No sooner had the megapixel digicam (a camera capable of representing an image in one million or more pixels) been touted as the norm for acceptable image quality than manufacturers were rushing out 1.3 and 1.6 versions, to be superseded by 2 megapixel models. And it doesn't stop there; October saw the release of cameras by - among others - Kodak, Canon, Epson, Olympus and Fuji. More than 60 new digicams were launched in 1999. From cutting edge to blunt instrument is a journey of ignominious brevity in the digital camera world.
As ever with digital equipment, if you've recently bought a camera - tough, it just got cheaper! Save yourself the heartache of retrospective price comparison and don't go near a consumer magazine for at least a year. If you're about to buy, the two most important questions are why and what.
Why digital? Ease of use, simplicity of image processing and reduced costs are likely to be three of the most significant considerations. Before buying, it's prudent to check on compatibility with your computer system. Many cameras are now released with the new USB serial connection: will there be a problem there? Are there any known software or hardware incompatibilities? These are questions that any reputable dealer will be only too happy to answer.
What use will the camera be put to? If it's for school outings or field trips then you'll want to look at removable storage options and battery life. Most cameras come with rechargeable Ni-MHs (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries, a great improvement on alkaline batteries, but further back-up is available in the form of belt-clip power packs.
If you want a digicam to add visual appeal to a school website be aware those super megapixel images will impede your site's download time and could even discourage visitors. So-called lower resolution VGA and XCA models, perfectly adequate for web pictures, start at little over pound;100 and many are heavily discounted. It's well worth a search on the Internet for some of these older models as dealers are able to offer remaindered stock at low prices.
For extreme robustness and durability - let's be honest, "unbreakable" is a forlorn concept in the school environment - the shock-protected Jam C@m takes, literally,some beating (pound;59.95 from TAG).
But if image quality is paramount an excellent selection of cameras - many of them megapixel - is available at less than pound;300. These include the Kodak DC200Plus and the DC215Plus, Fuji's new MX1500, the Olympus C-1000L and, at less than pound;200, Jenoptix's JD-12. Nikon lenses have always had an enviable reputation with photographers and the Coolpix 900 series combines high resolution, superb imaging and a few traditional camera features - external flash, manual focus and aperture and shutter controls. Olympus, Epson, Ricoh, Fuji, Sony and Kodak also produce two-megapixel cameras but you're looking at upwards of pound;400 - at present.
Budget Jenoptik JD-11 Image quality doesn't really compare to newer models but at this price it would be churlish to quibble. Supplied with 2MB CompactFlash card and PhotoSuite software.
Price: pound;100 Fuji DX10 Now on offer for less than pound;200 this near-megapixel camera has built in flash, 1.6x optical zoom and is bundled with a 2MB SmartMedia card.
Mid-range Kodak DC240 Megapixel camera with 3x optical zoom (39-117mm equivalent) and fast processing speed. Special deal includes 16MB CompactFlash card and album software. Kodak onboard software is exceptionally easy to use.
Price: pound;400 Fuji MX-1700 Compact, stylish brushed metal body. Megapixel resolution and 3x optical zoom. Bundled with 8MB SmartMedia card and Adobe PhotoDeluxe 3.
Price: pound;350 Megapixel Epson PhotoPC 850Z Top-of-the-range two-megapixel camera which can achieve, it's claimed, three-megapixel resolution. Looks and works rather like film cameras. Voice recording and time-lapse capability. Advanced features for budget price.
Price: pound;500 Sony DSC-F505 With 5x Zeiss zoom lens, spot metering and aperture and shutter controls this is Sony's top of the range digicam.
Price: pound;700 Nikon CoolPix 950 As you might expect, exceptional lens quality. Aperture and shutter controls, external flash socket and 8MB CompactFlash card. 3x optical zoom (38-115mm) Still the one to beat in this price range.
Price: pound;700 Nikon CoolPix 700 Considerably cheaper than the 950 and without the zoom lens. But can take Nikon's own range of fisheye, wide-angle and telephoto lenses Price: pound;500