For years, the snapshots taken with camera phones were too grainy to put on your fridge, let alone in a frame. But now that today's most impressive models--such as Apple's iPhone 4S and Samsung's Galaxy S II--can capture pictures you can love unreservedly, why would anyone bother to buy a mundane point-and-shoot?
It's a good question, and the photo industry's giants are working overtime to answer it. They too have upped the ante on image quality. The most intriguing models pack superzoom lenses, built-in projectors and other nifty features that aren't yet common on phones. And they let you shoot photos as fast as you can press the shutter button. (Camera phones still tend to be sluggish.)
But they're missing Internet-savvy apps like the iPhone photo-sharing service Instagram, which in barely over a year has signed up 12 million shutterbugs who want to edit and post their photos on the fly. Instant creativity of that sort is the future of photography, and without it, even the most cutting-edge stand-alone cameras feel like throwbacks to a less connected era.
1. Apple iPhone 4S; $199 (with contract)
The new iPhone boasts so many photographic advances--a higher-resolution sensor, a fancier lens, a potent processor that permits snappier shooting and features like face detection--that Apple could have reasonably named it the iCamera. The cheapest version has 16 GB, i.e., room for a ton of photos.
Like virtually all camera phones, the 4S has a puny flash and no optical zoom.
Capturing and sharing the world around you with a gadget that's always with you.
2. Samsung MV800; $280
The articulated 3-in. touchscreen can be easily adjusted to multiple angles to help you see up and over a crowd, down low for pets or kids or flipped around for self-portraits.
The Samsung is a tad gimmicky. One feature suggests how much to tilt your head for a more fetching portrait.
Taking pictures of yourself--and other inspiring subjects--from any angle.
3. Canon PowerShot ELPH 510 HS; $350
One of the best reasons to buy a real camera is to get an optical-zoom lens. The 510 HS crams a serious one--with 12x magnification--into an eminently pocketable metal case.
The touchscreen interface can be frustrating. If you don't peck at the onscreen buttons with exacting precision, nothing happens.
Distant subjects such as wildlife and unsuspecting family members.
4. Nikon S1200pj; $430
The slim S1200pj isn't merely a camera; it's also a projector. Pop open its second lens and you can beam the photos and videos you've shot onto a wall or other flat surface. The image is surprisingly bright and crisp even when the display size is as big as a 60-in. flat-screen TV.
The audio that emanates from the camera's tiny speaker is too faint to fill a room.
Instant show-and-tell, almost anywhere.