The summer looms, and so too does the summer vacation season. Despite the economy there are visions of great trips brewing in the backs of peoples' minds, visions that will soon turn into (hopefully) great memories -- and (hopefully) great pictures. Some folks wouldn't dream of going on those trips without an SLR slung 'round their neck or hanging at the hip, but then there are plenty of others who'd much prefer something a little more pocketable. Even for aspiring photographers there are times when lugging around five pounds of glass just isn't going to work.

There are dozens and dozens of cameras intended for casual shooters all the time or serious shooters some of the time, with models suitable for pockets of every shape and size -- and for wallets of equally varying dimensions. So, let's take a look at some of this summer's greatest, and see which comes out ahead, shall we?
Gallery | 9 Photos

Engadget compact cam summer shootout



The Goal

We can't test every compact cam that's currently on the market, as we do have a site to run here, but we took a break from exchanging witticisms over tea for a moment to determine which of the latest cams were going to be the hottest this summer, setting a hard cap of $400 and then going down from there -- way down, as it turned out. We then set about trying to get a good selection of those players, and, while some of the ones we most wanted to test (like Panasonic's DMC-TZ7) were sadly unavailable, the group of nine we ultimately received cover a broad spectrum of designs, features, and prices, ranging from $125 up to that $400 maximum, with an average price of just over $240.

So, without further ado, let's introduce the players.

Cameras
Canon
PowerShot
A1100 IS
Casio
Exilim
EX-FC100
Kodak
EasyShare
M380

Kodak
EasyShare
Z915
Nikon
Coolpix
S220
Nikon
Coolpix
S630
Panasonic
Lumix
DMC-TS1
Panasonic
Lumix
DMC-FS25
Samsung
SL820
Sections
The big chart How we tested Wrap-up

Nikon Coolpix S220 - The most compact
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  • Photo res: 10 megapixels
  • Video res: 640 x 480
  • Zoom: Stabilized 3x, 35 - 105mm equivalent
  • ISO: 80 - 2000
  • Aperture: 3.1 - 5.9
  • LCD size: 2.5-inches
  • Battery size: 740 mAh
  • Street Price: $125
The Coolpix S220 from Nikon is the cheapest of the bunch, readily available for $125 or less if you shop around. For that price you get a lot of modern tech -- at least on paper. 10 megapixels are on tap, but video maxes out at a very VGA 640 x 480. Maximum aperture for the 3x optical zoom lens is an average 3.1, though there is optical stabilization in there. Maximum ISO is 2000, but with considerable noise appearing at anything over 400 it's clear this is a camera best-suited for outdoor shooting.

First impressions are of a simple, small, but by no means cheap feeling camera. Even the packing materials in the box feel like much higher-quality stuff than that found in the more expensive options -- not that it matters after the initial frantic unpacking. The metal body feels cool and solid in the hand, but the lens motor sounds sickly, not inspiring much confidence about this camera's internal durability.
Gallery | 17 Photos

Nikon Coolpix S220 unboxing



Kodak EasyShare M380 - Kodak's value proposition
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  • Photo res: 10.2 megapixels
  • Video res: 640 x 480
  • Zoom: Stabilized 5x, 38 - 190mm equivalent
  • ISO: 80 - 1600
  • Aperture: 3.1 - 5.6
  • LCD size: 3-inches
  • Battery size: 1020 mAh
  • Street Price: $180
Kodak's EasyShare M380 is next up in order of cheapest, with an MSRP and street price of $180. For $50 more than the S220 you get a bigger camera with a bigger LCD and a bigger zoom. Maximum aperture again is 3.1, with a max ISO of 1600, but again ISO 400 is the realistic max if you hate grain as much as we do.

Out of the box the M380 feels a little lower end than the S220, with its plasticy body and slightly squishy buttons, but the mode-selector wheel on the top makes tweaking the camera quick and easy (even if we kept confusing it for the shutter release) and a dedicated button on top for disabling the flash is a nice touch, too. Also nice is the USB charger, which would mean one fewer AC adapter to pack.
Gallery | 21 Photos

Kodak EasyShare M380 unboxing



Canon PowerShot A1100 IS - Bulging with batteries
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  • Photo res: 12.1 megapixels
  • Video res: 640 x 480
  • Zoom: Stabilized 4x, 35 - 140mm equivalent
  • ISO: 80 - 1600
  • Aperture: 2.7 - 5.6
  • LCD size: 2.5-inches
  • Battery size: 2x AA
  • Street Price: $190
Canon's PowerShot A1100 IS comes in at around $190 at most online retailers, and for $10 more than the Kodak you get a few more megapixels, a less powerful zoom, and a slightly wider aperture. ISO range is identical to the above, but 800 here is actually borderline acceptable.

In terms of aesthetics the A1100 is one of the cheaper feeling cameras in the group, its two-tone plastic body not turning any heads and that plastic shell feeling flimsy in the hand -- you can hear it creaking and rattling when recording videos. But, it is comfortable to hold, and has room for two AA batteries, making replacement in the field cheap and easy. That battery bulge does leave it looking a little... expectant, however.
Gallery | 16 Photos

Canon PowerShot A1100 IS unboxing



Kodak EasyShare Z915 - The big boy
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  • Photo res: 10 megapixel
  • Video res: 640 x 480
  • Zoom: Stabilized 10x, 35 - 350mm equivalent
  • ISO: 100 - 1600
  • Aperture: 3.5 - 8.3
  • LCD size: 2.5-inch
  • Battery size: 2x AA
  • Street Price: $190
Remember how we said the A1100 was one of the cheaper feeling cams? Kodak's EasyShare Z915 is the winner in that unfortunate classification. The camera has a solid hefty to it, and the zoom lens extends and retracts with smooth, reassuring efficiency, but the grip is covered by this hard, textured plastic that makes it feel more like a toy than something you just dropped two Benjamins on. Add some cramped ergonomics to the mix and this is definitely not something that falls to hand comfortably.

If you can get past that, you get specs comparable to the same-priced Canon, but with more than twice the zoom and effective stabilization that makes even the 350mm end of that lens quite usable freehand. It lets in a little less light than the Canon, but again ISO 800 is okay if you don't mind a hint of grain. This one is also packing AA power, and has the hump to prove it.
Gallery | 26 Photos

Kodak EasyShare Z915 unboxing


Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS25 - Big screen sophistication Return to top
  • Photo res: 12.1 megapixels
  • Video res: 848 x 480
  • Zoom: Stabilized 5x, 29 - 145mm equivalent
  • ISO: 80 - 1600
  • Aperture: 3.3 - 5.9
  • LCD size: 3-inch
  • Battery size: 940 mAh
  • Street Price: $250
It's something of a price jump moving up to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS25, and for that you get... basically the same specs as the Canon. There's a bit more on the top end of the zoom, and a bump up to WVGA for videos, but in terms of specs that's about it. When it comes to feel, however, the FS25 feels light-years ahead, solid and with a pleasant heft, and the extra half-inch boost on the LCD size making a big difference. However, that bigger screen on this compact body smooshes the controls over to the right, making menu navigation a bit clumsy. This Panasonic is also stuck with the most annoying battery door in the group, featuring a tiny latch that must be manually unlocked and then re-locked every time.
Gallery | 15 Photos

Panasonic Lumix FS25 unboxing



Nikon Coolpix S630 - Pretty in pink
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  • Photo res: 12 megapixels
  • Video res: 640 x 480
  • Zoom: Stabilized 7x, 37 - 260mm equivalent
  • ISO: 64 - 1600
  • Aperture: 3.5 - 5.3
  • LCD size: 2.7-inch
  • Battery size: 1050 mAh
  • Street Price: $250
Nikon's COOLPIX S630 is perhaps the most interesting looking cam here -- and not just because of its striking (and arguably good looking) color. It has a shape that sweeps back slightly, with a comfortable and secure-feeling indentation for your thumb on the upper-right. Its four-way d-pad also doubles as a scroll wheel, which you'll be using to crank the ISO all the way up to its maximum setting of 6400. To get that value the cam drops down to a 3 megapixel resolution (same for ISO 3200), and while the pictures taken at that setting are hardly gallery-worthy, if you don't mind losing some pixels this cam actually looks better at ISO 6400 than most of the competition does at 1200. However, as with the rest, grain-free pictures are only achieved below ISO 800.
Gallery | 26 Photos

Nikon Coolpix S630 unboxing



Samsung SL820 - The high-def heavyweight
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  • Photo res: 12.2 megapixels
  • Video res: 1,280 x 720
  • Zoom: Stabilized 5x, 28 - 140mm equivalent
  • ISO: 80 - 3200
  • Aperture: 3.4 - 5.8
  • LCD size: 3-inch
  • Battery size: 1050 mAh
  • Street Price: $250
The Samsung SL820 has the most solid feel here, and the most heft too. Slip this cam into a tube sock and you'd have a particularly effective weapon that could then be used to document the resultant crime scene. It features two standout specs, first and most important being a true 720p video mode, making it the cheapest cam in our test to break into the high-definition range. It also sports another sky-high ISO setting of 3200, and like the S630 you get a cropped resolution if you want to use it, but even then it sports far more grain than the Nikon.

Like the solidity of the chassis, the controls are also quite reassuring, with the mode wheel conveniently placed on the back and some very clean looking menus that, while slow, make it easy to find whatever you're looking for. Its up/down zoom control is a bit odd, and while the battery door here is similarly adorned with a manual latch like the FS25, this one is much easier to operate and is partially made up for with a USB-based charger like the M380.
Gallery | 16 Photos

Samsung SL820 unboxing



Casio Exilim EX-FC100 - Mr. Slow-Mo
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  • Photo res: 9.1 megapixel
  • Video res: 1,280 x 720
  • Zoom: Stabilized 5x, 37 - 185mm equivalent
  • ISO: 100 - 1600
  • Aperture: 3.6 - 4.5
  • LCD size: 2.7-inch
  • Battery size: 1,300 mAh
  • Street Price: $310
You hate to call it gimmicky, but Casio's Exilim EX-FC100 is definitely best known for its ridiculous 1,000 fps capture mode. Nothing else in the competition offers anything like this, but if you want to capture the laws of physics at work at that speed you'll need to make do with a paltry 224 x 64 resolution, and will need to provide an awful lot of ambient light to boot. Moving down to 400 fps gives you 224 x 168 pixels, which is presentable, but still a long way from VGA. 720p at 30 fps is certainly nice to have, but the SL820 offers that for cheaper if that's all you want. A beefy battery should make this one good for longer days of high-speed antics.
Gallery | 16 Photos

Casio Exilim EX-FC100 unboxing



Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1 - Military-grade
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  • Photo res: 12.1 megapixel
  • Video res: 1,280 x 720
  • Zoom: Stabilized 4.6x, 28 - 128mm equivalent
  • ISO: 80 - 1600
  • Aperture: 3.3 - 5.9
  • LCD size: 2.7-inch
  • Battery size: 940 mAh
  • Street Price: $400

The final contender, and the sturdiest, is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1. Its MSRP is $400 and so far seems to be selling right at that asking price. Specs are not dissimilar to the other, cheaper cameras, including an unrealistic ISO 1600 maximum (even 400 shows a good bit of grain), but again offering 720p video capture like the last two. The main draw here is the waterproof and shockproof construction, enabling this one to survive at up to 10 feet under water, or handle a 5-foot drop without damage. In other words: it's no coincidence that this one was painted olive-drab. Because of this cam's go-anywhere construction we were expecting a poor performer when it came to image quality, but we were surprised at how well it compared in many situations.

Gallery | 15 Photos

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1 unboxing



The big chart Return to top
Photo
Video
Zoom
ISO
Aperture
LCD
Battery
Price
Canon
A110 IS
12.1MP
640 x 480
4X
80 - 1600
2.7 - 5.6
2.5 in.
2x AA
$190
Casio
EX-FC100
9.1MP
720p
5X
100 - 1600
3.6 - 4.5
2.7 in.
1300
mAh
$310
Kodak
M380
10.2MP
640 x 480
5X
80 - 1600
3.1 - 5.6
3 in.
1020
mAh
$180
Kodak
Z915
10MP
640 x 480
10X
100 - 1600
3.5 - 8.3
2.5 in.
2x AA
$190
Nikon
S220
10MP
640 x 480
3X
80 - 2000
3.1 - 5.9
2.5 in.
740
mAh
$125
Nikon
S630
12MP
640 x 480
7X
64 - 1600
3.5 - 5.3
2.7 in.
1050
mAh
$250
Panasonic
DMC-TS1
12.1MP
720p
4.6X
80 - 1600
3.3 - 5.9
2.7 in.
940
mAh
$400
Panasonic
DMC-FS25
12.1MP
848 x 480
5X
80 - 1600
3.3 - 5.9
3 in.
940
mAh
$250
Samsung
SL820
12.2MP
720p
5X
80 - 3200
3.4 - 5.8
3 in.
1050
mAh
$250

How we tested
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The idea here wasn't to put these cameras in ideal, laboratory conditions and see how they fared; rather to try to recreate a few of the more common shots an average user of one of these cams would capture while on vacation. So, we put aside our years of experience and did our best to leave these in fully automatic mode, choosing an appropriate "scene" when possible but rarely going in to tweak exposure -- only going manual when the camera couldn't figure things out for itself. All shots were done without a tripod and each shot was captured three times (occasionally more), with the best shot chosen, because today's memory cards mean that even if you're toting a 12+ megapixel shooter you'll have room for a few extra attempts to make sure you got a good one.


Macro
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Liked:
Samsung SL820, Kodak EasyShare Z915
Didn't Like: Nikon Coolpix S220

Very, very different interpretations of the color of this bit of ajuga, a little purple plant that resulted in some big differences. As you can see in the gallery each camera seemed to have its own ideas about what shade of violet was appropriate, but it was the Samsung SL820 that came closest to reality, taking a very sharp image with accurate color representation. Kodak's Z915 also did quite good, but was a bit too purply. The other cameras all missed the color too, with the Nikon S220 being particularly artificial looking.
Gallery | 9 Photos

Macro test





Close
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Liked:
Kodak EasyShare M380, Kodak EasyShare Z915, Casio Exilim EX-FC100
Didn't like: Nikon Coolpix S220, Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1

Bleeding hearts are in bloom and so they were the subject of our predictably flowery shot of a close but not quite macro object. Here the two Kodaks did well, with both the M380 and the Z915 offering vibrant colors and plenty of detail. The Casio FC100 also took a particularly good shot, and honestly all the pictures are quite good, though those from the S220 and TS1 were somewhat pale. The FS25 is worth a mention here as, while it didn't produce the best looking shots, it did have perfect consistency in all three captures.
Gallery | 9 Photos

Close test





Fully Wide
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Liked
: Canon PowerShot A1100 IS, Kodak EasyShare Z915, Samsung SL820, Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1
Didn't like: Kodak EasyShare M380

The wide and zoom tests both subject on a wild apple tree in blossom, starting with the wide end to show just how much a given cam can take in. Here again the Z915 impressed, with the Canon 1100 IS doing well also. The SL820 and the TS1 show off their 28mm equivalent zooms, capturing more of the greenery than the other cams. On the unimpressive end the Kodak M380 disappointed with its dull, washed-out pictures. The rest of the contenders came somewhere in between, many offering some very interesting interpretations of green.
Gallery | 9 Photos

Fully wide test





Fully Zoomed
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Liked
: Kodak EasyShare M380, Kodak EasyShare Z915, Casio Exilim EX-FC100
Didn't like: Nikon Coolpix S220, Nikon Coolpix S630

Now we go to the other end of the spectrum, fully zooming in to show off the power of the lens and the capability of the optical stabilization (where present). Naturally the Kodak Z915 did quite well here, its 10x, 350mm equivalent lens enabling you to easily pick out individual blossoms. Its compatriot the M380 also did well, making good use of its 5x, 190mm lens. Neither of the Nikons did particularly impressed, with the S220 somewhat crippled by its 3x, 105mm zoom, and though the S630's more powerful 7x, 260mm lens showed plenty more detail, it lacked good color definition.
Gallery | 9 Photos

Fully zoomed test





Foreground object
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Liked
: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS25, Samsung SL820, Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1
Didn't like: Nikon Coolpix S220, Canon PowerShot A1100 IS, Nikon Coolpix S630

This time it's an object in the foreground (a disused fire pit) in front of a sea of leaves, the square edges and contrast of the bricks making a good subject for checking detail. Here the FS25, SL820, and TS1 all took clear, bright, accurate shots, with the Panasonic's shot looking particularly good. The S220 took a good looking shot but the color is off, while the S630's shots were soft. So, too, were the shots from the Canon.
Gallery | 9 Photos

Foreground object test





Person
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Liked
: Kodak EasyShare Z915, Samsung SL820, Casio Exilim EX-FC100
Didn't like: Nikon Coolpix S220, Canon PowerShot A1100 IS

All the cameras offer some sort of portrait mode, enabling them to lock into person's faces to ensure they always stay in focus. This made taking the picture itself particularly easy, and the results are generally good -- as you'd expect given the frequency of this kind of photo. The Nikon S220 was a bit soft, as was the Canon 1100 IS, while the Kodak Z915, Samsung SL820, and Casio FC100 all taking particularly good shots -- though it's worth noting that the other two shots from the FC100 looked quite different from this one.
Gallery | 9 Photos

Person test





Artificial light
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Liked
: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS25, Canon PowerShot A1100 IS, Samsung SL820
Didn't like: Kodak EasyShare M380, Kodak EasyShare Z915

Another test, another set of cameras with color reproductions all over the place. This time it was a dark room with only artificial light illuminating our little test subject, testing to see how well the cameras would self-manage ISO modes. In this case the Kodak Z915's best shot had a blueish hue, but the other shots from this cam had a bright green tinge. The Nikon S220 looks reddish, while its compatriot the S630 had accurate color -- but was a bit too dark. The Kodak M380 required five shots to get one decent one, and even that one was far too soft. The Panasonic FS25 took a bright, crisp shot, with the Canon A1100 IS and Samsung SL820 also impressing.
Gallery | 9 Photos

Artificial light test





Low light
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Liked:
Kodak EasyShare Z915, Nikon Coolpix S630, Casio Exilim EX-FC100
Didn't like: Kodak EasyShare M380

This was the toughest challenge of the test, a shot in what would be considered low light for these cams. This picture was taken in a reasonably well-illuminated room, but the subject itself had only some indirect light on it coming through windows with curtains drawn, which gave a number of cameras a fit. In particular the M380 couldn't figure anything out, taking a series of very dark pictures -- even when we enabled the flash. It was only by manually moving to ISO800 that the above, blurry shot could be captured. The FS25 also required manual tweaking of the ISO settings, and nearly all of the cameras showed some amount of grain, but the Z915 did miles better than its fellow Kodak, the S630 lacked color but figured things out well on its own, and the FC100 performing similarly.
Gallery | 9 Photos

Low light test




Video capture
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Liked: Samsung SL820, Casio Exilim FC100, Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1
Didn't like: The rest
None of these cameras can do true double-duty work as a camcorder, but the Samsung SL820 comes awfully close. It offers 720p video and is one of only two cameras here that allow optical zooming while video is recording (the Panasonic DMC-TS1 is the other) -- even if it does unfortunately mute the audio while doing so to drown out the noise of the motor. But, at all other times it captures (relatively) great sound to match the video.

And of course we can't talk video without highlighting the FC100, with its bevy of high-speed video modes that are plenty fun to experiment with. Unfortunately, once you're done experimenting you'll realize that the resolution and quality is too low to be of much use, as you can see in the compilation video above, with the skinny 1000fps segments getting stretched such that their subjects are barely recognizable. At high-speeds it is a fun toy, but not the high-quality, high-speed shooter we were hoping for. At a rather more normal 30 fps, however, the 720p video here is good, but a bit murkier than the Samsung, and the lack of zooming while filming is a drag.


Wrap-up
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So, there you have it: lots and lots of pictures with lots and lots of cameras. None of the contenders were complete disappointments, but the Kodak M380 impressed the least. It did well in a few situations, but its overall performance was sub-par. That contrasts with its brother, the Z915, which took consistently excellent shots, but is just a little too big to be a the sort of camera we'd want to take along everywhere. If you have unusually large pockets, though, buy with confidence. For those with small pockets (and pocketbooks) who aren't too hung up on image quality the Nikon S220 is a great little camera, while on the most expensive side the TS1 offered generally average picture quality -- impressive considering it's the only camera here you can not only take to the beach but right down into the water.

The rest were closely matched, but we liked the pictures coming from Samsung's SL820 most consistently. This was a surprise, as it's not the marque we'd have guessed would come out on top before we started testing, but it delivered the most consistently crisp, well-focused shots of the group, offers the highest quality video by a long shot (only Casio's EX-FC100 compares), and feels bulletproof in the hand. Sure, it's a little on the hefty side, but it's still comfortably pocket-sized, is quite a looker, and was the one that we found ourselves reaching for when it came time to take a few holiday snaps on our own.

Update: The initial version of this review didn't give proper credit to the Panasonic DMC-TS1's video capture, which not only also shoots 720p video, but allows optical zooming while doing so.