CES is a big show for Digital Camera HQ. Most cameras announced at CES are budget-friendly point-and-shoots; they don't necessarily excite the camera nerds out there, but they're our bread and butter. We walked what must have been miles back and forth through the Las Vegas Convention Center last weekend, and found a handful of new cameras that made a lasting impression on us. The five cameras below are some of them, and could be some of the most popular cameras of 2011.
We feel a bit silly getting so excited about an entry-level shooter, but we received hundreds of emails and comments along these lines over the past year: "Why doesn't anyone make a camera with a viewfinder and AA batteries anymore? I can't see the LCD on my camera in the sun, I prefer to hold the camera up to my eyes because my hands shake, and I can't always be near an outlet, so I'd rather buy a stash of AA batteries and use them as needed."
Canon must have been CC'ed on some of those emails, because the A1200 is exactly what those folks were looking for. It's far from a perfect camera: there's no optical image stabilization, and the viewfinder is tiny. But it's a camera with a viewfinder and it costs just $100. We can finally recommend something to the OVF/AA crowd.
We love the Olympus PEN series, but the E-PL2 is too similar to the E-PL1 (which will remain in production alongside the new model) for us to get really excited about it. Instead, we're putting our enthusiasm behind the XZ-1, an advanced compact announced alongside the new PEN. It looks and acts like a PEN-ified Canon S95 or Panasonic LX5; the dimensions are more compact than a PEN and the design is a sleeker, more modern take on the PEN's rangefinder aesthetic. It's a fixed-lens (28mm-122mm, f1.8-2.5) model with a 1/1.6" sensor, putting it firmly in advanced-compact territory. It also supports all of the latest PEN accessories, so it's a bit more customizable than its peers. These are untested waters for Olympus, so it'll be interesting to see how the XZ-1 works out.
The Casio TRYX could end up being a total flop, but we'd still admire Casio's stones for releasing such a wacky camera. Certain aspects remind us of a pocket camcorder (1080p shooting, no optical zoom), other features are clearly digicam-only (HDR shooting, slide panorama), and the physical design reminds us of neither, but is endearingly bizarre. (Both the frame and LCD rotate, so the TRYX can take make different shapes -- check out the demo video below).
Our main concern is durability -- such small hinges are bound to snap at some point -- but also image quality. If it really is just like a pocket camcorder that takes 12mp images instead of 5mp images, that's not a very good thing. We're cautiously optimistic.
The most exciting compact zoom of CES is easily the F550EXR. Here's some perspective for where the compact-zoom arms race is headed this year: consumers, for whatever reason, want a compact camera with a big zoom and great low-light capabilities. The principles of physics make that difficult. But last year, Canon and Nikon started putting backside-illuminated CMOS sensors into travel zooms. As we discovered when we reviewed the S8100, it's not a perfect solution, but a decent compromise. Consumers generally seem to be happy with that compromise but maybe a little disappointed that the overall image quality is blander than they'd hoped for (that's what happens when a camera promises you the world, I suppose -- it can't be everything to everybody).
With that said, Fujifilm jumped into the ring with a CMOS-based compact zoom of their own at CES. Fujifilm's oversized 1/2" EXR-branded sensors have consistently provided some of the sharpest overall image quality in compact zooms, particularly in low-light -- and they've been CCD-based (EXR is Fujifilm's processor). Now that they've switched to 1/2-inch CMOS sensors, they should remain a step ahead of the competition.
On top of that, the F550EXR supports RAW + JPEG image capture, which is sure to please the enthusiast set. It also has GPS geotagging and navigation (compass view, not turn-by-turn). We've yet to see any camera with really good GPS implementation but we'll keep our minds open; we can always turn it off if we don't like it.
The possible Achilles' heels are the design and interface. In the few minutes we got with the F550EXR, it felt too small, and the ergonomics a bit too cramped. Fujifilm's interfaces never feel quite right, so hopefully this one gets a bit of polish before the release date.
The FH20 has been the most popular camera on this site by a huge, huge margin for about 10 months now. Panasonic's rep confirmed that it's been a hot seller pretty much everywhere. They'd have been foolish to alter the FH20's winning formula too much; thankfully, for this year's FH25, Panasonic stuck with what works and made some subtle but significant changes.
The FH25, like its predecessor, is an 8x optical-zooming, pocket-sized shooter with 720p HD video capability. But this time around, it's packing some features that used to cost an extra $75 or so for an upgrade to the ZS series: a real Leica lens, the Venus Engine VI processor (for quicker performance and better noise control), optical zoom during video, and Panny's Intelligent Resolution function. Pricing has yet to be announced, but we're assuming it'll start somewhere around $200 and steadily drop toward $150 throughout the year. It looks like the FH25 will be one of the most versatile point-and-shoots on shelves this year and is an early contender for Digital Camera HQ's best point-and-shoot of 2011.