Welcome to Engadget's back to school guide! The end of summer vacation isn't nearly as much fun as the weeks that come before, but a chance to update your tech tools likely helps to ease the pain. Today, we've got our optical viewfinders set firmly on digital cameras -- and you can head to the back to school hub to see the rest of the product guides as they're added throughout the month. Be sure to keep checking back -- at the end of the month we'll be giving away a ton of the gear featured in our guides -- and hit up the hub page right here!
Your smartphone can take pictures, you say? Well, sure it can, but try snapping away at a frat party -- you're likely to walk away with a blurry mess. Your Facebook friends and future employers deserve an accurate account of those glory days, and you'll need a proper snapper to get the job done. College is as good a time as any to learn responsibility, but don't expect to walk out of the experience with all your gear unscathed. To that end, freshmen should look long and hard at our point-and-shoot picks, which include models that you won't be afraid to toss around, or drop in the jungle juice. After that come the mirrorless ILCs, which should satisfy the more advanced photogs in the bunch, followed by our digital SLR picks, which, sadly, may be out of reach of all but photography majors and deep-pocketed private school types. Finally, you'll have yet another opportunity to enter our fantastic giveaway at the bottom of the page, just after the break.
Cheap it is not, but if you're looking to acquire a snapper that offers image quality and versatility that approaches DSLR territory, then the RX100's got your back. This pocketable cam packs a (relatively) huge 1-inch 20.2-megapixel CMOS sensor and an f/1.8 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 3.6x zoom lens. That very capable duo will enable low-light shooting or the creamy bokeh effect often only available with much larger models. With a steep price tag, this jet-black point-and-shoot may seem an unlikely top pick for back to school, but given its capabilities, we wouldn't hesitate to work a few extra shifts in the dining hall to bring this model within reach.
Key specs: 20.2-megapixel 1-inch CMOS sensor, 3.6x f/1.8 optical zoom, 1080/60p HD video.
Price: $648 on Amazon
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Without mom and dad to come to the rescue (in this case replacing your damaged compact after, say, a dip in the campus fountain), a few extra layers of armor could do you some good. This 12-megapixel ruggedized cam offers a fast f/2 lens, an OLED display and the typical bevy of reinforcements.
Price: $399 on Amazon
You generally can't go wrong with a Canon point-and-shoot -- they're often priced affordably, built like tanks and offer top-notch image quality to boot. This year's 110HS debuted at CES, offering a 16-megapixel CMOS sensor, 1080p video and a 5x optical zoom lens for $199.
Price: $180 on Amazon
Remember Olympus' line of OM film cams? If you're just now heading to college, chances are you don't. Even so, the E-M5 offers an attractive retro design and incredibly fast focusing performance, includes a Micro Four Thirds mount and a 12-50mm kit lens with manual and powered zoom, along with macro functionality. It's also water-resistant, just like the company's Tough point-and-shoot model you saw above. While the OM-D is an ace stills shooter, its video leaves a bit to be desired, especially when it comes to focusing. Assuming you'll be using it for more than filming parties, though, this ILC is a solid pick.
Key specs: 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor, five-axis image stabilization, 1.44-megapixel EVF.
Price: From $1,299 on Amazon
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Truth be told, we preferred the sleek design of last year's C3 over Sony's latest NEX-F3, but the front-facing LCD, EVF compatibility, built-in flash and top ISO of 16,000 make 2012's model a suitable replacement. It still offers top-notch image quality, and a sub-$600 price tag with an 18-55mm lens.
Price: $549 on Amazon
The GX1 is what Panasonic's GF2 could (and should) have been. If you've made your way over to the competition after that Micro Four Thirds line's disappointing successor, this might be a good time to return. We'd also recommend adding the company's new 14-42mm X lens, if you can afford it.
Price: $499 on Amazon
No, our 5D isn't missing a numeral. This top DSLR slot was original slated to include the brand-new Mark III body, but its predecessor, the 5D Mark II, offers a much lower price tag, and will surely fit the bill for both future photojournalists and even deep-pocketed amateurs. The full-frame body launched in 2009, which means it can now be had for just shy of two grand -- a fraction of its original price tag -- and its 21.1-megapixel CMOS sensor is capable of captures on clear days and at dark parties alike. It's also a top pick for videographers, with several years of commercial footage to back that claim. Like other models of this caliber, the 5D will retain much of its value even as the shutter count nears 100k, letting you sell off your rig to, say, buy yourself a nice four-wheeled gift after graduation.
Key specs: 21.1-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor, ISO 50-25,600, 1080p video.
Price: $1,980 on Amazon
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Nikon's 5D Mark III equivalent is another excellent choice, but its 36.3-megapixel stills may be a bit excessive for even the most serious of college photogs. It's also a full-frame shooter, and high-end features like uncompressed HDMI output make the D800 quite popular among video shooters as well.
Price: $2,999 on Amazon
A weather-sealed DSLR? We'll take it! Pentax's K-30 is an excellent option for photographers on a budget, offering stellar image quality and performance in a ruggedized, water-friendly package. There's also sensor-shift stabilization and AA battery compatibility, letting you add juice on the go.
Price: $765 (body only) on Amazon
No Purchase Required to Enter or Win
Eligibility: Engadget's Back to School Giveaway (the "Giveaway") is open only to individuals who are legal residents of the fifty (50) United States (including the District of Columbia) and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are 18 years of age or older. Employees of Weblogs Inc. LLC, AOL Inc., their advertising or promotion agencies, those involved in the production, development, implementation or handling of Giveaways, any agents acting for, or on behalf of the above entities, their respective parent companies, officers, directors, subsidiaries, affiliates, licensees, service providers, prize suppliers any other person or entity associated with the Giveaways (collectively "Giveaway Entities") and/or the immediate family (spouse, parents, siblings and children) and household members (whether related or not) of each such employee, are not eligible. All U.S., federal, state and local and Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal laws and regulations apply. Void in Quebec, Puerto Rico and where prohibited by law.
Sponsor: The Giveaway is sponsored by Weblogs Inc. LLC, 770 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 ("Sponsor").
Agreement to Official Rules: Participation in the Giveaway constitutes entrant's full and unconditional agreement to and acceptance of these Official Rules and the decisions of the Sponsor, which are final and binding. Winning a prize is contingent upon fulfilling all requirements set forth herein.
Giveaway Period: The Giveaway begins at 12:00 pm ET on August 6, 2012 and ends at 12:00 pm ET on September 7, 2012 (the "Giveaway Period"). The Giveaway Period shall be divided into fifteen (15) separate Entry Periods:
Entry Period 1 begins at 12PM ET on August 6, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 2 begins at 1PM ET on August 6, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 3 begins at 12PM ET on August 7, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 4 begins at 12PM ET on August 8, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 5 begins at 12PM ET on August 9, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 6 begins at 12PM ET on August 10, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 7 begins at 12PM ET on August 13, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 8 begins at 12PM ET on August 15, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
begins at 12PM ET on August 17, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 10 begins at 12PM ET on August 20, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 11 begins at 12PM ET on August 22, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 12 begins at 12PM ET on August 24, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 13 begins at 12PM ET on August 27, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 14 begins at 12PM ET on August 29, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 15 begins at 12PM ET on August 31, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry: During the Giveaway Period, go to engadget.com/2012/08/06/back-to-school-giveaway and follow the instructions to submit your entry. The use of any agencies or automated software to submit entries will void all entries submitted by that person.
Drawing: At the conclusion of the Giveaway Period, Sponsor will select the name of one (1) Grand Prize Winner from each of the fifteen (15) Entry Periods in a random drawing of all eligible entries received during each Entry Period. The odds of being selected as a potential winner depend on the number of eligible entries received during the applicable Entry Period. Potential Winners will be contacted via email and asked to provide their full name, age and mailing address within a specified time period. If a potential winner does not respond within the timeframe stated in the notification email, the Sponsor may select an alternate potential winner in his/her place at random from all entries received during the Entry Period. Non-winning entries from one Entry Period do not carry over into subsequent Entry Periods.
Requirements of the Potential Winners: Except where prohibited, the potential winners will be required to complete and return an affidavit of eligibility and liability/publicity release (the "Affidavit/Release") and IRS W-9 form within seven (7) days of being notified. If a potential winner fails to sign and return the Affidavit/Release and W-9 form within the required time period, an alternate entrant may be selected in his/her place in a random drawing of all entries received. Acceptance of a prize constitutes consent to use winner's name and likeness for editorial, advertising and publicity purposes without additional compensation, except where prohibited by law. In the event the potential winner of any prize is a Canadian resident, he/she will also be required to correctly answer a time-limited mathematical question to be administered by email, mail or phone to receive the prize. Limit one (1) prize per household.
Prizes: Fifteen (15) Grand Prize Winners will each receive a Back to School Prize Pack containing the following items: HP Envy Ultrabook 4, Sony NEX-F3, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0), Samsung Galaxy S III (AT&T), Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, AiAiAi Capital headphones, Western Digital My Passport (1TB) hard drive, Timbuk2 Commute Messenger laptop bag, Flying Alarm Clock, AOC 16" USB monitor, Spotify Premium subscription (1 year), Satechi Energy Station, Edifier Tick Tock, Satechi 12-port USB hub, NuForce Cube, Withings WiFi Scale, Powermat 24-hour system, Carbonite Backup (1 year), AViiQ Ready Chips, and Targus Defcon 1 lock. Approximate Retail Value of each Prize Pack is $3,203. Subscriptions are subject to issuer's terms and conditions. Activation fees and monthly service fees not included with any smartphone/digital devices. No cash or other substitution may be made, except by the Sponsor, who reserves the right to substitute a prize or portion of a prize with another prize of equal or greater value if the prize is not available for any reason as determined by the Sponsor in its sole discretion. Winners are responsible for any taxes and fees associated with receipt or use of a prize.
General Conditions: In the event that the operation, security, or administration of the Giveaway is impaired in any way for any reason, including, but not limited to fraud, virus, or other technical problem, the Sponsor may, in its sole discretion, either: (a) suspend the Giveaway to address the impairment and then resume the Giveaway in a manner that best conforms to the spirit of these Official Rules; or (b) award the prizes at random from among the eligible entries received up to the time of the impairment. The Sponsor reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any individual it finds to be tampering with the entry process or the operation of the Giveaway or to be acting in violation of these Official Rules or in an unsportsmanlike or disruptive manner. Any attempt by any person to undermine the legitimate operation of the Giveaway may be a violation of criminal and civil law, and, should such an attempt be made, the Sponsor reserves the right to seek damages from any such person to the fullest extent permitted by law. The Sponsor's failure to enforce any term of these Official Rules shall not constitute a waiver of that provision. In case of a dispute as to the owner of an entry, entry will be deemed to have been submitted by the authorized account holder of the screen name from which the entry is made. The authorized account holder is defined as the natural person who is assigned to an e-mail address by an Internet access provider, online service provider, or other organization responsible for assigning e-mail addresses for the domain associated with the submitted e-mail address.
Release and Limitations of Liability: By participating in the Giveaway, entrants agree to release, defend indemnify and hold harmless the Giveaway Entities from and against any claim or cause of action, including without limitation, any third party claim, arising out of participation in the Giveaway or receipt, use or misuse of any prize, including, but not limited to: (a) unauthorized human intervention in the Giveaway; (b) technical errors related to computers, servers, providers, or telephone or network lines; (c) printing errors; (d) lost, late, postage-due, misdirected, or undeliverable mail; (e) errors in the administration of the Giveaway or the processing of entries; or (f) injury or damage to persons or property which may be caused, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, from entrant's participation in the Giveaway or receipt, use or misuse of any prize. Entrant further agrees that in any cause of action, the Giveaway Entities' liability will be limited to the cost of entering and participating in the Giveaway, and in no event shall the Giveaway Entities be liable for attorney's fees. Entrant waives the right to claim any damages whatsoever, including, but not limited to, punitive, consequential, direct, or indirect damages.
TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW, THE PRIZES AND ALL ELEMENTS THEREOF ARE PROVIDED "AS IS" WITHOUT WARRANTY OR CONDITION OF ANY KIND. SPONSOR DISCLAIMS ALL EXPRESS AND IMPLIED WARRANTIES, INCLUDING WITHOUT LIMITATION, OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, TITLE AND/OR NON-INFRINGEMENT. Some jurisdictions do not allow the disclaimer of implied warranties. In such jurisdictions, some of the foregoing disclaimers may not apply to you insofar as they relate to implied warranties.
Disputes: Except where prohibited, entrant agrees that any and all disputes, claims and causes of action arising out of, or connected with, the Giveaway or any prize awarded shall be resolved individually, without resort to any form of class action, and exclusively by the appropriate court located in the Commonwealth of Virginia. All issues and questions concerning the construction, validity, interpretation and enforceability of these Official Rules, entrant's rights and obligations, or the rights and obligations of the Sponsor in connection with the Giveaway, shall be governed by, and construed in accordance with, the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, without giving effect to any choice of law or conflict of law rules (whether of the Commonwealth of Virginia or any other jurisdiction), which would cause the application of the laws of any jurisdiction other than the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Giveaway Results: To request the names of the winners, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Engadget Back to School Giveaway Winners, 770 Broadway, Attn: J. Turi, New York, NY 10003. Requests must be received by September 30, 2012.