The best digital camera for kids (or, how to keep grubby hands off your camera)

All the inquiries I've gotten about a Canon EOS 5D replacement notwithstanding, one of the most frequent queries I've received of late has been regarding a good digital camera for kids. It may be the whole back-to-school thing, or maybe everyone's just getting tired of watching their own cameras get dropped and/or smeared with peanut butter, but in any case, I decided a response is in order.
Written by Janice Chen, Inactive

All the inquiries I've gotten about a Canon EOS 5D replacement notwithstanding, one of the most frequent queries I've received of late has been regarding a good digital camera for kids. It may be the whole back-to-school thing, or maybe people are just getting tired of watching their own cameras get dropped and/or smeared with peanut butter, but in any case, I decided a response is in order.

If your budding photographer is over, say, 7 or 8 years old, I'd suggest that you do what I've done and use them as a convenient excuse to upgrade by giving them your old snapshooter. But for preschool kids who can't be trusted not to drop their cameras on a regular basis, there are finally some reasonable options out there.

I checked out three cameras that are appropriate for kids 3 years of age and up. I limited my selection to cameras that included LCD viewfinders since the kids digital cameras that lack them have always seemed pointless to me (have you ever taken a photo of a kid with your digital camera without an immediate chorus of "can I see?"). Each has its appeal, but I came away with a clear favorite as well.

Read on to find out more about the Crayola 2.1 MP Digital Camera, the Fisher Price Kid-Tough Digital Camera, and the Vtech Kidizoom Digital Camera.

Crayola 2.1 MP Digital Camera - $59.99 Pros: Lightweight and compact; neck strap Cons: Small, low-quality LCD; no internal memory; single-eye viewfinder Specs: 2.1 megapixels; 1.3-inch LCD; built-in flash; accepts SD cards up to 2GB; requires 3 AAA batteries

I really liked the form factor of this little camera--it was the smallest and lightest of the three, but also seemed the least durable, though certainly sturdier than a normal digital camera. It was the only camera to come with a neck strap (as weedy as it was, it was still a convenient touch for the wee ones). With only five buttons to choose from (on/off, forward and reverse playback, delete, and a shutter button) and only a single setting (high vs. low resolution) it was very easy for kids to master. It didn't come with any special on-camera features (see the VTech writeup below) but did include some very basic photo-editing software, games, and other kid-friendly software to run on your PC. The worst feature of the camera was its LCD screen which was quite small, but worse, was barely usable in any lighting situation. Now, I'm not expecting a high-resolution, 3-inch beauty or anything, but the image was so washed out that you could barely frame your photo (not that a 3 year old is doing such intricate framing, but...) and worse, any shot taken with the flash seemed so blown out you might not recognize some subjects that were shot close up. They looked fine on my PC once they were downloaded, though. In fact, image quality of downloaded shots taken at the high 1,600x1,200 resolution setting were surprisingly good (the LCD was so lame, I had low expectations). Not good like,"wow, let's blow these up and frame them" good, but good enough to satisfy any kids and print out at 4x6 or smaller. In fact, despite my relatively low opinion of the overall camera (mostly due to the weak LCD and lack of internal memory), my kid testers who ranged from 3 to 7 years old had no complaints and were happy as clams to be playing with it. Because it has no internal memory, though, make sure you have an SD card on hand before showing up with this camera or you'll have some unhappy campers. Oh, and my last complaint is that the SD card slot and battery compartment require a tiny screwdriver to access. Probably a conscious design to keep small fingers out, but certainly a frustration builder when you can't find a suitable tool and the kids "WANT TO PLAY WITH THE CAMERA NOW!"

Fisher Price Kid-Tough Digital Camera - $50.00 Pros: Very durable; waterproof; two-eye viewfinder Cons: Hard-to-press shutter button; low-quality LCD; doesn't accept memory cards; low resolution; no strap Specs: 1.3 (interpolated) megapixels; 1.5-inch LCD; built-in flash; 64MB internal memory; requires 4 AAA batteries

This was the clunkiest feeling of the three cameras, but probably the most durable too. Fisher Price bills it as waterproof (though we didn't test that aspect) and the rubberized grip provided plenty of shock protection. Though the outside packaging was quite different, the camera features and functions were virtually identical to the Crayola camera, down to the five buttons and the weak (though larger) LCD. One key difference is the shutter button, which Fisher Price inexplicably mounts on the front rather than top of the camera and then recesses in a way that makes it a little tough for a less-dextrous kid to access. Another drawback is that it doesn't come with a strap of any sort--not even a wrist strap--nor is there a way to attach one of your own. (And guess who will end up carrying the camera once small hands tire of holding onto a camera that's too bulky for them to hold in one hand comfortably?) An nice touch is the two-eye viewfinder, which is much easier for younger kids to use, especially, considering how lame the LCD is (see the Crayola writeup above). As with the Crayola camera, the Fisher Price doesn't include any extra on-camera functions save for switching from high to low resolution (or should I say low to lower resolution). But unlike Crayola, Fisher Price doesn't include any fun software either--though truth be told, my kid testers weren't all that interested in the software that came with the Crayola camera. Image quality was barely adequate to the grown-up eye--not surprising given the interpolated 1.3 megapixel (0.3 megapixel actual) resolution--but again, I found the kids to be much gentler critics of image quality, so weigh that with the lower price of this camera. Because of the low resolution, you can store up to 500 pictures in the 64MB of onboard memory, but you can't expand on it with a memory card, which is a bummer. This also means you'll have to keep track of the included USB cable for that's the only way to download your photos. One aspect in which the Fisher Price beats out both the Crayola and the Vtech is in not requiring a tiny screwdriver for battery compartment access. The latch is still impossible for a small child to open, and you'll still need some kind of tool, but a knife or normal-sized screwdriver will do the trick.

Vtech Kidizoom Digital Camera - $59.99 Pros: High-resolution 1.8-inch LCD; video capability; on-camera games; on-camera photo effects; playback on TV; two-eye viewfinder Cons: Battery replacement requires opening two compartments; more-complicated buttons and interface Specs: 2.0 megapixels; 1.8-inch LCD; built-in flash; 16MB internal memory;

The Vtech Kidizoom was hands-down my favorite of the three for a variety of reasons--and the favorite of my kid testers for one reason alone: they all loved the in-camera "special effects" that let you augment your photo with cartoon enhancements (think pirate hat and eye patch that you can position over your subject's face, Groucho Marx glasses, bunny ears, and the like). To be honest, I was kind of skeptical of these effects at first, but putting a pig's snout on my husband won me over. The camera also includes three on-board games (tic-tac-toe, a rotation puzzle, and a matching pairs game) which are very useful on a long car ride when you've forgotten the DVD player. The inclusion of volume buttons is a godsend in light of the onboard games. The Vtech is also the only camera of the three to include a video shooting mode. Quality is not very impressive, and you'll need to augment the onboard 16MB of memory with an SD card if you plan to shoot a lot of video, but it's still a nice touch for a reasonably priced kids' camera. Another nice touch is the ability to play images and video back on a television (using the included A/V cable). The package comes with two changeable face plates--install the one your photographer likes better and then assume the other will be lost in a few days. An included wrist strap is useful, though a neck strap would be even better for small children. Of the three cameras, the Vtech had the best LCD screen by far, which made it far more usable as a real camera. Image quality was on par with the Crayola, which is to say very acceptable for printing out kid shots at 4x6 or smaller. As with the Fisher Price camera, the two-eye viewfinder was great for helping kids frame shots. Though not as rubberized and durable seeming as the Fisher Price, the Vtech was a happy medium of size and durability between the other two cameras. My only two real complaints were that 1) as with the Crayola camera, the battery and SD card compartments require a tiny screwdriver (worse, you need to open two compartments to replace the batteries in the Vtech) and 2) with seven buttons (on/off, mode, OK, delete, volume up and down, and shutter) and a 4-directional joystick/cursor button, the interface is a little complicated for preschoolers. The menu system requires some reading until you get used to what the icons mean. But having said all that, my 4 and a half year old tester was able to master everything in a short while with just a little adult prompting.

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