Back to School 2011: Top digital cameras for kids under $110

With so many age- and budget-appropriate digital cameras for kids available, you don't have to give your child a hand-me-down camera. Here's a list of great options for kids of all ages, from preschoolers to college-bound teens.
Written by Janice Chen, Inactive on

It's that time of year again: the kiddies are gearing up to head back to school. While you're out shopping for school supplies, you may want to think about outfitting the backpack with a kid-friendly digital camera. Sure, you could play the hand-me-down game with your old camera, but with so many affordable cameras designed for kids, you can easily find something better suited for a young person's needs. Whether your child is bound for preschool or for college, you can find an age- and budget-appropriate option on the market today. Here is a shortlist to help you get started, arranged by grade, all selling for under $110:

Image Gallery: Check out photos of the Top digital cameras for kids under $110.

Preschool: Gummy Bears Digital Camera
These days, there are a ton of low-cost kids digital cameras on the market, most of which are cheap in build quality and won't hold up long to the physical abuse that a preschooler will inevitably visit upon them. The Gummy Bears Digital Camera, built by Vivitar and sold by Sakar International (which acquired Vivitar in 2008), isn't exactly high-end in build either, but the rubbery gummy bear-ish material that encases the camera seems like it can take more of a licking (no pun intended) than the typical cheapy cameras. It sells at Kmart for just $25, so you shouldn't expect much more than a bare-bones camera, but given its low cost, I was happy to see both an optical viewfinder and a color LCD (albeit a tiny 1.1-inch one) as well as video-recording capabilities. The 1.3 megapixel sensor won't deliver much more than a low-end cameraphone terms of image quality, but preschoolers will still be delighted. As an added bonus, the camera can double as a webcam (on both Windows PCs and Macs) and the included Snap n' Share software makes uploading photos and videos to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube a snap (not that your toddler is going to be doing that, but the feature may come in handy if you want to share some of their classic shots with your FB crew). The camera comes with 8MB of built-in memory (no options for expansion) which should hold between 15 to 276 shots, depending on the resolution and compression rate you choose. It takes two AAA batteries, but be forewarned, if you don't download your photos and videos (with the included USB cable) before you remove the batteries, you'll lose them all.

If you have a slightly bigger budget, my favorite preschooler's camera is still the Vtech Kidizoom Plus, which costs just over twice what the Gummy Bears camera does. But if you're looking for a lower-cost option, the Gummy Bears camera is a basic but solid choice.

Grade school: LeapPad Explorer with camera

Though it costs a bit more than your average kids camera, my favorite option for grade schoolers is actually the LeapPad Explorer, a new kids tablet device from the folks that brought us the popular Leapster Explorer educational gaming device. The LeapPad includes a built-in, rear-facing camera that lets you snap both stills and videos and takes advantage of the tablet's 5-inch touchscreen to frame and view photos. Though the actual camera viewing area is closer to 3.5-inches (after you take into account the onscreen shutter, self-timer, and back buttons, and memory usage gauge), that still blows away viewfinders on any other kids camera selling for under $100.

Using the aforementioned self-timer, kids can take self-portraits (and video) getting a five second count-down to allow time to turn the LeapPad around so that they're facing the camera. Clear verbal instructions are provided and the device prompts you with suggestions if you don't take any action, making it easy for kids to figure out how to shoot without having to read any instructions. Kids can even use the self-portrait capability to personalize the LeapPad by taking a photo and saving it to their profile. The tablet also comes with camera-ready apps preinstalled, including a Photo Lab that offers a slew of fun editing tools and the option to "ask your parent" to connect to a computer and share results with friends and family.

Of course, the LeapPad Explorer is so much more -- it's a gaming device, e-book reader, and educational tool too -- but for a list price of $99, it's also the best kids (ages 4 to 9) camera and camcorder for the money.

Middle school: Superheadz Clap camera

Middle schoolers will like the gee-whiz factor of this little gizmo. Taking a page from the Flip camcorder school of minimalism, the (unfortunately named) Superheadz Clap is simplicity itself: a super tiny camera that's not much bigger than a USB thumb drive (1.4× 2.75×0.6 inches) and less than an ounce in weight. There are hardly any buttons on it (just power and shutter) and a cap pops off to reveal a built-in USB connector, which allows you to plug the camera into your USB port for easy downloading. Note that you'll also need to purchase a MicroSD memory card to use the camera, which shoots not only 2-megapixel stills, but also 720×480/30fps video. The camera is strictly about fun, though--there isn't even a viewfinder to frame your shots--but like any toy camera, if you shoot enough photos, you'll surely come up with some winners.  The Clap comes in six great colors and is available on Amazon.com for $49.

High school: DXG-018 3D Camera & Viewer My pick for high-school kids is another inexpensive but fun camera, the DXG-018 3D Camera. Unlike most cameras offering 3D shooting these days (which take two shots in burst mode and the use in-camera image processing to create a 3D image), the DXG 3D camera actually includes two lenses and two sensors. Of course for $70, don't expect something on the level of the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3. Each 0.3-megapixel CMOS sensor in the DXG camera is just 1/9 of an inch (tinier than your average budget point-and-shoot), so image quality isn't going to be anything to write home about. And the LCD is similarly tiny at just 1.44 inches. As with the Clap, you'll have to add a memory card yourself (SD this time). There aren't many settings that you can adjust, so the camera is super-simple to operate, though obviously limited in functionality.

The camera comes bundled with three cardboard 3D viewers, and you can print images out on standard 4x6 photo paper and they'll be properly formatted for viewing, with dotted lines for you to cut along to trim the photo to fit the viewer. Nice and compact, the DXG-018 runs on two AAA batteries, and comes in five bright colors.

College: Canon PowerShot A1200 Unless your student is studying photography (in which case, you'll want to get a digital SLR, or some other interchangeable lens camera), a compact point-and-shoot is a great option for the social beings that incoming freshmen inevitably become. If your coffers are drained after signing the tuition check, though, you can still send your college-bound student off with a decent camera. The Canon PowerShot A1200 is a solid budget offering that will only set you back $109, but delivers surprisingly good image quality and as well as an impressive range of features for such a low price (e.g., as 720p HD video recording and in-camera special effects filters, like fish-eye, sepia, posterize, etc).  The A1200 is also easy to use, so your student can stick to poring over textbooks rather than camera manuals. And because it uses standard AA batteries, college kids can grab it and go without having to remember to charge up.

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