If you're in the market for a digital camera this holiday season, your chances of finding the perfect model have never been better.
The wide variety available makes it more important than ever to think carefully about when, where and how you will use your camera.
We recommend shopping at local stores specializing in photography. The advantage that camera stores have in expertise -- precisely fitting a camera to its owner and intended uses -- far outweighs the few extra dollars they might charge. A cheap camera that you don't like and don't use is, in the end, much more expensive than a more costly camera you enjoy using frequently.
THE BARGAIN: Nikon L3
Why this camera: Five megapixel resolution, 3X optical zoom, a 2-inch LCD screen, 15 scene modes and a long list of other nice features for just $140.
What's cool: It automatically focuses on faces, then fixes red eye before you download the photos. It supports PictBridge, a hardware standard that enables you to print to a compatible printer without using a computer.
What they don't tell you: Powered by two AA batteries, its recycle time from one shot to the next, especially when using the flash, might not be as quick as you would like.
Price and location: $149.99 at BestBuy.com and local camera shops.
A GOOD BET: Canon A630
Why this camera: With its 8-megapixel resolution, you can crop just what you want out of a photo and still have a very high-resolution image. Its four AA batteries supply plenty of power for flash shots, with a good recycle time.
What's cool: Its 4X optical zoom gives you a bit more power to get close with your shots. A good selection of scene modes helps you quickly set the camera for most lighting conditions.
What they don't tell you: The camera might not feel comfortable in your hands, with its scatter of tiny controls. Try one out in the store before you buy.
Price and location: $299.99 at BestBuy.com and Wolf Camera.
THE SPLURGE: Olympus E-500
Why this camera: Vastly superior optics, blazing-fast response and endless versatility at an affordable price.
What's cool: A patented sonic-technology, dust-removal system to keep the image sensor speck-free, and an easy-on-your-eyes 2.5-inch LCD on the back. Raw image availability gives you more editing capability on your computer. The Olympus kit comes with two high-quality lenses.
What they don't tell you: Image quality falls off at high ISO settings, such as you would need for fast-action sports in low light. (Canon digital SLR cameras excel in these conditions, but not with the lens packaged with the standard Canon kit.)
Price and location: $799.99 at BestBuy.com.