New Digital Cameras Feature Formidable Functions

Thursday Mar 4th 2004 by Eric Grevstad
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From sophisticated shooters to those that struggle to find the lense cap, now is a good time to be in the market for a new digital camera. Your small business could be poised to leverage price deflation with feature escalation.

Here's news you already know: Digital cameras just keep getting sharper, more feature-packed, and more affordable. Point-and-shoot cameras with 2-megapixel resolution have all but been replaced by models with truly 8-by-10-inch-print-worthy, 3 or even 4-megapixel clarity. Cameras with 5-megapixel resolution and sophisticated mixes of automatic and manual controls are rapidly entering the mainstream. Price-wise, the mass-market sweet spot has slid from $500 to $300 to $200.

But you might still be surprised by the speed of price deflation and feature escalation. The annual Photo Marketing Association (PMA) trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month brought a flood of fabulous new digital cameras — or at least fabulous new announcements, with most products not scheduled to reach store shelves until March, April, or May. Here's a roundup to bring you up to speed and launch your next camera buying plan; we ignore pixelation-prone interpolated or digital zoom, so unless otherwise specified, all references below to 3X, 7X, or whatever refer to "real" or optical zoom.

Power to the Pocket
Casio's Exilim models have helped spur the rise of ultra-compact, shirt-pocket- or credit-card-sized cameras. Now Casio is addressing user gripes that such units' itsy-bitsy batteries last for relatively few shots: The EX-Z40, a 4-megapixel (2,304 by 1,728) deck-of-cards camera with 3X zoom and 2.0-inch LCD monitor, promises 2.5 times the battery life of current Exilims — 360 photos on a charge according to the standard procedure for measuring digital still camera battery consumption introduced by the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA) last December. It'll ship at the end of April for $400.

Stepping up to the Exilim Pro EX-P600 gets you 6-megapixel (2,816 by 2,112) resolution, 4X zoom, a swift 2-second startup time and 0.01-second shutter release lag, and auto bracketing for one-press variations of exposure, white balance, and focus position. It's priced at $650.

Speaking of shutter lag, Kyocera Optics' favorite word for 2004 is RTune — a high-speed, pipelined imaging technology that the company says eliminates lag time and other barriers restricting the transfer of digital images to the memory card.

In the upscale Contax SL300R T, it permits full-memory, full-image-size (3.2 megapixels or 2,048 by 1,536) continuous shooting at 3.5 frames per second. The magnesium-cased, black-leather-accented slimline offers 3X zoom, a 1.5-inch LCD, and a $500 price tag. The RTune implementation in the $400 Kyocera Finecam SL400R promises even faster 3.3-fps continuous shooting at even higher (4-megapixel or 2,272 by 1,704) resolution; the company says the SL400R is the world's thinnest 3X-optical-zoom digicam (3.9 by 2.5 by 0.6 inches).

Kyocera's Finecam M410R ($500) combines 3.3-fps RTune with a new autofocus mode that allows continuous AF shooting at 2 fps; it's a 4-megapixel camera with 10X zoom.

In (More) Living Color
The legendary Polaroid brand is now just a brand, rented by Hong Kong's World Wide Licenses Ltd. for digital cameras distributed by cordless-phone company Uniden America Corp. But photography buffs are still eager to see the Polaroid x530 slated to ship in June for $399, because the 4.5-megapixel camera is the first point-and-shoot model to use the Foveon X3 direct image sensor formerly found only in four-figure-price professional units.

Compared to traditional CCD image sensors, Foveon's technology uses three layers of pixels — akin to color film's three layers of emulsion — to capture red, green, and blue color values at every point. According to Uniden, this lets the x530 capture brilliant 8 by 10-inch images with warm tones and rich colors. The 3X-optical-zoom camera also captures 30-fps, VGA-resolution video and comes with Foveon software that lets users adjust the light balance in images after they've been captured.

Getting back to conventional CCDs, Canon USA's 2004 Digital ELPH compact lineup includes its first 5-megapixel model, the PowerShot S500. The $499 camera measures 3.4 by 2.2 by 1.1 inches and includes 3X zoom, a 2.2-frames-per-second burst mode, 1.5-inch LCD, and autofocus range from 2 inches to infinity.

Other new Digital ELPHs include the 4-megapixel (2,272 by 1,704), 3X-optical-zoom PowerShot S410, priced at $399, and the 3.2-megapixel PowerShot SD110 ($299), Canon's smallest model to date with optical zoom (3.2 by 2.2 by 0.9 inches, 2X zoom).

For more sophisticated shooters, Canon's also adding a 3.2-megapixel, 10X-optical-zoom PowerShot S1 IS, whose image-stabilization technology permits shooting at shutter speeds two stops lower than would otherwise be possible. Instead of 30- or 60-second mini-movies, the $499 camera can capture up to an hour of 30-fps, 640 by 480-pixel video when fitted with a 1GB CompactFlash card.

Finally, Canon's new top-of-the-line PowerShot Pro1 ($999) combines an 8-megapixel (3,264 by 2,448) CCD sensor and 7X zoom lens — the first of Canon's best-of-the-best "L-series" designation to appear in a compact digital camera — with both TTL contrast-detection autofocus (like that of other PowerShots) and external triangulation autofocus (like the company's high-end 35mm SureShots). Shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 to 15 seconds, with automatic and custom mode controls similar to those of Canon's EOS digital SLRs. All the new Canon cameras are expected to reach retailers in April.

Pentax USA has bolstered its Optio compact line with a digital still/movie camera. Due in June for $400, the palm-sized OptioMX captures VGA-resolution MPEG-4 movies as well as 3.2-megapixel stills; it has 10X zoom and an ergonomic grip handle with articulating LCD monitor.

The 4-megapixel, 3X-optical-zoom Optio S40, aimed at digital camera newbies, is a 3.5 by 2.3 by 1.0-inch compact with not only prefab portrait, landscape, and night-scene but sunset, snow, surf, and art-museum (no flash) modes for various lighting environments and another mode Pentax says is "specially designed to bring out the vivid color and intricate detail of flowers." It has 11MB of built-in memory plus an SD/MultiMedia Card slot. The $200 Optio30 is a similar model with 3.2-megapixel resolution and even more "lifestyle-oriented" shooting modes — Pet, Party, and Food.

Fair Shake
Fuji Photo Film USA is bolstering its entry-level lineup with the 3.2-megapixel FinePix A330 ($200) and 4-megapixel FinePix A340 ($250). Both offer 3X zoom; 4-inch macro focusing; portrait, landscape, night, and sports mode settings; and standard 16MB xD Picture Cards.

Professional photographers can check out the Fujifilm FinePix S20 Pro ($999), a compact SLR-type, 6X-optical-zoom camera with a 6.2-megapixel (2,832 by 2,128) Super CCD sensor and both USB 2.0 (define) and IEEE 1394 (define) image transfer. A live-video function lets portrait photographers view their subjects on a monitor without having to rely on the camera's LCD or electronic viewfinder. If that's not impressive enough, the FinePix S3 Pro (price and ship date to be announced) will have a whopping 12.3-megapixel Super CCD sensor with a wider dynamic range to capture highlight and shadow detail often lost in high-contrast scenes, plus both horizontal and vertical shutter release buttons for portrait and landscape shooting.

Konica Minolta Photo Imaging USA's Dimage Z2 boasts the rapid autofocusing and both 30-fps VGA and 15-fps SVGA (800 by 600) movie recording of its predecessor, while adding 4-megapixel (2,272 by 1,704) resolution and a 10X zoom lens. The 4.2-ounce, 0.8-inch-thick Dimage Xg is a 3.2-megapixel slimline with 3X zoom.

The SLR-type Dimage A2 offers an 8-megapixel (3,264 by 2,448) sensor, 7X zoom, and a superfine, VGA-resolution viewfinder as well as a 1.8-inch LCD. It also incorporates CCD shifting technology that Konica Minolta says reduces the effect of camera shake up to eightfold.

Go to Page 2: Get the Red Out >

Get the Red Out
Nikon says its new 4- and 5.1-megapixel models are the first to fix red-eye right in the camera, following a pre-flash that minimizes the devilish effect with built-in image processing and analysis that transparently retouches red-eye. The company doesn't claim the feature is perfect (for one thing, it's optimized to the flash operating distance), but promises that owners will notice fewer satanic glares in their indoor flash shots.

The Coolpix 4200 (2,272 by 1,704 resolution) and Coolpix 5200 (2,592 by 1,944) both have 3X zoom; macro shooting capability as close as 1.6 inches; 12MB of internal memory plus an SD card slot; 15 scene modes ranging from Portrait and Night Portrait to Sports, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, and Party; and Nikon's Best Shot Selector that automatically takes a series of shots, then saves the clearest one. They'll ship this spring for $400 and $500, respectively.

Sony's new Real Imaging Processor circuit decreases the start-up and shot-to-shot times of its Cyber-shot cameras shipping in May. The inch-thin Cyber-shot P100 ($400), to be available in red, blue, and silver, is a 5.1-megapixel model with 3X zoom lens, six preset scene modes, and an optional ($80) Cyber-shot Station dock that displays slide shows on a TV set while recharging the camera's batteries.

The Cyber-shot P41 ($200) is much more modest, with 4-megapixel resolution and no optical zoom, but the 4-megapixel P73 ($300) and 5-megapixel P93 ($350) offer 3X zoom lenses, as well as manual exposure control and compatibility with various conversion lenses. Finally, the 5-megapixel, 3X-zoom Cyber-shot DSC-W1 ($400) squeezes a big 2.5-inch LCD into a compact, rangefinder-style camera; it has six preset scene modes, 5-point autofocus, and 49-point multi-pattern measuring or manual exposure controls. All the new Sony cameras will ship in May.

Olympus' all-weather Stylus Digital line has gained a microphone and speaker for saving audio captions with images or recording QuickTime movies with sound. The 3.9 by 2.2 by 1.3-inch Stylus 410 ($379) has a 4.0-megapixel CCD whose TruePic Turbo image processor uses pixel "micro-smoothing" to deliver clearer, more color-accurate pictures; it features 3X zoom and comes with a 32MB xD-Picture Card and lithium-ion battery and charger.

A new contoured design and silver-toned polycarbonate body highlight the Olympus D-540 Zoom; the 4.0 by 2.2 by 1.5-inch compact offers 3.2-megapixel resolution and 3X zoom for $199. The slightly bulkier D-580 Zoom ($299) has a 4.0-megapixel TruePic Turbo sensor, 3X zoom, and a built-in microphone of its own.

Olympus' C-765 Ultra Zoom ($499) and C-770 Ultra Zoom ($599) are 4-megapixel compacts with TruePic Turbo processing and 10X optical zoom -- or 14X in a 1,600 by 1,200-resolution Super Zoom mode. The C-770 boasts a metal body, a hot shoe for external flash, and the ability to capture video with audio in MPEG-4 format. For pros, Olympus' C-8080 Wide Zoom ($999) delivers 8-megapixel (3,264 by 2,448) resolution with a super-bright, wide-angle 5X zoom lens; its mode dial combines portrait, sports, night-scene, and other settings with eight customizable "MyMode" options and a dedicated Custom button for jumping right to a favorite feature.

User Friendly
Eastman Kodak was at the show with four new cameras, starting with a 2-megapixel, 2X-zoom beginner's Brownie for $150 — the EasyShare CX7220 — and ending with the $449, 6-megapixel, 3X-zoom EasyShare DX7630 with precision low-light autofocus system. In between are 4- and 5-megapixel EasyShare LS473 and LS573 cameras about the size of a small mobile phone.

HP knows it'll take more than a TV-commercial blitz to make it the choice of serious digital photographers. The company says it'll ship eight new cameras this year featuring what it calls HP Real Life technologies — Adaptive Lighting to bring faces out of shadows and details out of backgrounds in high-contrast photos; Image Advice that helps consumers learn how to get the most from their cameras, analyzing photos and then providing tips on how to adjust settings to improve future shots; In-Camera Red-Eye Removal similar to Nikon's; and a new image engine based on Texas Instruments' digital media processing technology.

The first model in the new line, the HP Photosmart R707, features 5.1-megapixel resolution, 3X zoom, and 32MB of internal memory as well as an SD/MMC card slot. It'll debut in May for $349, with a new R-series dock — for battery recharging, slide-show viewing on TV with a wireless remote, and easy transferring, sharing, printing, and e-mailing of photos and video clips — for $79.

Of course, some vendors embrace first-time buyers. Concord Camera offers a 2-megapixel, no-optical-zoom Concord Eye-Q 2040 model with 7MB of internal memory for $110 and a 3-megapixel Eye-Q 3040 AF with autofocus for $130; the company even offers no-optical-zoom 4- and 5-megapixel cameras, the Eye-Q 4062 AF and 5062 AF, for $200 and $230, respectively.

If you want 3X optical zoom, the 3-megapixel Eye-Q 3343Z is $200 and 4-megapixel Eye-Q 4363Z is $250. Concord's most sophisticated camera is the 5-megapixel, 3X-zoom Concord 5345Z ($380), which comes with 9.7MB of internal memory plus an SD card slot as well as 19 scene-mode selections.

And finally, Argus Camera, which boasts that its low-priced Model C3 35mm camera helped pioneer mass-market photography in 1936, has introduced VGA-resolution digicams for $40 (8MB internal memory), $45 (with flash), and $50 (with a color LCD monitor and SD/MMC slot). There's also a 1.3-megapixel model with flash, 4X digital zoom, and a text-based status LCD for $45.

< Back to Page 1: Power to the Pocket

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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