My new budget camera

In between following the iPhone brouhaha (yeah, it’s 3G now, can we go back to getting Linux to work on the desktop or something?), I’ve been mulling what compact camera to get.

The response to my Saturday post was great – I got a number of helpful suggestions via comments and e-mail that I went through one by one, so the least I can do is to explain what happened since then.

But first, some extra notes on what I’ve been looking for.

Basically, I was looking for a point-and-shoot. It could come with brains, but realistically, it had to be something small – the logistics involved in leaving the house with a kid in tow are tantamount to mounting a full-blown safari (trolley, carrier, nappy bag, cans of tuna, camping stove, etc.1), so anything besides my keys and phone2 is extraneous.

And, given the increased likelihood of hard knocks and the small fortune the house renovation entails3, I’d rather go for a good price/performance ratio – as such, an upper cap of Eur. 250 seemed like a reasonable constraint (enough to reach at the interesting stuff, low enough to avoid breaking the bank).

So great, but expensive compacts like the Canon G9 and the Ricoh GR Digital II were taken off the list pretty quickly – they’re both a tad on the biggish side, and with a 350D” in the house, there is relatively little point in buying a DSLR wanabee.

Olympus, Fuji and Casio were all struck off the list as well, for several reasons (from stupid memory card formats to my not really caring much for their physical designs and build quality).

Then came the retailer filter. I never intended to order the camera online – I’m on vacation and have reasonable mobility, and when it comes to stuff where the physical characteristics are important, I’m all for the brick and mortar approach. Yeah, I could probably spare a few Euro, but there are added benefits in going to a store like FNAC (warning, hideous and poorly designed web site), such as being able to return stuff inside of a few days, no questions asked.

So I decided to stick to what FNAC and Worten stocked as much as possible, and poked at their sites and at a bunch of camera review sites to come up with a sort of shortlist:

Camera Pluses Minuses
Sony DSC-W200 Nice UI, good CCD, partial manual controls MemoryStick media, Sony unified cables, Eur. 300 (around 50 above what I intended to spend).
Sony DSC-W300 Everyone raves about it, seems to have a pretty good CCD/optics combo for the price point. Can’t find it offhand in a brick and mortar store in Portugal, a bit too expensive (but not that much), Sony unified cables, MS.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 Wide® angle lens, can be had at under Eur. 250 (about the upper limit of what I intended to pay for a “toy” camera), uses SD media, shoots short video clips at 848×480. Stupid Panasonic unified cables, antiquated motion JPEG video with a .mov extension.
Canon IXUS 70 A bargain at Eur.179, very small, good build quality, has a standard USB port, can fiddle around with CHMK firmware tweaks Not the best lens, CCD or flash out there, a bit old.

I decided to avoid Sony wherever possible (at least the T range), but couldn’t really ignore the W series since they’re on sale everywhere and get moderately good reviews (hence my actually including the W300 on the list – I would have liked to have tried one).

And I spent a good while looking at the IXUS range (besides the 70, I looked at the 75, the 82, and the 860). The idea of having an optical viewfinder (however quaint and limited) appealed to me, and I was wondering if I should get the 82 instead of the 75 and go over budget until I started looking at the Lumix cameras.

Now, I had something like six people recommend the Lumix range to me, and let’s face it, I wouldn’t ordinarily give them a second glance (even with the Leica logo plastered on them). But those recommendations were enough to get me poring over reviews of the FX33 and FX35 (which, alas, is not readily available in brick and mortar retailers, and is 30 Eur. above my cap), and so I decided to take a closer look.

As it happens, the FX33 felt right. The build quality is good, the controls were sensibly placed and there was a promo pack available (black camera, SD card and pouch) on top of which I could cash in a frequent customer voucher.

So I brought it home, being fully aware that it sports a stupid Panasonic “compact” USB port and cable (yeah, I know about convertible SD cards, and card readers, and suchlike gadgetry – I would still have preferred a standard USB port). Here’s what it looks like:

And so far, I’m liking it very much indeed (photos will be up soon someplace, once I manage to sort out the iPhoto library on my iMac). Color and sharpness are OK at first sight, the menus are quaint but workable, and the videos play in Quicktime just fine (although I have to drop them into VisualHub to convert them to H.264 and get them to play on my PS3).

If the FX35 was available and inside my budget, I’d probably have plumped for it, but then again I don’t need HD video (plus the practical difference between 8.1 and 10 megapixels is pretty much nil in a compact – you need better optics to take advantage of it).

The only relevant improvement would have been the optics, but the difference between 25 and 28mm isn’t that much, and so far I’m pretty pleased with the shots I’ve taken – the angle seems wide enough.

I still think the lack of a standard USB port will bite me sometime in the future (I travel light, and all my other gadgetry uses standard USB connectors), but I’m happy to give Panasonic a go this time around.

So many thanks to everyone who wrote in, you’ve been a great help – see you in a couple of years or so (which is probably when HD video will be sensibly priced).

1 OK, I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea.

2 And no, I’m not going to do photography with a phone, there are always too many compromises – even in this one (which, incidentally, I handled briefly a few weeks ago).

3 Factor in the kid and the need for new furniture, and my gadget budget for this year has taken a nosedive (you might consider contributing, by the way).