The race among digital cameras for more megapixels has given way to an arms race of special features. This spring, the "in" thing is the ability to shoot high-definition video.
So if a point-and-shoot digital camera can now record HD video, does that mean you can forego buying a separate $800 camcorder and just opt for a new digital camera for $400 or less?
To find out, I put six new models through their paces and found that there's an HD-capable camera to suit most tastes, and most budgets.
Most of the new shooters take reasonable video, with some caveats.
Perhaps the most intriguing new camera introduced this month is Panasonic's Lumix DMC-TS1 ($400). Not only does the TS1 shoot video in a new high-definition format dubbed AVCHD Lite, but it's also designed to endure harsh handling and even underwater shoots.
Adorned with Hummer-like trimmings and special rubber gaskets, the 12.6-megapixel TS1 is rated to withstand snorkeling excursions down to about 10 feet below the surface. So, with its 4.6 X optical zoom, you can shoot video of parrotfish on your next Caribbean vacation.
Furthermore, the camera is shock-proof and dirt-resistant. Much to my horror, to test the TS1's endurance, a colleague of mine threw his TS1 onto a concrete sidewalk -- repeatedly. It survived.
Meanwhile, I put my model underwater on several occasions while shooting video; also no problem.
The picture quality of the TS1 is certainly respectable. In fully automatic mode, it's difficult to trick the camera into taking a bad shot.
A single button is all you have to push to start recording video, which is capable of recording at a 1080p resolution, the highest among the models I tested. The rest top out at 720p.
The TS1 also has other features to recommend it, including built-in facial recognition.
It means the camera can be set to recognize up to 6 different visages so that when any of those people appear in the shot (such as my daughter), the camera will automatically focus in on that person ensuring that they'll always look good.
You can also use the face-recognition feature to search through all the photos on your computer to find those that contain images of your favorite subject (be it spouse or offspring).
In spite of the Panaonic TS1's sporty appeal, the identically priced Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 actually took better pictures in my experience — even though it's only a 10.1-megapixel model.
Great shots aren't all about megapixels; lenses, processors, memory speed, and a whole slew of special sensors and algorithms playing a part.
The ZS3 also has a more advanced lens, cable of reaching 12x zoom, and its videos matched those of the TS1, even though it was limited to 720p resolution.
Alas, the ZS3 is not water- and dirt-proof. However, it shares most of the other features of the TS1, including facial recognition. So if you're not the athletic type, it may be the perfect traveling companion.
Another option is Sony's Cybershot DSC-T900, also just out this month. The glossy black $380 camera has a sliding lens cover that snaps the shooter to attention and a large touch-sensitive LCD screen on the back.
The 12.1-megapixel camera delivered very pleasing color fidelity in my still shot tests and some of the smoothest, hiccup-free HD video.
It was even able to accurately focus in on objects at greater distances, such as when I shot an elementary-school talent show in a large auditorium using the 4x optical zoom.
Like the other models, Sony throws in a raft of special features including blink and smile detection.
The blink detection option, for example, works by taking two pictures in rapid succession and then saves the one in which the subject's eyes are the least shut. However, it's far from perfect, and my daughter seemed determined to defeat this feature.
The Sony DSC-T900 is a handsome camera, but I did have two complains after spending a couple of weeks with it.
The first is that because of the lens placement in the upper left-hand corner, it's all too easy to take excellent shots of one's fingers. All the other models I tested had lenses closer to the center of the camera.
And just because you can put an iPhone-like touchscreen on something doesn't mean you should.
I found the Sony menus, icons and options along the side of the screen baffling at times, which often negated any advantage the touchscreen might provide in terms of ease of use.
If you're looking for an even more competitively priced camera that can do double duty recording HD video, there's the $350 Casio Exilim EX-FC100.
It, too, arrives in stores this month, shoots HD video clips in 720p and has a 9.1-megapixel still capability. The silver and black model I tested was certainly capable, if not on a par with the video skills of the Panasonic and Sony models.
However, it did offer one special feature of its own: the ability to shoot high-speed, 1,000-frame-per-second movies. Basically, that means it can shoot nifty slow-motion scenes.
Tinier still is the ruby red Canon PowerShot SD780 IS I tested. Priced at just $280, this 12.1-megapixel camera also shoots HD movies in 780p and has a basic 3 X optical zoom.
The camera's still shots were quite respectable, but the HD videos were not up to the standard set by the Panasonic and Sony models, eliciting a grainier and occasionally jumpier look.
On the other hand, the Canon has something none of the aforementioned models have and something many photographers can't do without: an optical viewfinder. So no matter how sunny it is outside, you can always frame your subject without relying on an LCD panel.
Finally, I tried the $280 Fujifilm Finepix S2000HD. This 10-megapixel model's claim to fame is its 15x optical zoom.
It's handy when you're not always in the middle of the action, but the additional optics make for a camera body that's substantially larger than the other pocket-sized models here. The S2000HD will definitely put a bulge in your purse.
The Fujifilm camera has some special features of its own, such as the ability to isolate and focus on up to 10 faces at a time, but it has some shortcomings as well.
In fully automatic mode, the camera had some trouble setting speeds to catch rapid action, and many pictures looked less than fully saturated.
Shooting in HD video mode, the S2000HD had trouble keeping some subjects in focus as they moved about a room, a symptom that was common to most of the still cameras.
Consequently, dedicated video camcorders still offer advantages over these all-in-one digital still cameras.
The lenses of the point-and-shoot cameras are ill-suited to most video tasks and don't generally match the clarity or zoom ranges of camcorders.
Furthermore, in my tests, the auto-focus of still cameras usually struggled handling moving video subjects.
The controls and buttons on camcorders are better suited to shooting video single-handedly; zoom controls, for example, on still cameras are sticky and difficult to reach in the midst of shooting a video clip.
And remember that shooting video can squeeze out any room for still shots on a memory card. A 30-minute HD clip can eat up a 2GB card, for example.
So for the moment, if you're after video memories of family excursions or you want to shoot movies to show on the living-room television, a camcorder is still the best choice.
However, if you're not focused primarily on video and only want the occasional clip to upload to YouTube or capture the occasional impromptu video event, a still camera capable of shooting HD video offers convenience and reasonable quality.