Q What can I do to ensure getting a digital camera that takes sharp, clear pictures? Many friends have been dissatisfied with their cameras, and I want to be sure to get a good one.

A It's hard to go wrong with any digital SLR or interchangeable-lens camera. Most are excellent.

The key to a satisfactory digital camera purchase is careful research, more so than with other electronics purchases. There are tremendous picture quality differences between models you see at the store. Unlike comparing televisions showing the same movie clip, playing with the cameras on display will do nothing to show you how good the pictures they take will look. Picking a top brand name is no guarantee of getting a good camera, because every maker has its clunkers. If you just go in and buy a camera without researching it thoroughly, you might as well be picking numbers out of a hat.

I review and recommend cameras on my website and constantly research to find the best. I start by checking Digital Photography Review (www.dpreview.com) and the Digital Camera Resource Page (www.dcresource.com). The former site is geared toward expert users and has a lot of technical detail in its extremely comprehensive reviews. The latter site is friendlier to the average user while still being thorough.

You can find owner reviews on Amazon.com. A great place to see actual images from camera owners is PBase (www.pbase.com). Just look for the camera make and model to see pictures that people have posted.

Here are a few good cameras to consider:

A good pick for under $100 is the 10-megapixel Canon Powershot A495, a surprisingly good picture taker. In the $200 to $300 price range, the 10.1-megapixel Casio EX-FH100 is one of the best values in its class with top marks for image, video and build quality, and a 40 frames-per-second high-speed burst mode ideal for capturing golf, tennis and baseball swings.

My favorite top-class compact is the Olympus XZ-1, which has earned universal acclaim for its fast, sharp lens, rock-solid construction and near-perfect image quality. It's a stunner, the best pocketable camera out there and worth its $475 street price. If you like to travel light, you won't regret getting an XZ-1.

A good megazoom camera is the Pentax X90, with outstanding still-picture image quality, image stabilization and a 26-times zoom for $265. Battery life and video quality are weak points. The 12.1-megapixel Panasonic DMC-FZ35 megazoom has been at the top of the heap for as long as it has been out. It sells for $399 and was recently replaced by the DMC-FZ40, which I haven't tested. Some users seem to prefer the pictures from the FZ35 to the FZ40.

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