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CES 2012: Digital camera makers struggle to keep pace

Consumer Reports News: January 11, 2012 04:08 PM

At first glance, it would appear the camera industry is in trouble. Some of the smart phones introduced at CES have specs that equal or surpass cameras: 16-megapixel sensors, displays as big as 5.3 inches and the ability to shoot HD video at 1080p. Plus, smartphones have much more intuitive interfaces and can instantly upload photos and video to the internet for instant sharing. Which is why more and more people shoot photos and video on their phones, leaving cameras and camcorders at home.

To counter this trend, camera and camcorder manufacturers have introduced a number of models that connect to the Internet via WiFi. Some look promising, like Sony’s Bloggie Live, which lets you live stream video to your computer through a web video service called Qik.

Some new connected cameras are just plain confusing, though. Take Polaroid’s new “smart camera”, the Polaroid SC1630 Android HD. A phone-like device with a 3x optical zoom lens, it uses the Android operating system, doesn’t have a phone, but does have WiFi, so it can connect to the web. Apparently, Polaroid is in talks with various carriers to include 3G when the device actually launches.

Still, when it comes to connectivity, WiFi enabled cameras don’t pose any serious competition to camera phones. WiFi is only available at hot spots, while 3G is available virtually anywhere in major cities.

A better bet for camera makers in fending off the threat of smart phones is by emphasizing quality and advanced features in a small package. SLR-like, or mirrorless, cameras do exactly that, with sensors as large as those in SLRs, but much smaller bodies. That’s why they’ve been one of the few areas of growth in the camera industry. The photos these cameras capture blow away virtually anything you can shoot on a smartphone. Their acceptance by consumers shows that people still care about capturing quality photos.

Fujifilm introduced one such mirrorless model at CES, the 16-megapixel X-Pro1, which has a large SLR-type sensor and accepts interchangeable lenses. It features a high-quality 3-inch LCD, a maximum ISO of ISO 25,600, and a unique hybrid viewfinder that lets you toggle between an optical and electronic view. It also has the same retro, rangefinder-style of body design as other X-series cameras. At the moment, Fujifilm offers three prime, or non-zoom, lenses for the X-Pro1: XF18mm (f/2), XF35mm (f/1.4) and XF60mm (f/2.4 macro). As with most advanced cameras, you can capture Raw files and theres a hot-shoe for an external flash. Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but word has it that it will cost around $1,700 and $600 for each lens.

Despite any anticipation, this CES came and went without Canon announcing even one mirrorless model. Instead, they got halfway there with the PowerShot G1 X, which has a large sensor that’s almost as big as the ones in their Rebels, but which doesn’t use interchangeable lenses.

And, just to show everyone that true SLRs are still very relevant, Nikon was showing off its flagship D4, which will set you back at least $6000.

Consumer Reports camera coverage from the Consumer Electronics Show:
CES 2012: Panasonic introduces thinner cameras with long zooms
CES 2012: Sony offers new cameras and projection camcorders
CES 2012: First Look at Sony Bloggie, a camcorder that streams video
CES 2012: Olympus offers cheaper point-and-shoots, new audio recorders
CES 2012: Samsung bets big on connected cameras and camcorders
CES 2012: Canon introduces point-and-shoot with large sensor
CES 2012: Fujifilm debuts 19 new cameras with super features
CES 2012 preview: What's ahead in digital cameras?

Terry Sullivan

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