Maybe you don't want a zillion pixels, a 300x zoom and more knobs and dials than a Boeing 747's cockpit? If you just want a simple, sturdy, practical camera that runs on a pair of AAs, the Nikon Coolpix L20, available for around £120, could fit the bill perfectly.
AAs are usually seen as a poor relation of lithium-ion rechargeables. Alkalines have a reputation for a short and unpredictable life, and NiMH AAs drain quickly even in storage. According to Nikon, though, you should get around 240 shots out of a pair of alkalines in the L20 -- about what you'd get from the li-ion cells in other pocket cameras -- and you can get replacements at the newsagent's for a just a couple of quid when they do run out.
Alkalines take up more space, of course, which makes the L20 plumper than the average digital camera. That's not a bad thing, though. The camera's easier to handle as a result, and it's still small enough to go in a jacket pocket or handbag.
The finish isn't bad, either. Our sample came in a deep, glossy red. Plastic it might be, but the L20 feels pretty decent.
On the back there's a 76mm (3-inch) LCD -- the cheaper, 8-megapixel Coolpix L19 has a 69mm (2.7-inch) screen -- and a handful of clearly-labelled controls. One button on the top is for changing modes, while the other swaps to playback mode. You'll soon be up and running with or without the manual.
While our first impressions were good, there are some problems. The little rubber door covering the USB/AV connector is practically impossible to open unless you're prepared to file your fingernails to a point specially, and the navigation pad on the back is cheap, wobbly and doesn't work that well, while the text in the menus is crude and blocky. We don't understand why this should be -- it's not as if the screen itself is low resolution.
It's while you're ferreting around in the menus that you realise this really is a basic camera. You can change the white balance and set continuous shooting in the auto mode (not the 'easy auto' or scene modes), but you could waste plenty of time looking for the ISO adjustment, because there isn't one. This is surely a big oversight. Camera makers can leave out the scene modes, the white-balance presets, the face detection and everything else, but not the ISO. With these tiny sensors, that's one thing you do want to control. On a sunny day, pictures will be fine, but, when the light levels fall, the L20's going to whack up the ISO whether you like it or not.
The L20 looks smart but, in use, it's got a distinctly cheap feel, although that's more to do with the controls and the interface than the camera itself.
The Nikon Coolpix L20 is cheap, but not that cheap. The pictures are alright, the autofocus speed is okay, and the zooming speed, face detection and image quality are all decent. This is a budget camera, though, and it rubs your nose in it almost all the time. There are better cameras to spend £120 on.
Edited by Charles Kloet