When comparing digital cameras, focus on the facts

Week of January 1, 2006

Q: I am looking for a new camera. Recently I have seen an ad in magazines for a Bell + Howell camera for $249, using interpolation to achieve 10.0 mega pixels. Not available in stores. Gives no model number. Any suggestions? I am assuming some company has purchased from Bell + Howell.

-Gloria Phelps, Minneapolis, MN

A: I have seen the ad you have mentioned, and strongly suggest you turn around and run as fast as you can from this camera. At the price, it is a travesty and I pity anyone who has fallen for this shameless grab for cash. It’s an attempt to use an old, respected brand name to overcharge for a piece of junk. I hate seeing innocent people getting ripped off, and a big part of my personal mission is to warn people about scams such as overpriced speaker and connection wire, and dubious offerings such as these. So please bear with me while I get on my soapbox here.

First of all, the name- Bell+ Howell. Bell + Howell is well-known to most Americans as a respected optical products manufacturer. Anyone who went to school in the 1960s-1970s and probably saw Bell + Howell movie projectors and overhead projectors used in classrooms, so they are familiar with the name. I’ve kept up on the camera business for years and Bell + Howell hasn’t been a player for some time. It appears that someone has licensed the name for use on this camera to cash in on the years of goodwill and brand recognition built up by Bell + Howell in previous decades.

As for the camera- I’d suspect its market value is a lot closer to $25 than $225. An examination of the features and specifications bear this out. Compared to what you can get for $250, or even $150, this offer of “Dazzling Digital Color, 10.0 Mega Pixels, UNBEATABLE PRICE!” is offensive to the extreme. About the only unbeatable thing about the price is the profit margin built into it.

The first thing that probably grabbed your eye was “10.0 mega pixels”. This sounds much better than most of the 4 and 5 megapixel camera you see selling for $250. But then you see the disclaimer that follows: “by interpolation.” When ethical companies advertise specifications for their cameras, they tell you how many pixels are on the sensor. Interpolation creates pixels artificially by looking at the image and changing the size. You can interpolate any number of megapixels from any number of megapixels. You can take a picture from a 1 megapixel camera and turn it into 100 megapixels if you want to.

What they are telling you is the sensor does not have 10.0 megapixels on it, and whatever pixels it does have are artificially converted to 10 megapixels. So you are not buying 10 megapixels at all. I’ve checked the offering company’s website and it doesn’t say how many megapixels the camera’s sensor actually has. How many actual megapixels are you paying $250 for? You don’t really know! Scary!

Next specification: Digital Zoom. Digital zooms are pretty much worthless as all they do is crop the picture down to create the illusion of magnification. Optical zooms are what you want. That’s another big strike against this camera. (I am flattering it really by calling that- it’s more like a toy!)

Looking at the images I’ve seen of the camera, it is fixed focus- the lens does not move, just like a disposable camera. I’ve seen similar small cameras with fixed focus and 3 actual megapixels selling for $50-$80.

I think by now everyone is getting the picture about this camera and this offer.

You can get a fantastic digital camera for $250 or less- just not this one. I’d recommend the Canon Powershot A510, a 4 megapixel camera with a 4x optical zoom. The extra $50 can go towards a set of rechargeable batteries and a memory card. Comparing the A520 to the camera you asked about is like comparing a Lexus to a go-cart with a pull-start motor.

Even $149 buys a much better camera- the Canon A410, featuring a 3.2x optical zoom and 3.2 real megapixels.

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