Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Digital cameras for kids

Kids love digital cameras. Whether it's the happy chorus of "Can I see? Can I see?" and subsequent jockeying to get a glimpse of the LCD, or the fact that you can just let them snap away randomly without worrying about wasting film, digital cameras make great gifts for kids. While it's tempting to just pass along your old digital camera to the children when you upgrade, cameras that are designed just for kids offer features that make them better suited to the smaller set. Here's a list of my three favorite digital cameras for kids.

Kids love digital cameras. Whether it's the happy chorus of "Can I see? Can I see?" and subsequent jockeying to get a glimpse of the LCD, or the fact that you can just let them snap away randomly without worrying about wasting film, digital cameras provide a level of gratification for kids that their film counterparts never did. While it's tempting to just pass along your old digital camera to the children when you upgrade, cameras that are designed just for kids offer features that make them better suited to the smaller set.  Here are my picks for the best digital cameras for kids:

Vtech Kidizoom Plus This is an update to my favorite kids digital camera from last year, and it's still a winner. The "plus" version of the camera retains all of the kid friendly features of its predecessor, such as the rugged construction, two-eye viewfinder, 1.8-inch LCD, video capability, playback on TV, and on-camera games and special photo effects. It also doubles the built-in memory to 512MB (expandable with an SD card) while retaining the 2.0-megapixel resolution (which is really plenty for most young kids), bumping storage up to 2,000 photos or five minutes of video. There are all new games and new special effects, including several Funny Face liquid distortion filters that lets your child make entertaining caricatures (remember Kai's Power Goo?).  The menus and function buttons have been updated as well, but they're arguably more complicated. Instead of the joystick button, the Kidizoom Plus uses a four-way rocker and a new mode dial to switch functions. Volume control is now a less-intuitive two-step process though the addition of a dedicated flash button is nice. There are also buttons to control the new 2x digital zoom feature, which is fun for kids to use (though for adults digital zoom isn't all that useful).

The Kidizoom Plus (list price $59.99) is a great camera for younger kids and comes in blue or pink versions. I'd recommend it for children about 3 to 8 years old. 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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Lego Digital Camera

For kids who are a bit older, the Vtech may feel too babyish, so another fun option is the Lego Digital Camera.  While it's quite a bit more limited in functionality than the Vtech, the Lego camera is much lighter and more compact, and the Lego design will appeal to older kids--I'd say from around six to 12, though the manufacturer recommends it for ages 7 to 14.  The camera looks like it's built from Lego pieces, but it can't be taken apart. It does come with three matching Lego bricks which can be snapped on, but it's more of a gimmick than anything useful and actually may confuse kids into trying to pry off some of the other "bricks" that are really permanently attached.

Though it doesn't include video capture or any fun effects or games like the Vtech offering, the Lego camera does deliver 3 megapixel resolution and takes slightly sharper photos. Unfortunately, there's only 32MB of built-in memory and no option for expansion, so it will only hold 80 images before downloading. The 1.5-inch LCD is smaller, but brighter and sharper than the Vtech's. With only four buttons (six including the shutter and power buttons), the interface is simple to master for kids of any age, and since there are really only two modes--capture and playback--they won't even need to read the include quick-start guide.

With a list price of $49.99, the Lego Digital Camera is an inexpensive option for young shutterbugs that find the chunky design of the Vtech too childish and want better photo quality. It's rugged but compact and light, and comes in pink or multicolored (think classic Lego primary colors) versions.

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Digital Blue U-Turn Kids Digital Camera

For the tween and teen set (who are, like, totally over Legos), the Digital Blue U-Turn Kids Digital Camera is a fun and inexpensive option. Be forewarned up front that the 0.3 megapixel resolution of this camera (maximum 640x480 VGA image) isn't going to produce images worth printing much bigger than 4x6 (and even then, it's not great) but its target age group is really more about sharing via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter etc. anyway. The manufacturer recommends the camera for ages 7 to 15, but I'd say it's better for about 10 or 11 to 17 year olds for this very reason.

The most appealing feature of the camera is its ability to twist the 2.4-inch LCD around to shoot self portraits easily. Tweens and teens will also love the 12 "morphing" filters, that are similar to the Funny Face liquid distortion filters in the Vtech Kidizoom Plus. They'll also like the design, that's bright and appealing, but not too childish. The camera takes three AA batteries, which kids will like for immediate gratification (no waiting for the camera to get charged), but they do add weight to the camera. In addition to the standard USB connection, theres an output for both NTSC and PAL TV standards.

Though its limited image quality makes it a poor choice for kids that have a real interest in photography, priced at just $49.99, the U-Turn Kids Digital Camera is a fun toy camera for teens and tweens. The LCD is nice and big for a camera of this price and the twisting feature is a standout.

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Fujifilm FinePix Z33WP

Finally, for older kids that are more interested in photography and need a camera that will offer better image quality, I'd recommend the Fujifilm FinePix Z33WP.  It's not designed for kids specifically, but its rugged waterproof design (and bright color options) makes it suitable for the rough and tumble lifestyle of most kids. And while it's not as inexpensive as the first three kids cameras, at about $150, it's one of the least expensive waterproof cameras you'll find. The specs: waterproof to 10 feet,  3x optical zoom lens (35mm to 105mm, f/3.7-4.2), 10-megapixel sensor, 2.7-inch LCD. Features include automatic scene recognition, face detection, red-eye removal, as well as a handy Blog Mode that automatically resizes images for Web use.  A face detection self-timer mode waits until the right number of faces are detected in the scene (two for Couple Timer, three or four for the Group Timer), before snapping the shot.

Though it's close to three times the cost of the other three kids cameras on my list, the Fujifilm FinePix Z33WP is a great option for teenagers, or even younger kids who show an interest in photography and want to take higher-resolution images for printing out at larger sizes.

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