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Pint-Sized Pixel Play
Digital cameras so simple a child could love them have hit the market. We put a few through the kid-test

Asiaweek Pictures.

Che-ez! (top)
Max Resolution: 352 x 288
Price: $80
Our take: Quickly abandoned, photo-eating toy

Hewlett Packard PhotoSmart C200
Max Resolution: 1152 x 872
Price: About $300
Our take: Easy yet grown-up-feeling camera. Critics' choice

Chair legs and nostrils. That's what I remember about the first roll of pictures I took with the Kodak Instamatic camera my grandmother gave me for my eighth birthday. In the hands of a more capable photographer, such subjects might be considered art. In mine, they were just ugly. While I did manage to get one or two snapshots of grandma that were actually worth keeping, most of the photos quickly made their way to the dustbin. With them went the hard-earned allowance money I'd spent on processing. I eventually learned that film is precious and "to take or not to take" is the central question in photography.

Today, simple digital cameras designed for kids or adult novices have the power to change that restrictive way of thinking. Because the images are recorded as digital data in the camera's computer memory, you pay nothing for film or processing. Pictures can be quickly reviewed using the camera's liquid crystal display or your PC (you'll need one with a USB or serial port, as well as a CD-ROM drive for downloading the accompanying software). The shots of furniture or Uncle Roger's nose hairs can easily be deleted. "The hidden costs are drastically reduced," says Mahesh Harilela, general manager of N.H. Hong Kong Limited, the Asian distributor of the Che-ez! Digital Camera. Kids can also use the computer to crop, retouch or distort photos, make them into greeting cards or calendars, and e-mail them to friends and relatives. And with the price of the cameras themselves falling, a good digital point-and-shoot is a cost-effective way to introduce children to photography.

One of the main factors to consider when choosing a kid's camera is resolution. Digital images are made up of tiny dots called pixels. The more pixels, the sharper the photos. If you want to print photos 5" x 7" or larger, you'll need at least a million pixels, or one megapixel. You can get away with less than that if all you'll be doing is e-mailing the pictures, posting them on websites, or making small prints. But manufacturers offering $50 digicams are pushing the bottom boundary of acceptable resolution, and it's worth remembering that blurry images are no fun for shutterbugs of any age.

You'll also want to get a camera that is easy enough for your child to use. Granted, youngsters often put their parents to shame when it comes to mastering gadgets, but beyond a certain level of difficulty, they lose patience. Advanced features like different lighting modes will probably be lost on a first-time camera user.

Asiaweek Pictures.

Polaroid Fun Flash 640 (top)
Max Resolution: 640 x 480
Price: About $155
Our take: Inexpensive LCD-equipped camera. The bare minimum for keeping kids interested

Polaroid Fun 320
Max Resolution: 320 x 240
Price: $50
Our take: Simple to use, but low resolution and lack of LCD limit its appeal

With this in mind, we recruited a crack team of reviewers (that is, Asiaweek Picture Editor Rob Mountfort's sons Kai, 6, and Niko, 4) to test-drive a few of the latest lower-end offerings: the Che-ez! Digital Camera, the Hewlett Packard PhotoSmart C200 and Polaroid's Fun 320 and Fun Flash 640. The Mountfort boys are at the young end of the recommended age range for children's digital cameras, but their photo-friendly upbringing more than makes up for their shortness of tooth.

First on the reviewers' agenda was the Che-ez. The camera offers both "high-resolution" (a measly 352 x 288 pixels) and low-resolution (176 x 144) settings, as well as a short video clip mode. Kai and Niko didn't care too much about the numbers, though. When you're six and four, the proof is in the pudding. Sadly, there was no pudding to be had with the Che-ez. Set loose upon a Hong Kong playground with the lollipop-colored camera, the kids returned empty-handed. The culprit: a nasty feature that erases the pictures when the power is turned off — a real problem for wandering little fingers. We gave it a second and third chance, each one accompanied by new warnings to avoid the power switch, but "don't touch" is an instruction better left for expensive china and hot burners than a children's camera. The critics unceremoniously deemed the Che-ez a failure and moved on.

Polaroid's 320 fared a little better. Its silvery finish immediately sparked the boys' interest, and with three simple buttons — power, shutter and self-timer — the camera is even easier to use than the Che-ez. Better yet, its images survive when the power is turned off. That doesn't, however, mean they are much to behold. At 320 x 240, the resolution makes for lots of blur. And the Che-ez and the Polaroid 320 both suffer an even bigger problem. Neither of them has an LCD. To see the images that have been shot, you must download them to the computer — a process that taxed our reviewers' attention spans.

Children, in case you haven't noticed, prefer immediate gratification. Kai and Niko found it in the pricier, LCD-equipped cameras. Both the HP PhotoSmart C200 and the Polaroid Fun Flash 640 allow kids to review their pictures as they go. That not only makes for more fun, it also helps them learn how to take a proper photo. The HP is a bit more expensive than the Fun Flash, but its one-megapixel images are noticeably better than the Polaroid's 640 x 480 pictures. You can see the difference even on the small LCD screen. And while both cameras are fairly simple to use, the HP sports fewer confusing buttons on the back. Its heftier design even won favor with the Mountfort boys, making it the overall critics' choice. "They want something that feels like a real, adult camera," says Mami Sato, the children's mother. "They can tell if it's cheap and will break soon and they know if it does I won't buy it again."

Ironically, the more pared-down cameras might be fine for older, more patient users who just need a cheap way to take pictures for websites or e-mails. But if you want a camera that will hold a child's interest and encourage an understanding of photography, spend a little more and get one that sports an LCD. After all, even a $50 camera is no bargain if it ends up in a closet next to last year's Furby.

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