PMA 2008: Wrap-Up

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After spending the better part of Friday night and Saturday morning shuffling through airports, the DCR army of two was feeling as ragged as our press badges looked.

PMA 2008

Even so, PMA 2008 was full of new camera releases, and while many of the new models for the next several months are now on the table and out in the open, it’s probably a safe bet that a few more will trickle out in the next few months. We’ll also be following up on a few product releases from the show that we weren’t able to adequately cover during the rush of headline announcements, so look for those on the site in the coming days.

PMA 2008

Without further delay, and with our usual mix of follow-up reporting and reading between the lines for what’s coming next, here’s my quick take on what we saw and what to look for in 2008.

Industry news: incremental improvements, image quality over resolution

Beyond Sony’s announcement that it’s interested in playing the full-frame game with Nikon and Canon (see the full story here), there wasn’t much general news from the show that’s likely to change the photographic landscape this year. We’ll see technologies, especially processor-side technologies, come down in price and up in specs, and we’ve seen some sensor-size increases in the new cameras coming to market this spring, but none of this represents a major shift – more incremental progress.

As we anticipated coming out of CES, image stabilization and face detection remained key marketing phrases at PMA, with several companies offering better-than-ever face detection and tracking technologies. While the whole concept still seems a little over-hyped in terms of its overall usefulness, we did see some blazing fast tracking systems and impressive off-axis recognition capabilities. Canon’s move to bring face detection up into DSLRs with the Rebel XSi suggests both how dominant the technology has become and how far DSLRs like the popular Rebel series have extended into the consumer-camera ranks.

Canon Rebel XSi

Canon Rebel XSi

Improved dynamic range was another, slightly less expected marketing pitch for new devices from almost every manufacturer this year. The ability to balance contrast and preserve image detail (especially shadow detail) should prove infinitely useful as consumers become more knowledgeable about the value of such systems. In some ways, it’s actually surprising that it’s taken most companies as long as it has to follow industry leaders like Nikon (who have been promoting the value of their well-known D-Lighting system for awhile now) in on this one.

Finally, discussions with several manufacturers indicate that they’re aware of consumer concerns about increased noise as megapixels increased faster than sensor sizes, and are working actively to address this issue. Panasonic actively addressed the point in its press conference, stating that it was "pursuing high picture quality in 10 megapixels." While not exactly an admission that many previous high-resolution compacts gave up more in overall image quality than they gained from increased image sizes, the fact that manufacturers have, as predicted, backed off pushing the megapixel envelope in favor of improved processing and optical technologies is certainly a big step in the right direction.

GE cameras look to compete more strongly this year

In terms of industry shake-ups, the market was pretty stable this year. We did have a brief sit-down with GE’s camera people: as reported, the company has been arguably the most high-profile new provider of a full-range compact lineup in the last year. If the firm can deliver on promised improvements, look for them to make some headway in further establishing themselves in the market this year.


Stock shots of the recently unveiled GE X3 ultra-zoom

We also learned that a new ultra-zoom X model, the 12x zoom X3, is in fact in the works, and should start showing up in stores after mid-year. With the general styling showing incremental improvements over last year’s offering, the X3 could potentially snatch away market share from budget-minded ultra-zooms like the Kodak Z812 IS if it pushes the price point on this class down further. We’ll see what happens.

Multi-function devices the next all-aboard technology?

At PMA, Samsung announced its intent to control the third spot in the digicam industry by 2010. This seems outrageously aggressive, even in a world of perpetually optimistic growth targets, but the integration of Samsung Opto-Electronics into the larger firm makes a lot of sense and further suggests the direction their strategy for compact cameras will likely take.

Samsung already offers some of the most successful, most well-planned multi-function devices (camera and personal media player, primarily) out there, and as the technology to power easy-to-use all-in-one personal electronics comes into its own and move beyond early adopters, Samsung seems poised to do everything in its (rather considerable) power to dominate this segment.

Samsung i8

Samsung’s new camera/PMP, the i8

After a few minutes with the device, we’re reasonably impressed with how seamlessly the new iPod-esque Samsung i8 moves from camera to media player and back again. It’s still not perfect, but the building interest around this idea and around the convergence of technologies in a single device generally (we heard similar language from Sony at their press conference) suggests what’s to come here. Not surprisingly, look for the general electronics companies (Samsung, Sony, Panasonic) to lead the way on this trend in the coming year, and the traditional imaging companies (Canon, Nikon, Olympus) to largely hold out.

Technology coming together for high-quality cell phone pics

In a similar vein, analyst types have been predicting for several years that gradual improvements in lens and sensor technology for what are politely called "mass consumer cameras" (that is, the integrated cameras on things like cell phones), combined with the constantly falling cost of advanced processing technologies, would result in a "meeting in the middle" of sorts, making consistent, printable images from cell phone cams a reality.


While this still may not be the year, Kodak’s announcement today of a new 5 megapixel high-ISO CMOS sensor for integrated cameras using the popular 1/4-inch sensor size has some promise. In re-engineering the sensor’s pixel design, the new unit promises higher low-light performance, with ISO 800 images from Kodak’s sensor comparing favorably against ISO 200 performance from traditional cell phone cams.

Combine these sorts of sensor-side innovations with news from processor companies like Zoran (who makes the image processing technology for several of the major camera and cell phone companies) who are offering last year’s DSLR processor performance at a price suited to budget compacts this year and it doesn’t take an analyst to see where this all is heading.

In terms of the bigger picture, cell phone cameras have mostly been viewed as novelties by the imaging industry heretofore, and this level of high-profile R&D seems to mark a significant change in priorities and direction going forward. While we think that the skepticism of companies like Nikon and Canon toward integrated-camera devices is well placed in some ways – it’s not as though multifunction devices are going to make the compact camera obsolete among all snapshot takers, even – the amount of active development currently focused on making the images from cell phones and other mobile devices as useable as they are convenient probably means we’ll see a big breakthrough here soon.

Consumer DSLR bags looking less and less like camera cases

With the explosive growth in the DSLR segment, it seems that camera bag manufacturers are finally starting to get the message that consumers who carry their larger, pricier cameras frequently want camera bags that, for styling as well as security reasons, don’t look like camera bags.

Australian maker Crumpler has long understood this concept, and new offerings from the firm look to continue this design ethos. Most notably, the company is offering an expanded lineup of pro-size bags that meet this criteria, doing its part to fill a gap that exists in the market for inconspicuous, multi-body/multi-lens DSLR carrying solutions.


Crumpler pro-series bag

Lowepro, widely respected for their quality gear, was showing off a couple of unique DSLR carrying concepts of its own this year. A personal favorite around here is the Flipside, which puts compartment access on the inside (i.e. against your back) when carrying the bag, making it ultra-secure.

Lowepro Flipside

Lowepro Flipside

As with the Crumpler, its innocuous yet sleek appearance is a welcomed change, and in larger sizes it should be able to accomodate a pretty serious kit.

Ultra-zooms still alive and well

Finally, huge price drops over the last few years have brought the entry point for a DSLR out of the advanced amateur realm and into the world of everyday snapshooters. The performance advantages and flexibility afforded by SLR-type digital cameras are hard to dispute, and in this climate of strong downward price pressures from above, many predicted a few years ago that the ultra-zoom segment would largely fade away.

While, as we reported, DSLRs are unquestionably a lot of the hot news in the consumer camera world right now, several manufactures (both those with consumer-level DSLR systems and those without them) also made some noise in the ultra-zoom arena at PMA this year. To stay competitive, what we saw from new ultra-zooms this year were focal lengths that would have been unthinkable a few years back (and would still be prohibitively expensive for a DSLR user buying separate lenses), compact form factors, larger sensors, and features and performance unavailable anywhere else.

Casio led off this trend earlier in the month at CES with its 60 frames-per-second F1, and we got to spend a little more hands-on time with the new king of ultra-high-speed shooting.

Casio F1

Casio Exilim F1, a 60fps fixed-lens DSLR-style camera

Not even the ultra-fast Canon EOS 1D Mark III offers that kind of performance, and while the advertised price ($1000) may be high for a camera offering unknown overall image quality, we’re betting the F1’s novel capture system will drive plenty of sales either way.

For more budget-conscious users, Fujifilm had some of the most impressively speced units at the show, though its compact 18x zoom S8100fd was bested by Olympus’s announcement of a competitive, though slightly larger and more expensive 20x model, the SP-570 UZ.

Fujifilm FinePix S8100fd

Fujifilm FinePix S8100fd

In spending a little time with both cameras, my initial thoughts are that while the Olympus is more robust overall, the Fuji will probably win the ease of use game. In either case, both new models offer an incredible amount of power in the $400 to $500 range.

Most impressive among these offerings were the number of sub-$250 ultra-zooms, offering compact performance at unheard of prices. Compared to a similar camera from a few years ago, the Fujifilm FinePix S1000fd is downright tiny.

Fuji FinePix S1000fd

Fujifilm FinePix S1000fd

At this size and price, look for it to give pocket ultra-zooms like Sony’s continuation Cyber-shot H10 (a mild H3 update) and Canon’s SX100 IS a run for their money.

Sony H10

Sony Cyber-shot H10

And with price competition from a new well-received Kodak model and the budget-minded mid-year offering from GE mentioned previously, competition in the ultra-compact world is getting nearly as crowded and as fierce as the point-and-shoot arena. With $500 discounted DSLRs now commonplace, who could’ve guessed?

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