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December 2007

Top 4 Digital Cameras

All our picks weigh less than 8 ounces and cost less than $400.

Rating Scale: 5=perfect gear, 1=save your money

HP PhotoSmart R937

[easiest to use]

Overall 4.3

Memory internal and SD

Zoom 3x optical, 4x digital

Battery life* 1,445 photos

Pixels 8MP

Price/weight $300; 7.7 oz.

Initially, we were skeptical of this point-and-shoot; it was the biggest and heaviest of the models we called in for testing. But it quickly rose to the top, thanks to its monster 3.6-inch screen, innovative touch-screen menu, and idiot-proof operation.

Remember when you dumped your ancient color TV for an HD flat screen? That’s the difference between the R937’s crystal-clear display and other camera screens. There’s simply no going back. Colors pop on the bright LCD screen, and it regenerates images almost instantly, letting you compose and edit photos faster. Then there’s the customizable slideshow feature, which lets you show off your pics anytime, anywhere.

“This is also the most foolproof camera I’ve ever seen,” said one tester. “If you have any confusion—which I doubt—just tap the help button. It’s like having the owner’s manual built into the camera.”

Landscape lovers will appreciate the panoramic mode, which digitally stitches together five photographs, and the sunset mode, which draws out oranges and reds. Ditch your tripod, too. This camera offers image stabilization for unsteady hands or moving targets. Another bonus: You can tag photos with keywords, so they’re already organized when you get home.

Annoying shutter lag is almost nonexistent on the R937 (like the other cameras reviewed here), but its video speed is the slowest at 24 frames per second (compared to 30 fps for the rest). That difference is negligible for most purposes, but you might see more stutter during quick moves and pans.

Downsides: The big LCD sucks power fast. One tester reported that the rechargeable lithium-ion battery died three days into a 5-day CDT backpacking trip, after 85 photos and one short video. (800) 474-6836;

Pentax Optio M40

[best deal]

Overall 3.6

Memory internal and SD

Zoom 3x optical, 4x digital Battery life 877 photos

Pixels 8MP

Price/weight $200; 4.8 oz.

“It’s only $200, but it’s aisles away from chintzy,” raved one tester about this 8MP camera. Pentax packs a lot of refined, backpacker-friendly details into the Optio M40, starting with a zoom lens that has an impressive range; it can capture a snow-capped ridgeline on the horizon as sharply as it can zero in on an alpine wildflower from two inches away.

Press the shutter button halfway, and the 2.5-inch LCD is backlit, cutting sunlight glare and the guesswork out of composing subjects. No more wasting battery power with retakes—what you see is what you get. (All of the cameras reviewed here use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.) Intuitive menus and well-labeled buttons translated into fewer headaches for our testers—the word “easy” popped up everywhere in their field notes.

The M40 also retains some of the features of your old 35mm. To cope with muddled sunsets, underexposed forests, and other challenging light conditions, Pentax equipped this point-and-shoot with manual settings for exposure, white balance, and focal point—options that come in handy for wildlife, flower, and action shots.

Oh, and it’s wicked small. The M40’s aluminum alloy body is the slimmest (only .7 inches deep) and lightest (a mere 4.8 ounces, including battery) in this test. (800) 877-0155;

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