Price: around £590 plus VAT
Great picture quality at a bargain price sets the 4.2-megapixel Toshiba Allegretto M81 apart from the crowd. Testing it against other similarly-specced digital cameras, the M81 scored a close second to the Canon PowerShot G2 for the best prints, with perfectly exposed outdoor shots and sharp detail in indoor scenes. At just £590, the M81 is one of the two least expensive models on the prosumer scene – and it includes such nifty features as dedicated shortcut buttons that let you quickly change the most frequently used settings. Another nice timesaver is that while you’re shooting, you can expand some of the settings information that the camera displays on the LCD into mini-menus with a press of the thumbpad. The M81 took 325 shots before its batteries conked out – an impressive showing for a camera running on four alkaline AAs. Though heavy on pixels, the M81 is light on features and manual controls, and it has a plain, boxy body with a small LCD screen. To turn the camera on, you must press and hold down the low-profile power button, which sits almost flush with the top. This is a tricky manoeuvre at the best of times. Manual focusing is limited to two distance settings: one metre and three metres. In our tests of low-resolution on-screen picture quality, this model scored in the bottom third. Unlike the Toshiba M61, which suffers from slow, somewhat jerky zooms, the M81 zooms smoothly and quickly in both recording and playback modes. You can rotate captured images while displaying them on the LCD – a useful feature for viewing vertical shots. Selecting one of the three programmed settings is a breeze: just press one button to cycle through the intuitive stars and coloured boxes displayed in the camera’s status LCD. When you use this button, however, you can select only three of nine possible combinations of size and quality at any one time. To choose another pairing, you must go back into the menu. If you don’t count yourself as a photographer and want a simple camera that delivers a clear high-resolution image, you can’t go far wrong with the Allegretto M81, but there are no advanced features to progress to.