene modes” to help achieve proper lighting for landscape and low-light evening settings. No optical zoom.
Highs and lows: Snappy images. On-screen menu icons are nearly impossible to understand without referring to manual.

Fuji Finepix A303 www.fujifilm.com
Price: $280
Extras: Takes video clips without sound; can be used as a webcam when attached to a computer. 3X optical zoom.
Highs and lows: Decent entry-level camera uses new memory-card format xD, which isn’t compatible with most add-on memory card readers. Also, most photofinishers aren’t yet equipped to handle it.

HP Photosmart 720 www.hp.com
Price: $300
Extras: Optional $79 charging dock won’t make prints, but its “Instant Share” option tags photos for automatic upload to an HP Web site when the camera is connected to a computer with an Internet connection.
Highs and lows: On-screen menu describes the scene mode and shows remaining picture storage. Uses disposable instead of rechargeable batteries.

Kodak EasyShare DX 6340
www.kodak.com

Price: $330
Extras: Optional $199 “printer dock” transfers photos to computer and makes 4-by-6 prints directly from Kodak cameras. Five scene modes on camera include “sports” for fast action and “close-up.” 3X optical zoom.
Highs and lows: Great screen menu, explains when to use each scene mode (“Landscape — for distant scenery”).

Nikon Coolpix 3100 www.nikonusa.com
Price: $350
Extras: 14 scene modes include “sunset” and “backlight” for non-flash views of sunsets and fireworks. Takes silent 40-second video clips. Highs and lows: Truly subcompact, feels great in palm, and can fit in any pocket or purse. Image quality is excellent, but camera is more expensive than most competitors.

Olympus Stylus 300 Digital www.olympus.com
Price: $400
Extras: Water resistant (resists rain and snow); shares popular compact format of a traditional Stylus film camera.
Highs and lows: Pictures are sharp, clear and colorful, but you’re paying a premium; as nice as the camera looks, images aren’t $50 to $100 better than with the Nikon or HP. Uses new xD memory-card format.

By JEFFERSON GRAHAM
USA TODAY

Digital camera prices have been falling drastically for years, even as the cameras' quality improved.

But this spring, for the first time, even the entry-level models — around the $200 to $250 mark — rival film in image resolution and print quality.

It's yet another blow for 35mm film, whose sales have been dipping for years even as digital's sales have skyrocketed.

"Film's not going away, but it is on the decline," says Chris Chute of market research firm IDC. "It may eventually turn into a niche."

The Photo Marketing Association International projects that sales of digital cameras will surpass film models this year for the first time.

About 12.8 million digital units are expected to be sold this year, an increase of 36 percent over 2002, as film models drop 15 percent, to 12.1 million units.

Recent models from Canon, Sony and Fuji in the $200 range offer 3-megapixel sensors; a year ago, the same sum would have purchased basic 2-megapixel models. (Megapixels are a measurement of sharpness; 3 megapixels are considered minimum for enlargements bigger than 5-by-7 inches and for photo cropping.)

What the Canon and Sony models don't have at that price is an optical zoom, an important feature for most point-and-shoot shutterbugs. They do have "digital zoom," but that's more for marketing hype than for close-ups. It doesn't bring the subject nearer, but instead just crops the image in the camera and enlarges each pixel.

Higher-priced cameras add the higher-quality optical zoom common to 35mm point-and-shoot cameras. Models in the $250 to $400 range offer magnifications of 3X and more — referring to the ability to move from wide angle to telephoto (roughly 35mm to 105mm).

The low-end of the market "creates an opportunity for the dealer to get you in the door, and then say, ‘But for $50 more, I can sell you a better camera, with a zoom,' " says IDC's Chute. "Most times, the consumer will upgrade."

But in June, which is also the heart of the wedding season and the traditional kickoff of summer vacations, "15 percent to 20 percent of digital camera purchases are as gifts," says Chute. "For a gift, buyers will accept a lower-end model, and these new ones should do very well."

Many entry-level customers are making the transition to their first digital camera, according to Sony's Jim Malcolm, often stepping up from those ubiquitous $10 35mm disposable film cameras.

He adds that, even with digital's skyrocketing popularity, "household penetration of digital cameras is around 20 percent, which means 80 percent are not yet using digital to capture their memories."

Later in the year, prices are expected to fall even further. Kodak has just announced two new models for August: the 2-megapixel CX6200 (no zoom) for $129, and a 3-megapixel model, the CX6330, with zoom, for $279.

But cost isn't the only consideration. Though prices start at $200, the average 3-megapixel camera currently sells for $300, according to InfoTrends Research Group. Similar-featured models can cost up to $400, depending on the maker.

Besides zoom, higher-priced models offer such extras as rechargeable batteries, better builds and higher-capacity memory cards.

With lower prices, "you get what you pay for — a plastic body instead of a metal one, smaller sensors and slower processors and a less-powerful internal flash," says Dave Etchells, who runs www.imaging-resource.com, a photo Web site.

And shoppers also should consider memory cards, whose multiple formats can be confusing. Memory is the digital equivalent of film, except that users can transfer the photo files to their computers, then erase and reuse the cards.

Like the old VHS and Beta wars, manufacturers use different memory formats, such as CompactFlash for Canon and Nikon cameras; Memory Stick for Sony; Secure Digital for Minolta and HP; xD Picture Card for Olympus and Fuji. Each card is a different size and configuration.

Nonetheless, additional cards are easier to get these days. Many traditional camera stores and mass-market discount shops stock the most popular types and capacities, right alongside film.

And as competition has increased, prices have fallen. A 128-megabyte CompactFlash card — about the equivalent of five rolls of film — sells for $30 to $40, down from about $100 a year ago.