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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Smart Cameras

New cameras combine point-and-shoot simplicity with tablet-like apps and connectivity. But will they make you a better photographer?

Labels: Cameras

NIKON COOLPIX S800c

Everywhere you look, people are snapping photos and shooting videos with their smartphones, iPads and Android tablets. Most of those devices, unfortunately, lack the low-light sensitivity, zoom lenses, image stabilization and exposure controls found in even the most basic compact digital cameras. But do the owners care? Nope! They're too busy showing off their fuzzy images and video clips on their giant phone and tablet screens, or using their device's cellular network and WiFi capabilities to instantly upload them to Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, YouTube and dozens of other social-media sites. They're also downloading apps by the millions, which add everything from time-lapse capabilities to credit-card functions.

Meanwhile, photographers shooting with "real" cameras comfort themselves with the knowledge that they eventually will share their higher-quality images on the same devices and social-media sites, while retaining the ability to make large, beautiful prints.

Yeah, sure! Secretly, even pro photographers yearn to be able to instantly upload and share their images with their fan base, while most compact owners would love to stick their camera in the face of the camera phone horde and scream, "This camera can surf the web, too, and it blows away the camera in your phone!"

So, is it really any wonder that camera manufacturers are finally adding camera models with wireless connectivity and the ability to add apps that expand their features and functionality? (Actually, the idea isn't new—Kodak introduced that concept back in 1998 with the scriptable Digital Operating System found in its 0.9-megapixel DCS 220 and several other models. At the time, the idea was doomed by lack of WIFI features, sluggish camera processors, tiny 1.5-inch LCD monitors and a scarcity of useful apps.)

Nikon broke the ice with its Android-powered CoolPix S800c ($350 street) in August, beating Samsung's Galaxy EK-GC100 ($500, plus $10/month data plan) to the punch by only a few days. Both models not only feature 16-megapixel CMOS sensors, optical zoom lenses (10X on the Nikon, 21X on the Galaxy), real Xenon flash units and manual-exposure controls, but also run thousands of free and low-cost Android apps available for download from the Google Play website. Not all of the apps are photo-related, but there are hundreds that can help expand a camera's picture-taking, editing and sharing abilities. In addition, the cameras' large monitors (3.7 inches on the Nikon, 4.5 inches on the Samsung) make them perfect devices for viewing photos and videos, or for checking email and playing games.

Sony followed on the heels of the Nikon and Samsung camera intros in September with its NEX-5R ($650/body only street) and NEX-6 ($850 street). Both models accept interchangeable lenses, feature WIFI connectivity and have the ability to add free or low-cost apps to improve camera features. However, they're not Android-based, and apps are only available at Sony's PlayMemories Camera Apps website. At press time, six apps were available, and Sony is promising several more in early 2013.

DSLRs notably are missing from the current Android-based or Sony camera offerings, and it may stay that way for a reason—few DSLR owners will be willing to give up the button and dial controls that disappear in favor of large, touch-screen LCD and OLED monitors. That, and the higher price that large screens add to a camera price (or the data plan required by the Samsung Galaxy) may be compelling enough reasons why photo enthusiasts pass up the current smartcamera models in favor of cheaper connectivity options, such as pairing their camera wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet via an Eye-Fi SD card. In addition, free Android and iOS apps already exist to take advantage of this scenario.

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