What does £100 buy these days? Three budget flights to an obscure Baltic state, a couple of rounds at a fancy London bar, or this brand new three megapixel camera from Canon. Well, 'brand new' is pushing it. Three megapixels may be cutting edge in camera phones, but in the world of digital cameras it's now on the skinny side of acceptable.
In fact, the whole camera feels a little like a step back in time. When three megapixel technology can be squeezed into a mobile phone, does a camera really need to be 4cm deep and weigh nearly 200g? The textured detailing on the front of the champagne plastic case is attractive, though, and the round body is comfortable to hold.
Start-up time is average (about two seconds), although you may initially be confused at the lack of an obvious zoom control. Fear not, the up/down keys of the menu pad work the rather noisy and slow 3.2x lens. At least the optics seem up to date, with a fast five-point autofocus system, infinity setting and confident macro modes that can focus as close as 1.5cm.
Form and function
Framing is courtesy of a cramped-but-sharp 1.5-inch screen with 120,000 pixels. Refresh rate isn't bad but avoid dimly lit rooms as subjects swiftly fade to black. Luckily, the A410's retro design extends to a quaint optical viewfinder. It's painfully tiny, has no diopter adjustment and is more distorted than a New Labour press release, but at least you'll be able to frame night-time shots.
Camera controls are well laid-out beneath your right thumb, from an easily-bumped mode dial on top, down through display and menu controls to the Func/Set button. Standard shooting mode doesn't give much flexibility, so switch into Manual for the A410's few creative features.
These include exposure compensation, ISO, white balance and colour tweak settings, plus a few fun extras. We liked the customisable self timer: you choose the delay and how many shots the camera fires - great for a quick succession of portraits. We're not so keen on the flap that spills the batteries on the floor each time you swap an SD card, though.
The separate Scene mode seems a bit redundant - why isn't it just another Func menu option? - so spin the dial to reach the Movie mode. This captures high-quality VGA-sized clips at a jerky 10fps, or you can opt for half that size and twice the frame rate. To adjust the metering you'll need to delve into the simple menus - you can also de-activate the AF-assist beam and digital zoom here.
Finding Canon's latest DIGIC II processor in the A410 is like discovering a V8 engine in a Morris Minor, but its speed and competence are welcome. You can shoot at 2.5 frames per second until the SD card is full, create panoramas with Stitch Assist or tinker with tones in the My Colours mode. Shot-to-shot, playback and delete delays are minimal.
Flash modes include red-eye reduction and a very good 'night portrait' mode, and the built-in bulb delivers plenty of power. Note that recharging time is slow, however, especially if you're using alkaline batteries (do yourself and the environment a favour and invest in rechargeables as soon as possible).
But even a budget camera has to produce good pictures, and here the Canon stumbles slightly. Exposure is intelligent and colour reproduction is very natural, especially in flat or dull light, but the lens displays its budget origins with a smear of softness towards the edge of the frame, as well as some noticeable purple fringing.
Detail generally isn't too bad, although an over-sharpened grittiness can sneak in occasionally. You might not think a 3.2MP chip could have noise issues nowadays, but remember that the A410's sensor is a tiny 1/3.2-inch scrap of silicon. Shooting at ISO 50 or 100 is passable, but ISO 200 images suffer a wash of colour noise.
At this price and with these features, the competition isn't really from other digital cameras, but camera phones. And while the A410 does shoot perfectly acceptable snaps, it can't make calls, play games or MP3 files.
Realistically, these ultra-budget models are set to disappear, but if you do want a simple, easy to use camera with acceptable image quality, the A410 is as good a choice as any. Mark Harris