One tech gadget that is practically essential these days is the point-and-shoot digital camera. You want something that's easy to carry around and simple to use.
Luckily, some of the latest digital cameras have become so analog-like in their ease of use that they hardly seem high-tech. And that's a compliment. In addition, they have gotten so petite that they can easily slip into a pocket or bag.
But which one to get? And how much to spend?
Point-and-shoot digitals - complete with automatic focus, internal flash and zoom lens - can be found for about $150 to $600.
The price of a point-and-shoot is determined largely by the quality of the resolution, measured in megapixels, or millions of pixels -- the tiny color "dots" that make up a digital image.
Simply put, the higher the megapixel count, the richer the print's detail and color. Also, pictures taken at relatively high resolutions can be blown up to big print sizes while retaining image quality.
My suggestion, if it's within your budget, is to go for a 5-megapixel model. Although it's true that 3 megapixels are all you need to make high-quality, 4-by-6-inch prints, 5 megapixels allow you to make the occasional 8-by-10.
Another factor is the size of the viewing screen on the back of the camera. The screen is used for framing pictures and looking at them after taking the shot. Until recently, the standard size of the screen was 2 inches, measured diagonally. Now, the better cameras sport 2 1/2 -inch screens - a considerable improvement.
How much will a camera with all these attributes cost? About $300 to $500 for a name-brand model, according to the price tags, but in stores or online you can find them for less than $300.
If you can spring for one of the 5-megapixel, 2 1/2 -inch screen models, the question then becomes: which one?
I tried four current models by well-known makers: the Canon PowerShot SD450, the Fuji FinePix Z1, the Nikon Coolpix S1 and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T5.
When it comes to photography, I'm strictly an amateur. But fortunately, I had help from Los Angeles Times staff photographer Myung Chun, who tried each camera.
Myung is not easily impressed when it comes to camera equipment. "We photographers are picky people," he said.
But he was impressed by all of them.
"I think someone would be happy with any of these," Myung said. "They can take great pictures."
Although it's best to read the quick-start manuals that come with all these cameras, people with at least some familiarity with digital photography will be able to start snapping away as soon as the battery is charged up.
Myung zeroed in on two important factors.
Ergonomics - He admired the especially sleek profiles of the Fuji, Nikon and Sony models but felt that they had slimmed down to a fault. They were slightly awkward to hold while taking a picture, and it was too easy for a finger to hit a wrong button or block the lens. This isn't a fatal problem as a user would adapt in time.
But the clear winner in this category was the Canon, which was slightly thicker. But it had appropriate grip spots.
Autofocus mode: All the cameras set up a shot in the same way when in auto mode. The user presses the shutter slightly down and pauses, giving the camera a chance to adjust for focus and lighting. Then the shutter is pressed the rest of the way down to capture the shot.
Canon won in this department too as it had a definite pause position easy for the user to feel.
Other factors of importance to amateur photographers:
Charging: The Canon and Sony models use slick, easy-to-carry battery-charging units that plug directly into outlets. The Fuji and the Nikon use more cumbersome systems, requiring you to stick them in a cradle.
Downloading: All the cameras downloaded their shots easily into desktop computers with Windows XP or Mac OS X operating systems. But the Canon and the Sony connected directly to the computers with a simple cable. The Fuji and the Nikon again each needed a cradle in addition to the cable.
Memory storage: All the cameras came with internal or external storage capacity but only enough for about 10 pictures at the full 5-megapixel resolution level. Plan on buying a larger, more practical memory storage card for about $30 or $40 - 256 and 512 megabytes are good sizes.
David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.