I've spent a lot of time reading reviews of ultra-zooms, and now am suddenly wondering if I wouldn't be better off with a standard. I'm quite overwhelmed by the choices. I would be pathetically grateful for recommendations to narrow my choices down.

Here's my questionnaire, filled out.

***Budget

I would prefer not to spend a lot more than $300. However, if it's impossible for me to get something that's going to satisfy me for less than, say $350 max, I'll just go on saving for a while and come back to the search when I have more money to put in. So the relevant question is, if X is the right camera for me, can I buy it now, or do I need to wait?

***Size:

Size is something I do consider, but not as primary importance. A smaller size (e.g., pocket size) would be a selling point to me, but only if the more important things were met first. Anything I can comfortably stick in a backpack will do, if need be. The only thing I think this really rules out is some of the SLRs, which I know I'm not looking at, anyhow.

***Features
* How many megapixels will suffice for you?

Well, that's one of the questions. I want to be able to make nice-looking 8.5" x 11" prints, on those rare occasions when I really get something right. I'd love to be able to go even larger, but can resist. I've had one review tell me that just meant I needed more than 4 mp, while other people say even 6 won't cut it. There's some discussion of 300 vs 200 dpi, but I don't have a good sense of what 200 dpi would look like and whether I'd find it satisfactory. I know 300 dpi is a publishing standard, but I don't know if I need it or not.

I'm also concerned because the reviews I read suggest that higher resolution leads to more noise, in any camera which doesn't have a larger lens to go with it. I don't know if any cameras do have larger lenses to compensate for this (aside, again, from the SLRs). I also don't know under what circumstances the noise becomes a significant issue. Reviews say, "at high ISOs" but I haven't found an explanation of what ISOs are, so I don't know how much this would affect me. I don't want to discover that in getting a camera with a lot of megapixels I've simply traded the graininess of low resolution for the graininess of high noise.

* What optical zoom will you need? (None, Standard = 3x-4x, Ultrazoom = 10x-12x, Other - Specify)

I think I would enjoy an ultra-zoom, but I don't know how to judge whether it's worth the trade-off in portability because I've never had it before. Possibly the best solution would be a standard which has the option of adding a telephoto lens?

* How important is “image quality” to you? (Rate using a scale of 1-10)

10. Everything else is secondary.

* Do you care for manual controls?

I'd like to have some, because I'd like to learn how to use them. I figure that's an intermediary step which lets me assess whether at some later point I want to get an SLR. I do need some point-and-shoot options as well because I'm not very experienced.

***General Usage
* What will you generally use the camera for?

Nature photography - landscapes and close-ups. Other random stuff as well, but it's the nature photography that I'll be putting the most care into.

* Will you be making big prints of your photos or not?

As mentioned above, I'd like to.

* Will you be shooting a lot of indoor photos or low light photos?

I think I will mostly be shooting outdoors, but would like to be able to shoot under a wide variety of outdoor light conditions.

* Will you be shooting sports and/or action photos?

Very unlikely.

***Miscellaneous
*Are there particular brands you like or hate?

Nope. Except for hating obscure overseas products for which I can't get any of the documentation in English and there's no support.

*Are there particular models you already have in mind?

Nope.

*(If applicable) Do you need any of the following special features? (Wide Angle, Image Stabilization, Weatherproof, Hotshoe, Rotating LCD)

- Image stabilization - based on the faq here, optical image stabilization.
- The ability to take a conversion lens, especially if not an ultra-zoom.
- I'd enjoy a hotshoe or a rotating LCD, but they're really not required.
- Macintosh compatibility with the bundled software.

It's sort of like a minor miracle to me that it's possible to write in like this and find people to give me advice. I've been floundering in reviews for months. Thank you so much, in advance.