I'm about six months behind on getting my wife a birthday present.

OK, I did get her some flowers and took her out to dinner. So I'm not a complete jerk.

But the main present I planned to give her was a digital camera. Instead, I gave her a rain check.

I had my reasons. I hadn't done enough research, for one. Also, I knew a whole new crop of cameras would start hitting the shelves about a month or two after her birthday. Gadget freak that I am, I was eager to see and test out what was in store.

My wife and I already own one digital camera, one of the early "prosumer" cameras. But it's heavy, a bit slow and, at about 4 years old, getting outdated.

We also have a 2-year-old son who is our frequent subject, so I wanted to find a camera that my wife and I could take with us on our family outings and be able to manage when one of us ended up inevitably carrying our son as well.

So I was looking for something new, something much lighter and smaller than my old camera, and preferably one that could take higher-quality pictures more quickly. As a bonus, I was hoping to find a camera that allowed for manual exposure of pictures, or at least some advanced shooting modes, so that my wife -- who has studied photojournalism -- could have more control over the photos she took.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of cameras out there that meet these criteria. And sure enough, camera makers unveiled a new batch of them earlier this year.

So a couple months, six test cameras and about a thousand pictures later, I'm finally ready to make the purchase. But I've got to say that even now it's going to be a tough choice; either of the cameras I liked best (read on) would make the perfect gift.

The Full Exposure

The models I compared were Casio's Exilim EX-Z850, Sony's DSC-W100, Hewlett-Packard's Photosmart R927, Pentax's Optio A10, Olympus' Stylus 810 and Nikon's Coolpix P4.

These six are the top of the line when it comes to compact digital cameras: They all have 8-megapixel sensors or better, weigh less than half a pound (even with batteries), have telescoping lenses and could easily fit in a shirt pocket.

Sony DSC-W100

Those similarities aside, the offerings from Casio and Sony clearly stood out from the rest. Indeed, I liked these two so much that I shot infinitely more pictures with them than any of the other cameras that I tested out -- they were just more fun to play with.

Part of that had to do with speed: Both cameras were extremely fast at taking pictures.

Famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about the ideal in photography of capturing "the moment." Let me tell you, when you have an energetic 2-year-old, that moment goes by very quickly: A major frustration with my sluggish old digital camera can be seen in my large gallery of blurry pictures.

Casio Exilim EX-Z850

I generally didn't have that problem with either the Casio or the Sony. In fact, I got some nice action pictures with the Casio of my son riding a merry-go-round, and the Sony took some great shots of my wife and son spinning in circles on the beach (a favorite activity).

The only instance in which speed became an issue with either camera was in very low light. In those situations, the DSC-W100, like other Sony cameras, relies on laser technology to get the proper focus. While that helps prevent out-of-focus shots, it takes long enough -- sometimes a second or more -- that you can miss some shots.

Both cameras were also easy to use and customize -- which should be a no-brainer with point-and-shoot cameras, but it wasn't always, such as with the H-P camera I tested.

With the Casio and the Sony, though, you can change shooting modes by turning a simple dial.

Both cameras also allow you to tweak simple settings -- such as whether the flash or macro mode should be on -- via dedicated buttons, rather than having to navigate a general settings menu.

Even shooting in full manual-exposure mode -- something most point-and-shoots make nearly impossible if they offer the feature at all -- was straightforward and simple.

Still, neither camera was perfect. They weren't the smallest of the bunch. And like many digital cameras, they sometimes had a tough time taking pictures in low, artificial light.

But the picture quality was outstanding, and they were both small enough to make me want to take them everywhere.

And then there was the price: $320 for the Sony and $300 for the Casio. That was less expensive than several of the other cameras I tested.

Considering how much I liked them -- and that prosumer cameras with comparable resolutions can retail for hundreds of dollars more -- it almost puts them into that bargain-bin range!

Negative Reinforcement

None of the other cameras gave the Sony or Casio a run for my money.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 ($325) is a perfectly decent camera. It was relatively fast, took good pictures and had a wide selection of shooting modes to choose from.

But the problem was that the camera was just too darn bulky.

At 7.1 ounces with batteries and 1.2 inches thick, the Nikon was both the heaviest and widest in the group. Regardless of the dimensions, it just felt hefty in my hands compared to the other cameras and wasn't fun to carry around.

It also had a few more flaws. For one, the camera only allows photos to be deleted one by one, meaning that unless you attach the camera to a computer, you can't get rid of exposures en masse.

Nikon Coolpix P4

Also, the camera's function dial slid too easily in and out of modes, which can prevent you from taking pictures and led to annoying messages that its dial was not in the "proper position."

The other cameras I tested -- H-P's Photosmart R927 ($290), Pentax's Optio A10 ($265) and Olympus' Stylus 810 ($380) -- fell even further short of the Sony and the Casio, mainly because they were just too slow.

Each of the three cameras had its own expression of sluggishness. The autofocus system on the H-P, for instance, audibly whirred for a second or more after you pressed the shutter release before taking a picture. The Olympus had the problem at the other end, forcing you a wait of a second or more (while it records the picture) before it shows the shot and allows you to take another picture.

Meanwhile, the Pentax took camera sloth to a stunning new level by combining these two problems. I could literally count the seconds between pushing the shutter release and when it was actually recorded: 1,001, 1,002 ...

(A Pentax representative, however, whom I spoke with after testing the Optio A10, said the company recently released a firmware update for the camera that addresses some, but not all, of the slowness issues I found.)

But the cameras all had further drawbacks. The H-P, for instance, refused to remember settings when it was turned off. Want to have the macro mode always turned on or the flash always turned off? Forget it. You have to reset each of those settings when you restart the camera.

Although I was frustrated by those shortcomings, they helped make my decision a little easier. Now if I could just decide on whether to get the Sony or the Casio.

Of course, at this point, I guess I could wait until her next birthday. I'm sure there will be plenty new cameras coming out then!

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