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The best camera you can buy for under $250

Beating your smartphone doesn't always require breaking the bank

Shot on location at WeWork.

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For the vast majority of people, the compact camera is dead. Today’s smartphones take good enough pictures, easily fit in our pockets, and are always with us. But there are situations where the fixed lens on a smartphone just doesn’t cut it.

If you’re looking for a camera that can do more than a smartphone, you have a number of options — including some good ones under $250. The right camera should cover the basics: it should be compact enough to fit in your pocket or the bag you’re already carrying around. As the old adage goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. Second, it should have a long zoom lens, since there’s no point in carrying around a camera that doesn’t offer significantly more reach than your smartphone. Finally, it should be fast and easy to use. If a camera isn’t fast enough or you have to fumble with awkward controls, you’ll often miss the shots you’re trying to get.

Cheap cameras in the $100 range generally aren’t worth your time — they’re rarely more useful than your smartphone. But you can still find what you’re looking for without spending very much. After surveying the market, we rounded up the best cameras under $250 that met our criteria and are worthy of your consideration. They all have big zoom lenses, and they are all pretty compact. They all come with rechargeable batteries, can shoot full HD video when you’re tired of taking stills, and some of them come with Wi-Fi connectivity to immediately transfer images over to your smartphone for sharing. We then tested them in a variety of controlled and real-world environments to see which model is deserving of your money. And at the end there’s only one answer.

The Winner

The Canon PowerShot SX280HS is the best camera you can buy for under $250. In fact, it’s well enough under that price that there’s room in your budget for a memory card or two.

It has everything you should be looking for in an inexpensive camera: a long 20x zoom lens with optical stabilization, a small enough body to fit in the average pants pocket or small purse, and a simple, easy-to-use menu system that doesn’t get in the way of you taking pictures. Its rated battery life of 210 shots isn’t the longest in the field, but it’s enough to last an entire day of shooting before it needs to be recharged.

The SX280HS also comes with some extra perks not usually seen at this price point, such as built-in Wi-Fi and NFC for quickly transferring images to your phone, a GPS radio for adding location data to your images, and full manual exposure controls in addition to a bevy of automatic modes.

It turns on quickly, focuses quickly and reliably, and offers great image quality in most situations. Colors are accurate, and pictures from the SX280 are usually sharper than those from a smartphone. Video quality isn’t dramatically better than you’d get with a smartphone, but it is 1080p and benefits from the SX280’s long zoom lens, which works while recording. Like virtually all other affordable compact cameras, the SX280HS doesn’t do a great job in low light, but if you want a camera that does, you’re going to have to pay more for it.

Put simply, the Canon SX280HS takes better pictures and offers more features than the competition, and it beats your smartphone nine times out of ten.

The Runner-Up

If the Canon PowerShot SX280HS doesn’t strike your fancy or you find it too large, the Sony Cyber-Shot WX350 is a solid alternative. The WX350 is more expensive than the Canon, but it’s significantly smaller and still has the same long 20x zoom lens. It also has a very long battery life (470 shots, according to Sony), Wi-Fi and NFC, plus a big, bright display (though not quite as nice as Canon’s), and fast performance.

Where the WX350 falls short is its lack of manual controls and, more importantly, lower image quality indoors. Those are two things that are really important when you’re looking for a camera to replace your smartphone. Where the Canon had no trouble getting accurate colors under artificial lighting, the Sony often produced pictures with an orange cast. I also found the Canon’s interface to be more intuitive and easier to use than the Sony’s. Still, the WX350 is a solid camera in most situations, and offers a lot in its compact frame, provided you are willing to pay slightly more for it.

The Others