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Digital Cameras: Don't Go Cheap

"The quality of the photos with my Olympus [C-5050 camera] is great." --Kathryn Riley, middle-school teacher, Phoenix
Photograph: Reed Rahn

Cameras don't create as many blood-pressure-raising moments as other PC products. Folks in this year's survey reported low problem rates with cameras overall compared with other product categories. Canon, Panasonic, and Pentax, for example, got high marks in satisfaction with reliability. Canon earned a better-than-average score for ease of use, as well, helping it plow ahead of its competitors. Olympus earned some high marks overall, too: Just 7 percent of Olympus owners reported a significant problem with their camera, and only 4 percent reported a severe problem that required a tech-support call. The mean scores for vendors overall on these measures were 9 and 5 percent, respectively.

Kathryn Riley, a middle-school teacher in Phoenix, is one happy Olympus camera owner. "The quality of the photos with my Olympus [C-5050 camera] is great." She says that she finds it simple to use overall, too, but Olympus got a worse-than-average grade in our ease-of-use measure. Riley remarks that although her Olympus camera has "tons of menus, you don't need to know all the options [to take good pictures]."

Sally Smith Clemens, product manager for Olympus Imaging America, says that during the early stages of product development, Olympus listens to and considers customer feedback "so the final products are ultimately designed to do more to satisfy customers' needs."

HP and Kodak Woes

HP and Kodak received some disappointing results: 16 percent of HP users and 14 percent of Kodak users encountered a problem with their camera that limited its usefulness. Those are relatively high numbers in a category with an overall mean of 9 percent.

HP and Kodak both say they don't know of any issues with specific models or components that could have accounted for our findings. Each company says that its own internal measures have not revealed any spike in reliability complaints. Kodak's Mary Hadley, worldwide director of marketing for the digital capture group, says that the company's research shows customer satisfaction rising.

In the severe-problems measure, 10 percent of HP camera users and 8 percent of Kodak owners had problems that required calling tech support; the overall mean in this measure was 5 percent. In response, HP and Kodak each claim that as features increase on cameras, support calls can multiply as well. In late 2003 and throughout 2004, both companies say, they have seen an increase in the number of first-time camera buyers, who tend to call tech support more than experienced camera users.

It's true that the number of first-timers is on the rise, says Michelle Slaughter, director for digital photography trends at InfoTrends: 12.3 million people in the United States bought a digital camera for the first time in 2004, as compared with 10.7 million people in 2003, according to InfoTrends.

Since both Hewlett-Packard and Kodak sell a higher volume of low-end cameras than do other vendors, and since first-time buyers are more likely to buy low-end models, this could partly explain the companies' higher rates of problems requiring calls to tech support, Slaughter says. Not all support calls involve a hardware failure, of course; some merely involve a user question.

For overall reliability, Slaughter says that the adage "you get what you pay for" still rings true for camera shoppers. She believes that owners of super-low-priced cameras--usually with a plastic casing--are typically less satisfied with overall reliability than other camera owners. Our survey results support this theory as well.

In the end, purchasing a camera with more features is not always the right choice, especially if you don't like fiddling with options and settings. But if you skip the absolute cheapest models, you're more likely to get a trouble-free camera.

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