Back to School Guide 2010: Best digital cameras for kids

As the next school year approaches, it's a great time to gear up your favorite students with a new camera. To help you snap up a camera that will suit students of any age, here's a shortlist of top back-to-school cameras arranged by grade.
Written by Janice Chen, Inactive

As the back-to-school season rapidly approaches, it's a great time to gear up your favorite students to get behind the camera for first-day-of-school snapshots. Though it's always tempting to pass along your old digital camera to your kids (so you can upgrade with a bit less guilt), your hand-me-down point and shoot isn't always age-appropriate. To help you snap up a camera that will suit students of any age, here's a shortlist of my favorite back-to-school cameras arranged by grade:

Image Gallery: Check out photos of the Top 5 digital cameras for kids.
Pentax Optio WS80
Polaroid PoGo Instant Digital Camera

Preschool: LeapFrog Click n' Create Digital Camera
Sakar International makes several digital cameras that are geared toward pre-schoolers -- including a Dora the Explorer camera and a SpongeBob Squarepants camera that actually comes with a waterproof housing.  But I prefer Sakar's LeapFrog Click n' Create Digital Camera because it offers higher resolution (2.1megapixels) and better image quality as well as a 1.5-inch preview LCD. While preschoolers might gravitate toward the Dora and SpongeBob characters, the lack of an LCD on those cameras is a dealbreaker for me. The size of the LeapFrog camera is great for little hands, as are the rubberized grips that make the camera feel fairly sturdy, though it's nowhere near as solidly built (or versatile) as the Vtech Kidizoom Plus, which sells for the same $50.  Though the Vtech camera (which I recommend for slightly older kids) is a much better value for the money, if you're buying for a 2 or 3 year old, the LeapFrog camera will be easier to handle -- both because it's much simpler to use, and because of its more compact size. Tots will love that the camera says "great shot!" when you snap a photo and "bye-bye" when you turn it off, but parents will be grateful there's an option to turn off the sound since there's no volume control. The camera comes with 8MB of built-in memory, so it can store roughly 100 photos depending on the resolution you choose.  But because it's SD RAM, you must download the images before you remove the batteries or you'll lose all your shots. Bundled software includes LeapFrog brand games and basic photo editing software for use on a PC or Mac.

Go to Grade School »

Grade school: Vtech Kidizoom Plus
I included the Vtech Kidizoom Plus in my 2009 Holiday Gift Guide for kids and it still deserves to be at the top of any shortlist of cameras for young children. Though it's one of the bulkier kids' cameras on the market, its rugged construction, two-eye viewfinder, 1.8-inch LCD, video capability, playback on TV, and on-camera games and special photo effects make it one of the most versatile offerings around. I'd even recommend it for older preschoolers -- while they won't be able to use all the features without assistance, it's a good camera for them to grow into.

The current Kidizoom Plus model (available on the Vtech site for $50) is a 2.0 megapixel shooter with 256MB of built-in memory that can be expanded up to 2GB with an SD Card. Kids of all ages will love the in-camera special effects that you can apply to photos as you take them, such as the Funny Face liquid distortion filters, cartoon frames, or funny hats and other stamps you can put on photos. The five built-in games can be challenging for younger children, but are perfect for grade-schoolers who will find the four-way rocker and mode dial familiar and easy to use. Dedicated buttons control the built-in flash and 2x digital zoom. Non-readers will need help accessing menus and changing settings, but will still have fun snapping photos and videos until they grow into the more advanced features.

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Go to Middle School »

Middle school: Pentax Optio WS80 (Ages 11 to 13)
Kids that are headed into middle school will want a more "grown-up" looking camera, but you'll want to get one that's rugged enough to withstand being tossed around a backpack (or dropped in the occasional pool). Though there are plenty of ruggedized and waterproof cameras on the market these days, many will be overkill (and overpriced) for a middle-school student -- and of course, some are just downright ugly.  The Pentax Optio WS80 is not only well-priced at $186.95 list (I've seen it as low as $130 online), but with two color options (white with purple accents or black with orange) it's also stylish enough for "cool"-conscious middle-schoolers. The WS80 is dustproof and waterproof to depths of up to 5 feet (which isn't enough for diving, but plenty for splashing around a pool and withstanding the odd waterballoon fight).  It's very compact and light, but still sports a relatively large 2.7-inch LCD. The 10 megapixel point-and-shoot includes a 35-175mm (equivalent) 5x zoom lens, can shoot 720p HD video recording at 30 fps, and offers useful features such as smile, blink, and face detection (for up to 32 faces and in as little as 0.03 of a second, according to Pentax).

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Go to High School »

High school: Polaroid PoGo Instant Digital Camera
High school kids are among the most social beings around, so you'll want to find a camera that lets them share photos easily. While these days that usually means Facebook, there's something to be said for the immediate gratification of passed-around Polaroid prints, which are always an instant hit at any party (painful pun intended).  The Polaroid PoGo Instant Digital Camera can give your high-schooler the best of both worlds. Not only is it a full-fledged digital camera with a 3-inch LCD, but it also includes a built-in printer that spits out 2x3-inch prints at the touch of a button. Though the camera is certainly bulkier than most, and specs like 5-megapixel resolution and 4x digital-only zoom are unimpressive relative to even the least expensive of today's compact cameras, the gee-whiz factor of watching those prints come out is even cooler than old-school Polaroids (which high-schoolers probably don't remember anyway). The camera itself is reasonably priced at $199, but as with film Polaroids, the prints will cost you -- a 30-pack of the compatible 2x3-inch ZINK photo paper costs $10.99 (or 37 cents a print). Still, the print quality I got from a sample unit sent from Polaroid is surprisingly good, and high-school kids will love the fact that they're peel-off, sticky-back snapshots.

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Go to College »

College: Pentax K-x
Though the Polaroid PoGo and Pentax Optio WS80 would also make fine cameras for your college-bound student (both mix well with parties and beer), I opted to go a more serious route for the college student: a digital SLR (my strict Asian parents would be proud). Because any camera that's taken to college will have to withstand some amount of dorm-room/backpack abuse, I'm recommending a solidly built inexpensive, entry-level shooter: the Pentax K-x (which was also on my list of Top 10 digital SLR cameras from earlier this year). Not only is the K-x reasonably priced at $650 (including an 18-55mm zoom lens), it is also well featured for the price, offering LiveView shooting, an 11-point autofocus system, 4.7 fps continuous shooting speed, and impressive sensitivity range (ISO 100 to 12,800 expanded), not to mention the 720p HD video recording mode at 24fps. Students will like the rainbow of body color options (blue, green, orange, purple, red, navy, black and white) and since it uses AA batteries (four lithium AAs are included) rather than proprietary Lithium Ion batteries like most dSLRs, it'll be easy to grab replacements at the campus store.

[See a photo gallery of the Pentax K-x and a gallery of sample photos shot with the K-x.]

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Go back to Preschool »

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