Manufacturers of digital cameras have a little problem: They're not in the phone business.
Smart phones have cameras that offer good-enough resolution, happen to be part of a device most people carry constantly, automatically tag photos with their location and only need a data connection and a few taps of the screen to share photos online.
How can a camera vendor compete with all that?
One option is to focus on the hardest part of a camera to duplicate in a phone, its glass. "Ultrazoom" cameras pack in telephoto lenses that once would have required their own cases. For example, Nikon's $399.95 P500 offers a 36x zoom — the equivalent of an 810 mm telephoto on a 35 mm camera — but easily fits in a laptop bag. I had generally good results with it; other critics found its picture quality lacking in some scenarios.
But most casual photographers want something to stash in a pocket. Vendors seeking their business have a tougher task: matching the capabilities of phone cameras.
Out of all of them, "geotagging" would seem especially feasible and desirable. Having a camera save the location in which you took the shot eases identifying photos later and helps you browse through your pictures on an interactive map.
The Canon quickly located itself but needed a charge after just one day of photography. The Panasonic had the battery life of a camera instead of a phone, but it also needed a minute or more to find itself, during which time it would tag pictures with incorrect coordinates.
Color captured in images using the Canon looked a little brighter than those captured with the Panasonic, but the Panasonic's 16x zoom offered further reach than its rival's 14x lens. Canon also deserves credit for being the only vendor among these four not to put a proprietary USB plug on its camera.
Casio took a different approach with its $299.99 Exilim EX-H20G: A compass and accelerometers speed its GPS acquisition time without taxing its battery — though it also flubbed a few tags. This 10x-zoom model includes one gimmicky extra (a database of pictures of some 10,000 tourist landmarks) and a more practical addition (a one-button panorama-creation mode).
Samsung's $199.99 SH100 not only acts like a phone but can talk to one — in certain conditions. You need to install Samsung's free Remote Viewfinder app on one of its Galaxy S Android phones, then turn on Wi-Fi "tethering," adding $15 to $30 a month to your wireless bill.
Pairing an SH100 with a Verizon Wireless Droid Charge took about 20 seconds, plus time to pound out the Wi-Fi password on the phone's "resistive" touchscreen (it requires a press instead of a tap). It was a neat party trick to control the camera's flash, 5x zoom and shutter with the phone — and to have the phone geotag those pictures — but switching apps on the phone disconnected the two every time.
The SH100 can also connect to a Wi-Fi network to e-mail photos and upload them to sites such as Facebook and Picasa. But that pesky screen makes the job so annoying that you may prefer to get your photos on your computer first; too bad this camera only accepts phone-sized microSD cards that won't fit in a computer's memory-card slot without an adapter. Dismal low-light performance, without the help of image stabilization, further sinks this model.
The Casio comes closest to holding its own against phones — for photo enthusiasts willing to pay more. But none of these four do much to make the entry-level point-and-shoot look less endangered.