CES 2008: Wrap-Up

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The 2008 International CES isn’t quite over yet, but we’re already back in the safe confines of our office analyzing and disecting the new offerings seen at this year’s show.

2008 CES

It’s impossible to know exactly what manufacturers may have up their sleeve, but based on what we saw in Las Vegas this week, several conclusions can be drawn about where the digital camera industry is heading in the coming year.

2008: The year of huge memory

While several of the larger memory manufacturers, including Lexar and PNY, have recently announced the addition of 8GB SDHCs to their product lines, a few companies were parading obscenely large memory card prototypes around this week. Panasonic had a Class 6 32GB SDHC on display that got our attention, but wasn’t ready to speak officially about when such a product might make it to market or what kind of price it might command.

2008 CES
PNY was one of several companies showing off 8GB SDHC cards at CES

From a capacity standpoint, even more stunning was Pretec’s introduction of both 24GB and 48GB CompactFlash cards on Monday. Once again, no word on pricing or release dates.

What is known, however, is that these new additions should begin to have a correcting effect on the price of the now-mainstream 8GB cards before too long. With increasingly affordable high-capacity memory just around the corner, unless you’re a professional photographer the days of needing to carry around more than one memory card seem to be drawing to a close.

Megapixels no longer the key spec?

As card capacities continue to increase exponentially, we can say with some confidence that for the first time in several years the megapixel race in consumer digital cameras appears to be slowing down. Megapixels increased slightly for most updated models, but predictions of 14 to 16-megapixel compacts simply didn’t materialize at CES. We’ll see what PMA brings, but given that detail capture on the current crop of 12-megapixel compacts has in many cases significantly outpaced the performance of small optics, we’re not disappointed about this development.

In a similar vein, sensor sizes for compacts seem to be creeping up in new camera releases for the first time in awhile. This, combined with a plateau in resolution increases, will hopefully spell better low-light performance all around (as cameras with larger sensors and/or less resolution on a particular sensor size tend to show less noise across the board). This is all good news: we’ll trade image quality for image size any day.

Wireless file transfer getting more viable all the time

We reported on Monday that Panasonic was jumping into the on-board WiFi game with a new, as yet unspecified compact model, clearly attempting to take some of whatever market share exists in an arena that has been dominated largely by Nikon. Several other manufacturers were showing recently released and prototype models designed to test the waters for close-proximity wireless transfer technologies: Fujifilm’s large-scale buy-in to the IRsimple infrared protocol is the most notable example.

2008 CES
Panasonic‘s compact WiFi concept demo camera

In this burgeoning environment, Sony’s first-day announcement of yet another (it is Sony, after all) close-proximity technology – dubbed TransferJet – may be able gain more traction in the camera world and elsewhere than many have initially assumed.

Unlike other similar, highly proprietary (think Memory Stick) moves by the company, Sony stated that it aims to “actively promote the use of TransferJet across the consumer electronics industry.” Whether others will adopt is a question of another sort, but TransferJet’s capabilities (transfer speeds of 560Mbps, no host/target relationship, touch-to-transfer functionality) make it seem like an attractive protocol for connecting devices to computers (the strength of current WiFi systems), as well as transferring files between mobile devices (the strength of protocols like IRsimple and Bluetooth).

TransferJet may not prove to be the ultimate solution, but the interest in wireless transfer technology this year, particularly as it relates to digicams, suggests that we’re on the cusp of an important breakthrough – one that will allow cameras and other devices to transfer files among themselves and to computers quickly, with minimal setup, and without ever using a cable.

CMOS is here to stay

Not so many years ago, if you had suggested publicly that CMOS imaging sensors would not just enter the digital camera market for mid-level and high-end applications, but indeed make a strong move toward taking it over, you might have been hauled away in a straight-jacket by some tech-minded mental health workers concerned about your sanity. In spite of their inherent manufacturing advantages, CMOS sensors seemed suited to cell phone cams and little else.

How the times have changed.

Based on several conversations (and some reading between the lines), it looks like the number of CMOS sensors on the market is going to take off in the next year. As expected after last year, CMOS should continue to vie for dominance in the middle and upper SLR markets. What was not expected, however, is how far it appears this technology, which can be manufactured more cost-effectively than equivalent-sized CCDs and uses a fundamentally different capture process, will move down into the mid-level/prosumer camera ranks.

2008 CES
Casio’s CMOS-driven F1 made quite an impact

Low-noise CMOS sensors have now become a reality, and with high-speed consumer applications like Casio’s EXILIM F1 generating a lot of interest, it looks like several manufacturers will be getting on this train. In the same vein, though, the investment in CCD technology has been great enough that it’s safe to assume that both systems will be with us for awhile.

Is that IS?

In last year’s CES wrap-up, DCR Editor-in-Chief Ben Stafford observed that optical image stabilization (or IS) was the get-on-board technology for 2007. For 2008, there won’t be many cameras on the market that don’t advertise some kind of image stabilization system, and the movement toward true mechanical/optical IS for entire product lines has been even quicker than expected.

It also seems that it’s taken even less time for consumers to become savvy about the difference between digital and optical stabilization than it did with the digital/optical zoom distinction – perhaps the carryover in terminology has been helpful in this respect.

2008 CES
Kodak was one of several manufacturers heavily touting optical IS on their new models

For the situations in which snapshot shooters, especially, commonly use their cameras, IS is a huge technological advance, with the best optical image stabilization systems standing to make a visible difference in the quality of shots that can be taken under difficult lighting.

We’re still waiting…

On the whole, CES brought some interesting general imaging announcements, with Casio, Samsung, Kodak, and to a lesser degree Sony dominating the new camera releases for this show. As expected, announcements from most of the “traditional” imaging-focused companies (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Fujifilm) are being held until PMA, where we expect to see some major lineup refreshing from these key players and several others.

2008 CES
Editor-in-Chief Ben Stafford checks out Sony’s new A200

What we did see in terms of new model lines brought a stronger emphasis on camera styling – for compacts as well as SLRs – and soft features than ever before. It’s going to be practically impossible to buy a Point and Shoot in 2008 that doesn’t include some variant of face detection. Similarly, Sony hit the market first with its “Smile Shutter” feature that prevents the camera from firing until every face in the frame is a smiling one, but the same general idea popped up in several booths at the show and will probably be in several more come PMA. As we reported, color choices have also become an even more pronounced feature this year; the options for camera personalization are greater than ever.

Still, while some of this (wireless transfer and CMOS, perhaps) hints at the next big break, the technology progression in cameras seen so far this year focused heavily on continuation. We’re still waiting for that piece of earth-shattering imaging news that will define the year in digital photography, and with CES winding down it looks like we’re going to have to wait at least a few weeks more.

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