PMA 2009: Tuesday Wrap-Up

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Our first official day on the show floor at PMA 2009 found us meeting up with most of the major camera manufacturers to get the latest info on their recent releases.

PMA 2009

We found time to play with – and in a few cases, even shoot with – many of this year’s new launches; here are a few highlights from our show floor explorations yesterday.

Up close and personal with the Lumix GH1
Panasonic’s press conference to officially announce the Lumix GH1 proved to be one of the more interesting ones we’ve attended in awhile. To hear Panasonic exec Bob Perry stand up and say that the manufacturer has “not positioned the Lumix brand to our satisfaction” in the U.S. market is to witness something that typically has no place in the ebullient atmosphere of a new product launch: honest assessment.

PMA 2009
Panasonic’s Bob Perry

According to Perry, the dominance of the Lumix brand in many segments of the Asian and European markets has proved difficult to replicate in the United States. In spite of strong growth from the brand’s point-and-shoot products, Panasonic has grasped to find a foothold in the DSLR space with their Lumix L models, and based on yesterday’s announcement of yet another Micro Four Thirds camera, it looks like the company will be shifting all of its chips to the Lumix G micro system going forward.

PMA 2009

We spent some time getting to know the new GH1 after yesterday morning’s press conference, and as expected, the camera is nearly identical to its G1 sibling – marked only by the addition of a stereo mic up top, and a dedicated video capture button out back.

PMA 2009

The pre-production sample we played with jumped reasonably smoothly from video capture to shooting stills and back again using the dedicated button, and our camera proved to be a competent – and, as promised, silent – focuser when shooting video. There were still enough rough edges and lag to suggest that, as expect, Panasonic has completely ironed out the GH1’s firmware, but we remain impressed nonetheless with just how sorted these pre-production units seemed to be on the video side.

PMA 2009

Built inside the same shape that houses the G1’s internals, the GH1 is equally comfortable in hand, with an intuitive (if a bit cramped) button layout and lots of dedicated controls.

PMA 2009

The primary handling difference between the G1 and GH1 comes from the latter’s much larger and heavier kit lens: the 14-140mm f/4-5.8 “HD” lens that comes with the GH1 feels like the heaviest Micro Four Thirds lens to date, throwing the compact GH1’s balance off just a bit and brings the total package more into line with other full-size consumer DSLRs.

PMA 2009

To this point, we still have no confirmed information about when the GH1 will be released, or what its proposed price tag will be. And if Panasonic is looking to expand its reach in the interchangeable-lens market, price will be the key question: the G1’s $650 street price these days puts it above most of the entry-level DSLRs that it competes against, but the situation gets even thornier in pricing the GH1 as there’s no obvious competition for the model in the $2000 or so between the Canon SX1 and Sony HX1, and the pro-grade Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Hence, at this point – and in this economy – what consumers will be willing to pay for the luxury of interchangeable lenses plus full HD video capture is really anyone’s guess.

Video demo: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1
Sony’s new HX1 impressed us with its powerful 9.0 megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor. The idea of a 10 fps point-and-shoot camera – even an enthusiast-level one – is still relatively novel, and the rest of the camera packs some nice features to back it up.

PMA 2009

We spent a little while late yesterday afternoon checking out everything that the new HX1 has to offer. By and large, those familiar with other Sony H cameras will find themselves right at home in the HX1 physical and graphical interfaces.

PMA 2009

Tilt screens are big news for advanced cameras this year, but Sony’s been building cameras with this technology for awhile. The HX1 breaks new ground with its 1080p HD video capture – joining a select club of consumer cameras with this capability. A stereo mic betrays the 20x zoom HX1’s advanced video capture standing, but otherwise, the new model is visually similar to previous flagship Cyber-shot models.

But back to the 10 fps shooting capabilities: with frame-by-frame refresh, the HX1 proves to be a highly competent action shooter, even when composing shots on the LCD in the camera’s fastest capture mode.

Focus and exposure appear to be locked after the first shot by default, and we’ve only started exploring the HX1’s other high-speed shooting options. Nonetheless, we’re pleased with what we’ve seen to this point when it comes to continuous shooting – especially considering the HX1’s attractive sub-$500 price point.

Auto scene recognition 2009’s must-have technology
The emphasis on consumer models at this year’s show has brought to light some subtle shifts in which point-and-shoot technologies manufacturers are touting. For those of us who believe that the law of diminishing returns took effect a long time ago when it comes to increased resolution in small-sensor cameras, it is perhaps a small victory that we didn’t see a 16 or 17 megapixel compact at this year’s show. For the moment, at least, it looks like 15 megapixels, give or take a bit, will remain the standard for flagship point-and-shoot models.

Two years ago, it was improved face detection that everyone was talking about. Last year, we saw various image stabilization technologies become ubiquitous. And for 2009, the emphasis seems to have shifted back to making point-and-shoot models more about pointing, shooting, and little else with the integration of auto scene recognition technologies.

PMA 2009
Kodak EasyShare Z915, with Kodak’s Smart Capture advanced auto exposure system

Like face detection and IS, this is one of those advancements that’s been building for awhile. Last year, Panasonic began highly touting the ability of its intelligent auto system to detect close-ups versus landscapes versus portraits, and optimize settings accordingly. Sony’s had a similar technology for at least a year, and Kodak’s been in on the game for awhile as well. But when Canon – famous for rarely rushing technologies to market before they’re good and ready – gets on board with the latest fad, it might be time to suspect that it’s not just a fad anymore.

Using some of the auto detection systems for the first time this week – including Canon’s entry into the space – we continue to be impressed with how much quicker and more savvy these systems have become. The days of slow preset recognition with limited detection capabilities seem to be pretty much gone these days, due we’re sure to the continued rapid improvement in camera processor technology over the last few years. And while we’re not always wild about increased automation in enthusiast cameras, for casual shooters, an auto exposure mode capable of considering subject and situation when setting exposure values really does seem more and more like the logical evolution beyond “one exposure fits all” auto metering.

Hands on with Canon’s latest PowerShots
We took a few minutes off the show floor yesterday to follow up on Canon’s latest PowerShot releases. Aesthetics have been a considerable part of Canon’s formula for its 2009 lineup, and in our estimation, the new PowerShot models are some of the most visually striking (and potentially also some of the best performing) Canon point-and-shoots to date.

PMA 2009

My personal favorite of the lot remains Canon’s latest compact ultrazoom, the PowerShot SX200 IS. The first SX camera to run on lithium-ion power instead of AAs, the SX200 finally provides a Canon model that’s svelte enough to challenge Panasonic’s very nice high-style TZ/ZS cameras on their own turf.

PMA 2009

Subtle colors, key chrome accents, and a tricked out dual-pivot pop up flash round out the SX200’s visual touches. All in all, the 12x zoom SX200 is attractive, well-built, and minimalist, using an interface that will be familiar to long-time Canon users.

PMA 2009

In an indication of things to come, however, certain new PowerShot SD cameras are sporting a slightly refined menu look and feel – the first significant update to Canon’s familiar menu and quick access system in recent memory.

PMA 2009

With its wide-format LCD and minimal physical controls, the SD960 IS shares some of its control arrangement with previous PowerShots, but breaks some new ground as well in simplifying and mode-contextualizing the function menu.

It will take some actual shooting time with the SD960 to make any judgments about the new arrangement; the old interface was so familiar that it will undoubtedly take some adjustment time to adapt to the new system. But given this kind of prominent placement in Canon’s high-end Digital ELPH models, it’s safe to assume that we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of this kind of interface in Canon’s PowerShot line going forward.

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