We’re back, once again, with our annual Worst Cameras of the Year awards. Throughout the year, we hear from hundreds if not thousands of frustrated camera buyers, disappointed by their new shooter. Whether it’s poor performance, shoddy construction, or dismissive customer service, these folks wish that they had not bought their cameras. To help as many people avoid this frustration as possible, we’ve put together a list of five of the most notorious cameras released in 2010.
We’ve put in a lot of hours tracking these cameras. We follow just about every camera through its entire life cycle, from the announcement through the release and peak to death. We scour spec sheets trying to find the most promising models, and try to conduct hands-on reviews of as many of them as possible. When we can’t, we keep up with other experts’ reviews from around the photo-community. It’s an integral part of our rating process.
Most reviewers only get to spend a few weeks with each camera, enough to gauge performance, image quality, and get a general sense of durability. But the actual camera buyers can tell us about reliability three, six or twelve months down the line. To be fair, even the best cameras run into problems, but when multiple users report the same catastrophic failures over and over for a particular model, it usually indicates that something is inherently wrong with the manufacturing or design. We keep our eyes and ears open for those indicators too. These five worst cameras had both negative expert reviews and negative user reviews.
One more note: we’ve spiced up the format of these awards this year. Rather than picking a few point-and-shoots and a few ultracompacts, we’ve chosen one camera from each of five popular camera categories. You'll see.
With no further adieu, the worst cameras of 2010:
Worst Point-and-Shoot: Olympus FE-47
The Olympus FE-4x series is reliably mediocre. Last year’s FE-45 was our pick for the worst camera of 2009, so we had low expectations for this latest model. The FE-47 is an improvement over last year’s model -- a few users bothered to write vaguely positive comments -- but most owners complain about the same trifecta of poor quality that doomed the FE-45: Blurry, noisy, and off-color images; flimsy build quality; and short battery life.
DCHQ commenter Chase said “The LCD display was terrible...Build quality is terrible, and it feels very unsubstantial,” while Tom said “Just can’t take a good picture with this camera.” muhammedbaaqier! sums it up: “Don’t buy this one!”
Sure, the FE-47 is a cheap-o camera that isn’t meant to perform like a $200 shooter. But it’s still the worst option in its price range. When cameras like the Canon A495 retail for the same amount of money, there’s no reason to bother with the FE-47.
Worst Ultracompact: Casio Z800
Casio has at least a half-dozen ultracompacts on the market right now, and most of them fail to leave a lasting impression. But we’ll always remember the Z800, the camera that broke on us twice. When we began to test it this fall, it broke within a few hours. The lens was locked in an extended position, rendering the camera unusable. Not good, but as we know, lemons pop up from time to time. We exchanged it for a new one, which lasted long enough for our reviewer Emily to finish her write-up. But shortly thereafter, the second Z800 succumbed to a software malfunction.
“The Casio Z800 was an utter disaster,” Emily said. “After the second one bit the dust, despite my bubbled-wrapped efforts to keep it safe, it was pretty easy to chalk up the defects to a poor design.
If Casio inadvertently sent two faulty Z800 units to a popular digital-camera review site, think about how many more they’ve inadvertently sent to stores. You might get lucky with a good one, but don’t bother taking the risk. For more reliable and better performing ultracompacts, check out the Canon SD1300 or Sony W350.
Worst “Durable” Camera: Samsung SL605
The word “durable” is in quotes here because the SL605 isn’t a true durable camera like the Sony TX5, Panasonic TS series, or Olympus Tough series. Samsung doesn’t always try to pass it off as such -- the only allusion to durability on the product packaging is the “Bonus Anti-Scratch Mask” label on the box -- but press materials claim that it was designed “with durability in mind.”
It comes with a scratch-resistant plate that can snap onto the front, but it’s not built onto the camera. There’s also a rubberized strip around the seams, which should keep dust and sand out of the crack and crevices. But if it falls to the floor or takes a dunk in the pool, it’s the end of your SL605.
DCHQ commenter Burton found out the hard way: “My daughter dropped this camera inside a case ... and the LCD broke. It is definitely not a durable camera.” As kombizz put it, “Sometimes I wonder why manufacturers try to waste their time for making a useless camera?!”
In reality, it’s a typical under-performing cheap camera, and priced like one too, which is no crime. But we have to call out the SL605 on its tough-guy posturing. If you need an actual rugged camera for a middling price, take a look at the Panasonic TS10 or Olympus Tough 3000.
Worst Superzoom: Fujifilm S1800
This is a tricky one. Calling the S1800 the “worst” superzoom seems a bit harsh. Most S1800 buyers seem to have generally positive things to say about this camera, and it is by far the cheapest camera with a comparably huge zoom lens (18x, in this case). It is possible -- even likely -- that you’ll be happy with this camera, especially if you’ve never used a superzoom.
But we’ve used plenty of superzooms. Take it from us: We know how good superzooms can get, and the S1800 feels like a toy by comparison. The flimsy build, inconsistent image quality, and laggy performance make the S1800 feel like an over-sized point-and-shoot with a huge lens slapped on the front.
Amazon commenter AKR summed up most of the complaints we’ve heard: “I really don't like this camera. It's pretty bad in even slightly low light. A lot of pictures end up blurry. It is horrible at preserving the real colors.” He also noted that in manual modes, the S1800 does not preview how pictures will expose with various settings, so novices will go through a lot of trial and error.
There also seems to be some issue with memory card compatibility. Even before the S1800 was released to retailers, users wrote in to complain that it was incompatible with a fair number of memory cards, even after re-formatting. We rarely hear complaints like this, so to hear it so frequently about one camera indicates that there must be something wrong. Chances are that the Fuji S1800 will work with most SD/SDHC cards, but buyers shouldn’t have to worry about an issue like that at all.
We’ll put it this way: The S1800 is a value for the money, as long as you’re realistic about what a $170 (or even cheaper) superzoom can accomplish. Some people think it’s great. But despite all the positive feedback we’ve heard, the S1800 runs into the most problems and also generates the most negative feedback. Buy at your own risk, but take a look at the S2550 first, if not similar budget models from Olympus and Nikon.
Worst Travel Zoom: Samsung HZ35W
The HZ35W isn’t so much a terrible camera as it is a huge disappointment. We were excited about the HZ35W camera when it was announced last winter. It had a number of best-in-class specs, like the widest lens (24mm), the longest zoom factor (15x), and the best screen (a three-inch AMOLED display). Then there was the built-in GPS, which could be used for geo-tagging, or even as a map.
This camera had so much promise. Digital Photography Review even awarded it a Gold rating, placing it at the top of the compact-zoom class. But barely six months after the HZ35W hit the shelves, Samsung discontinued production of the North American version, and the HZ35W was no more.
What went wrong? It boils down to the GPS system, which barely worked at all. To function properly, it needed map data, but that data wasn’t pre-loaded with the camera. It was available for download from Samsung’s website, but the process was confusing -- even we never managed to figure out how to make it work. Out of the blue, Samsung shipped us an SDHC card with pre-loaded data. We hadn’t told them that we were having problems, so it led us to believe that they knew there was something wrong with the whole process.
Even after we began using the pre-loaded card, the GPS function was incredibly wonky. It wasn’t enough to stand outside -- we had to stand in wide-open, completely unobstructed areas, like parking lots or bridges. Even when it found a signal, it was several hundred yards off the mark. Same city, yes, but same block or even same neighborhood, no.
So we gave it a mediocre review. $350 is too much to pay for a camera with average-at-best image quality and performance and a non-functioning GPS unit. Instead, we directed attention to Samsung’s HZ30W, a near-identical camera for under $250 (closer to $200 now). It sports an LCD rather than an AMOLED and lacks the GPS “capability,” but it’s a solid camera for the price.
Trolls, both fans and foes of the HZ35W, started calling us idiots. Though our review was decidedly lukewarm and we literally told people to buy a different camera, one commenter asked us “How can you recommend this camera? … Samsung must pay you for your biased ad.” Another was dead sure that we reviewed the HZ30W instead, since he (mistakenly) believed that the HZ35W had superior image quality.
We got in touch with Samsung to ask them if perhaps we had a faulty camera, since other sites gave it such favorable reviews and many readers were sure that we were mistaken. Samsung’s rep responded that they’d look into it, but the HZ35W would be discontinued in a few weeks anyway. It’s odd for a manufacturer to discontinue a product mid-season without announcing a replacement, unless there’s something really wrong with the camera.
Around the time Samsung halted production, we started hearing that support for the HZ35W in the US had halted as well. In July, a reader told us that the US site for map-data downloads had been down for months. In September, we heard from user Don408:
“I purchased this camera to use the GPS function for geo-tagging my photographs. Unfortunately the download process of the Mapview and City programs from Samsung server does not work. Therefore the GPS on the camera does not work. Their tech support doesn't have a clue about this camera. each time I have called tech support they have promised to escalate this to a higher level stating that someone will call me back in 24 to 48 hours, well I'm going on five days now, no phone call.”
Whatever the reason was that Samsung discontinued the HZ35W, it sounds like they just want to forget about it already. The good news is that it’s very difficult to find these days, so you probably won’t make the mistake of buying one this holiday season. It is still available in many territories as the WB650, and apparently the GPS is better-implemented. But we recommend that North American buyers -- our bread and butter -- check out the HZ30W instead, with all the good aspects of the HZ35W for a much lower price. If GPS is a must, check out the Panasonic ZS7 instead.
There you have it. Avoid buying these cameras for you or your loved ones this holiday season -- go with our substitute recommendations instead. Happy holidays and happy shopping!