DigitalCameraReview.com
Round Up: Who's driving this bus?
by David Rasnake -  7/18/2008

In my editorial last Saturday, I suggested that no one would be too surprised if we see a 15-megapixel compact camera in at least one manufacturer's second-term offerings. Like clockwork, Samsung delivered the latest high-resolution leader, the TL34HD, on Tuesday morning, more or less confirming the direction we're heading this fall.

Samsung TL34HD

In fairness, no, the TL34HD is not quite 15 megapixels (a mere 14.7, in fact), but it's definitely treading heavily in the direction I had in mind – making a pretty sizable jump from the highest-res models currently available.

Before you put two and two together and report me to Samsung for implicitly violating some non-disclosure agreement, let me say for the record that I had no insider knowledge of what our Korean friends were planning. Nor do I yet have any information on any other 15-megapixel compact. What I know even less about, however, is exactly who thinks more resolution in small cameras is necessary, beneficial, or a good idea.

In the not so distant past, megapixel wars were the natural course: the talk back then was about bringing digicams to the level of detail capture offered by 35mm film. Though the best way of measuring such things continues to be debated, I think most of us would agree that we got there – about ten megapixels ago.

By late last year, it seemed like things were cooling off somewhat. Many felt that small sensors had hit a "sweet spot" around eight megapixels, nicely balancing resolution, dynamic range, and high-sensitivity performance. Ten to twelve megapixel offerings tended to fall victim to the law of diminishing returns – providing a little more resolution that, in truth, few users needed anyway in exchange for less low-light flexibility and messier shots.

So who's driving the megapixel bus forward? Manufacturers, obviously, who feel undeniable pressure to stay competitive in a “herd mentality” market. The fading but resilient idea that more megapixels equals more image quality plays a role as well. And unquestionably a few consumers – including a handful of our forum members – like the idea of being able to shoot first, crop for composition later, and still have plenty of resolution for large prints. Given how much we've traditionally had to give up in terms of image quality to get to the outrageously high resolution numbers currently enjoyed by the top-tier compacts, however, I find this justification uncompelling: having tried both approaches, I'd argue that clean ISO 400 shots that have to be “up-resed” to get to print size after cropping usually look better, if upscaled carefully, than messy ones with enough image data intact to print straight from the crop.

I'm eager to get my hands on a TL34HD, and I'm honestly hopeful that Samsung can change my mind on the benefits of serious resolution in a casual camera. Better processing and new sensor technologies give clean images a fighting chance at least, but just the same I for one won't be surprised if image quality all around takes another step backwards in the name of more resolution.

Although it seems to be hard to find consumers itching for more megapixels from small cameras, it looks like we're again headed full-steam in that direction. With little hope of changing the course of things to come, the best I can come up with is a tongue-in-cheek response to the latest manuevering on the resolution front:

"As compact camera consumers, we've been the real victims of the megapixel war for too long, but perhaps there's still hope that we can again take charge in a market poised to spiral out of control. With the specter of 15 megpixels crammed onto too-tiny sensors looming larger than ever after this week, however, the time for action is now. To this end, I'm accepting new members for my recently formed activist organization: 'Save the Megapixels (for Someone Else!)'."

So who's with me?


Round Up is a regular editorial column published weekly on DigitalCameraReview.com.