I've been wanting a new point-and-shoot digital camera for years now, as the Canon Ixus 700 (SD500) that Lalai bought almost six years ago, while still solid (and on its second battery), is quite slow and doesn't have a wide-enough zoom. However I've never managed to pony up the cash for a Canon S90, G11, or a Panasonic LX-3 (and now LX-5) because I'm cheap.
Fortuitously, I was able to exchange (many of) my Citibank rewards points for some Best Denki vouchers. Unfortunately there weren't nearly enough to buy an LX-5. Hah. In any case, being quite budget-constrained, I narrowed down my choices to the Sony DSC-W350 (which has a 24mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar and a trick Sweep Panorama mode); the Canon Ixus 300HS (SD4000), spiritual successor to the six-year old Ixus 700; and the Casio Exilim Z550 and H5. I was drawn to the Casio's because of their trick "pan focus" or hyperfocal mode, which Ken Rockwell raved about years ago.
On to Best Denki.. unfortunately, both Casio's felt cheap; and pan focus trick mode or not, the shot-to-shot time was eye-poppingly horrendous (three-second lockups in between shots). Maybe my expectations are high because of the Pentax K20D (which is great.. but heavy as well).
There was only one Sony DSC-W350 left, and it wasn't red. And being the last one, it was a much-handled display unit. I tried the W380, which was similarly sluggish. The Canon SD4000, in spite of Canon's "high speed" moniker and its back-illuminated 10MP sensor, felt slow to hand as well. The nicer Sony's with the Exmor-R sensors were ought of my budget.
Now the Best Denki guy (whom normally I would pay no heed) showed me the Fujifilm F80EXR. What surprised the heck out of me was the zooming action: blazing-fast. Autofocus speed was pretty decent, too. And it had a glossy red metal case. It was just a bit too large for me. But it was cheaper than most of the alternatives. I had been reading a bit about the EXR sensor and Fujifilm's various tricks, so after an hour of back-and-forth (one of the benefits of a retail store, as opposed to reading reviews online!) I settled for the Fuji.
(Those vouchers were burning a hole in my pocket..)
After prolonged perusal of Kim Letkeman's blog (a fellow who seems to have made a career out of reviewing and critiquing the Fuji EXR cameras), I decided to use the 5MP hardware binned mode on the F80EXR. It's actually a bit of a step down from the Ixus 700's 7MP native mode (the F80EXR has a 12MP native mode, but it suffers from terrible noise reduction) but Kim said 5MP is all you need.
And the results.
A single, 1/6-second exposure at 27mm equivalent, f/3.3 (wide-open), ISO 800. Insanely stretched in Picasa. Lots of noise!
Using the F80EXR's trick low light mode, where it takes three shots and stacks them auto-magically:
Stupid comparison: Pentax K20D at ISO 800, f/4.0 (wide-open) with Pentax 16-45mm ED zoom set to 30mm, and a bit of stretching:
And the Pentax at ISO 3200:
For comparison, here's the SD500. Much tighter framing because the Ixus only has a 37mm lens. This image is actually cleaner than both from the F80EXR.. for these reasons: 1.0 second exposure (six times more than the F80EXR); ISO 400; f/2.8 lens; and a 1/1.8" CCD.
Unfortunately the image is ruined by shake, the SD500 doesn't have a mechanical image stabilizer which both the F80EXR and Pentax K20D have. I don't know how a modern Ixus with an image stabilizer would do in this case.
To compare, I took an image at 1.0 s, f/3.3, ISO 400 with the F80EXR. It's possible to hand-hold at 1.0 s (with a bit of bracing) due to the mechanical image stabilizer. Surprisingly, things are quite clean at this exposure, definitely better than our old Canon friend (as things should be!)
Overall, the F80EXR seems to be a half-decent choice: 10X zoom that starts at 27mm (a wider 24mm would be better.. but the Sony's and Casio's just didn't appeal to me; and the more-expensive Canon SD4000 starts at 28mm); have not tried the HD movie mode though. Zoom and AF are perceptibly faster than the half-decade old SD500; and the screen is nice and large.
At the end of the day, the most important factors for me are speed, a wide lens, and an image stabilizer. Am I unqualifiedly happy with this camera? not really. But for the price it has a feature set that's hard to beat. Would I choose it again? probably. Price is always the determining constraint.