Please note: We have reviewed and updated our kids' digital camera recommendations for the fall 2008 season here.
Parents had their first major kids' digital camera option last year with the Fisher-Price Kid-Tough Digital Camera, but manufacturers know a good market opportunity when they see it; this holiday season consumers have several new models to choose from, all priced at $50 to $80 without an SD card (which we recommend for all models). We got our hands on four new kids' digital cameras - the Polaroid Pixie, VTech's Kidizoom, the National Geographic Digital World Camera, and the updated Fisher-Price Kid-Tough Digital Camera - let our three-year-old play with them, and then put them through some tests to find out which offered the best user experience for kids and the best value for parents. Below, detailed assessments of each of the four cameras, concluding with a summary of our recommendations and some notes on what consumers should demand from the next generation of kids' cameras.
Z used and discussed each toddler camera with us, and we allowed her to try to use the two cameras intended for older children as well to see what challenges she faced.
We then took pictures of the same things with all four cameras under identical conditions, making sure to play with any specialized features of individual cameras, and had unedited digital prints made of several photographs, first renaming the image files in the set to identify their camera of origin. Then we, along with two additional adults, did a "blind" evaluation of the sets of prints of individual items, ranking them in terms of clarity, focus, and color correctness, and identifying the source of each print only after concluding our assessments. As a control, we also included a photograph taken by our Sony Cybershot, a 7.0 MP digital camera that takes excellent photos.
As expected, the Cybershot photographs took first in every case; consumers should understand first and foremost that no kids' digital camera will take photos as good as an "adult" digital camera, and if they approach this market with that as their standard, they are guaranteed to be disappointed. That said, there were clear and sometimes dramatic differences in quality among the cameras we tested. Second-place finishes alternated between the Fisher-Price and Polaroid cameras, with a single round won by the National Geographic camera.
All cameras listed come with a USB cable, so we don't list them in the specs. All take either AA or AAA batteries as well as a disc-shaped camera battery, with the latter included in the package.
Fisher-Price Kid-Tough Digital Camera
Price: List: $70/Amazon: $55 (pink)/$49 (blue)
- 1.6" LCD screen
- Flash with auto and off settings
- 8 MB internal memory
Cons: LCD screen visibility, user interface
- Ease of use: Excellent
- Picture quality: Good
- LCD screen visibility: Fair
- Age rating (theirs/ours): 3-6 /2-5
That said, we remain satisfied with the experience, durability, and overall quality Fisher-Price's digital camera offers for young children. The prints we made of several photos taken by all cameras consistently had Fisher-Price entries placing in the top two, sometimes turning in the best-quality shot in the group. The camera's durable design and image quality make it our top pick for children ages 2-5.
National Geographic Digital World Camera
Price: List/Amazon: $60
Specs: Unavailable. Instructions lack specification information, and manufacturer is unresponsive.
Pros: Specialized features
Cons: LCD screen visibility, user interface, design, low durability
- Ease of use: Good
- Picture quality: Good
- LCD screen visibility: Poor
- Age rating (theirs/ours): 8+/6-12
This was a great disappointment to us, because this camera offers an infrared-sensor-driven "stealth capture" setting for photographing wildlife, a four-option delay timer, and a bright, broad flash intended to illuminate outdoor night scenes. Image quality is above average for a kids' digital camera, but with its crippling LCD screen and lack of a viewfinder, this camera is sure to frustrate children and is not a serviceable camera for daily use. We recommend the National Geographic Digital World camera only for use as a wildlife capture camera; for this specialized function it is a unique offering and may engage children ages 8-12.
Price: List/Amazon: $80 (pink|blue)
- 3.0 megapixels
- 2.4" LCD screen with color TFT display
- 2x digital cropping
- Flash with auto and off modes
- 16 MB internal memory
- A/V cable
Cons: Flash options and refresh time
- Ease of use: Fair
- Picture quality: Excellent
- LCD screen visibility: Excellent
- Age rating (theirs/ours): 6+/5-8
Perhaps because of this increased vulnerability to alternatives, Polaroid has turned in a product that exceeds expectations and competes handily with low-end "standard" digital cameras, enhanced with a few fun features to help get kids' attention. The LCD screen on this camera is both the largest and most legible of all the cameras we tested, and is the only that is easy to see in full sunlight. Since all of these cameras take their best photos outdoors, this is a significant investment on Polaroid's part, and we believe it is the singlemost important advance in kids' digital cameras this year, challenging other manufacturers to improve their own LCD screens (for Kidizoom, which needs the screen for its in-camera photo enhancements) or abandon them altogether in favor of a viewfinder alone (if Fisher-Price dropped theirs, all they'd lose is the ability to delete photos in-camera, which we believe is not a functional feature for toddlers anyway). The Pixie makes the most of its screen quality with a special games setting with surprisingly bright and detailed pixel-art-style graphics.
Our one concern about the Polaroid Pixie is its flash recycle time, which can run from 5-10 seconds between shots. The flash can be shut off, which means users should not experience this lag time when shooting outdoors, but for indoor shots this delay can be frustrating for children and even for adults, and could have been mitigated somewhat by the inclusion of an icon or sound to indicate when the camera was ready to take another picture.
For its LCD screen quality and image quality relative to other kids' cameras, the Polaroid Pixie is our top pick for children ages 5-8 who would prefer a "kids" camera to a used adult model.
Price: List: $70/Amazon: $50
- .3 megapixels
- 1.8" LCD screen
- In-camera photo enhancement options
- Video and sound recording options
- Three preschool games
- A/V cable
- Changeable faceplates
- 16 MB internal memory
Cons: Image quality
- Ease of use: Excellent
- Picture quality: Poor
- LCD screen visibility: Good
- Age rating (theirs/ours): 3-8/3-6
Z's favorite camera to play with was the Kidizoom, which is why we described that camera as a profound missed opportunity. The user interface and special features are excellent, and she was thrilled by the options of adding borders and silly hats to her subjects. But having seen the way consumers have been divided over the image quality of last year's Fisher-Price camera, which we believe produces passable photos for a toddler camera, we would issue a warning: If Kid-Tough photos did not meet your standard, the low-water mark has been reset by VTech. A couple of examples are below; keep in mind that the rendering of JPEGs for this post actually mutes the differences somewhat, which are even more pronounced in the prints we had made.
Still not convinced? Below are a couple of shots taken with the Kidizoom. These are not selected for their poor quality, but are representative samples of the hundreds of photographs we took with this camera. The first was taken outdoors in full light under a gently overcast sky - ideal conditions for picture-taking. The second was taken indoors under bright interior lights, and an in-camera enhancement was then added. Click on either photo to see it at its full output size.
You don't have to look far to see why this is the case. Below is a listing of the folder of images we had printed. Notice how the file sizes drop off after the images taken by our "adult" camera (labeled "sony").
File size is not a conclusive determinant of image quality; the eye is. But given our experience of the digital files we viewed on our computer monitor and our blind assessments of the digital prints made from some of those files, the breakdown is no surprise to us. The Kidizoom's competitor for toddler cameras, the Fisher-Price Kid-Tough model, takes far better pictures, while the Kidizoom's are so bad we consider the camera defective by design.
What does the future hold for kids' digital cameras? Based on our experience of these four cameras, we see some areas for future improvements. The best young kids' camera of 2008 will address one or more of the following issues:
- A true toddler flash. Standard camera flashes are ideal at a range of 3-6 feet, but toddlers tend to stand close to their subjects when taking photographs indoors, especially when photographing objects. The result is a subject blown-out by the camera flash. We wonder if there is some innovation that can be done in this area to produce a flash that either assesses a subject's distance from the camera or is designed specifically to illuminate subjects at a closer range. (Update: A reader in the comments offered the excellent suggestion of diffusing the flash using translucent Scotch tape or white paper.)
- Age-appropriate features. The Kidizoom's advanced menus and options set a new standard for what a kids' camera can do in-camera; this is a major step forward from the fiddling with desktop software camera-makers have been doing for years to try to get kids' attention. But paired with the Kidizoom's abysmal image quality, these features are wasted on the demographic least likely to care about picture quality - toddlers - who will not yet be able to work with most of these features. Meanwhile, the Fisher-Price camera persists in offering a "delete" button which functions independently - in image review mode, pressing it twice instantly deletes a shot - rather than requiring a combination of button-presses that would signal true intentionality. Toddlers are simply not prepared to selectively delete pictures in-camera - not at two, or three, or even four - and even adults will have a difficult time identifying which pictures are worth deleting given the poor quality of the LCD screen on this camera.
- Rethinking the LCD screen. Kidizoom has justified its camera's otherwise lackluster LCD screen through its photo-enhancement features, but for taking photographs, both it and the Fisher-Price camera offer such poor LCD viewing that there is really no reason to have an LCD screen at all. Fisher-Price, Uncle Milton, and any other companies coming to the table need to adopt the quality of LCD screen used by Polaroid, or drop screen viewing altogether in favor of a traditional point-and-shoot viewfinder. This would be a wasted opportunity, however, because in our experience toddlers are very receptive to the idea of an LCD screen and prefer it to looking through a viewfinder, falling back on the latter only because the LCD screen does not provide enough visual information to be of any use.
- Persistent memory for toddler cameras. While the Polaroid Pixie and National Geographic cameras benefit from an SD card (not included), the only reason we believe toddler cameras should be outfitted with one is that the cameras will lose files from its internal memory if their batteries die. Auto-shutoff features on both models help reduce but not eliminate the chances of this occurring, but the price of an SD card seems like an exorbitant additional cost to protect stored images between uploads. We'd like to see a camera with the ability to reserve a small portion of its memory to preserving its own contents after the camera dies.
- Rethinking camera styling. Kidizoom's orange camera body was a breath of fresh air for us in a market dominated by pinks and blues, and the manufacturer also came up with the idea of interchangeable camera faceplates. We think future generations of kids' digital cameras should take advantage of this idea and produce a single model with owner customization options, whether it be faceplates, stickers, or other features, and pour the savings from that manufacturing and supply-chain streamlining measure into their technology. Kids don't need pink cameras for girls and blue for boys; they need smarter cameras.