- Associated Press - Friday, December 10, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Digital cameras have been popular gifts for a decade, but enthusiasm is waning, as most households already have one. The good news is that if you do know someone who could use a fresher model, it’s hard to go wrong: Today’s big-name cameras are almost uniformly good buys. Whether you’re looking for a simple, compact point-and-shoot or a high-end digital SLR that accepts interchangeable lenses, here’s a selection we think stands out from the crowd.

Best Budget Option:

Kodak EasyShare C195 ($100)

Pros: It used to be nearly impossible to find a quality digital camera for just $100. Now, Casio, Canon and Kodak sell them, with Nikon offering one that costs closer to $110. Of these, Kodak’s 14.5-megapixel C195 is the only one that has 5X optical zoom; all the others have a measly zoom factor of 3X. Whether you’re shooting from the sidelines of a Little League game or snapping candids from across the room at a party, that versatile lens will make a difference.

Meanwhile, the camera’s “Smart Capture” feature, which was borrowed from Eastman Kodak Co.’s higher-end cameras, automatically detects the shooting conditions and sets the camera to one of 21 scene modes. My test photos, which included close-ups with blurry backgrounds, looked decent, although I recommend turning the flash off indoors.

The camera has a large 3-inch display, a rarity on cameras this cheap. People can also select photos and movies on the camera so that they’ll upload to sites such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube when they plug the camera into a computer.

Cons: The C195 records standard-definition _ not HD _ movies, typical of cameras in this price range. It also takes AA batteries, not a rechargeable lithium-ion one, but some people might like the flexibility of being able to swap out dead batteries while on the go. It also claims less sensitivity in dimly lit conditions than competing cameras. Then again, just because another camera claims a higher level of low-light sensitivity, that doesn’t mean it actually fares any better in those situations.

Best Mid-Range Point-and-Shoot:

Sony CyberShot WX5 ($270)

Pros: Camera manufacturers crank out scads of models in the $100 to $300 range, so the selection of prettily designed cameras that shoot high-definition video is overwhelming. Still, the WX5 from Sony Corp. takes strong photos and also crams a bevy of attractive features.

It can shoot sweeping 295-degree panorama shots, a boon if you find yourself in a scenic place. Bonus: the panorama feature is much easier to use than on competing cameras. The camera also enhances photos by playing up the bright parts while keeping the shadow areas rich, but not too dark. The camera also makes it easy to blur the background in a photo, a technique that will make even a beginner’s pictures look more artistic.

It also shoots crisp video at full HD resolution (1920 x 1080). A dedicated movie button makes it easy to start recording quickly.

Design-wise, the WX5 is small and light, even for a point-and-shoot, with easy-to-navigate menus.

Cons: The buttons are tiny. It records HD movies as AVCHD files, which can be difficult to play back and edit on a PC. While the camera’s 5X optical zoom will be sufficient for many, photographers who like to take scenic or sports photos might want a camera with more oomph, such as the Kodak EasyShare M580 ($170), which has an 8X lens.

And it doesn’t promise durability; other cameras in this price range such as the Pentax Optio W90 ($299) or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS2 ($399) can better survive being dropped, dunked in water and taken on cold expeditions such as ski trips.

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