Is it possible that the compact camera megapixel wars have finally reached a fragile détente? In my far from comprehensive survey of what's out there, it seems that for some time now the compact camera market has topped out around 12 megapixels. Sony pushed the envelope just a bit this year with the 13.6 megapixel W300, but beyond this the race to the top seems to have slowed considerably compared to this time two years ago.
Some of this can almost certainly be traced back to diminishing returns and the limits of technology. Pixels can only be easily (and thus cheaply) crammed onto small sensors up to a point, and huge resolution numbers simply don't drive camera sales like they used to. It's this second point, especially, that makes me cautiously optimistic.
While we still do battle against the idea that "megapixels" and "image quality" are interchangeable concepts, compact camera buyers are generally more savvy than they've ever been. Over the weekend, DCR tech guru and NotebookReview.com maven Jerry Jackson ranted about gimmickry as a substitute for true technological advancement in compact digicams. Although I agree completely with the core of Jerry's manifesto, I think the other (very interesting) side of this coin is that even as manufacturers foist more ridiculous features onto consumers, the average consumer – if our forums are at all representative – knows more about what's important in camera technology than ever. Discussions about noise performance, AF speed, and shutter lag vastly outweigh threads about camera resolution these days.
With consumers feeling less need for more resolution of late, what we've entered in the compact camera market has all of the markings of a megapixel Cold War. Little pressure from the market to deliver more pixels appears to have the big manufacturers locked in a staring match to see who will make the next big move on the resolution front. In the meantime, this has largely been good news for the average camera buyer, with makers lavishing attention on improved processing (the fabricated, very digital look once associated with images from compact digicams appears to have been almost entirely eradicated as a result), better optics, and dynamic range control. Yeah, they've also been wasting increasing amounts of time with the kinds of nonsense Jerry described, but at least the perceived need to bring out a compact camera with sufficient resolution make 300 dpi prints big enough to cover a living-room wall has diminished.
If manufacturing viability and consumer interest have both waned, however, don't assume for a minute that the situation is completely stable. With high-profile bragging rights at stake, one company pulling the trigger on a 15 megapixel compact would almost certainly be enough to ignite this arms race again.
With that in mind, I'm stockpiling 8GB SDHCs and extra licenses of Noise Ninja just in case...
Round Up is a regular editorial column published twice weekly on DigitalCameraReview.com.