What's The Cost of a Cheap Camera?
Every story has to have its elemental conflict -- Democrats versus Republicans, Redskins versus Cowboys, Starbucks versus, um, every other coffee shop. And in the consumer-electronics business that conflict resides in the tension between commodity and creativity.
Gadgets start out as rare, novel, expensive expressions of technological creativity, then become more common and cheaper as other companies start to make them; eventually, they become the kind of everyday product you can buy without any special research. (Shorter version: tech products move from unavailable to unaffordable to unavoidable.)
It looks like digital cameras are well into that third phase of market acceptance. In today's column, I looked at the three cheap cameras -- Canon's E1, Kodak's C813 and Olympus's FE-360--to see what, if anything, you gave up by buying from the lower end of a manufacturer's product line.
That was a departure from prior camera evaluations, in which I've tried out such new, higher-end options as in-camera editing that makes you look thinner or younger, or high-definition video recording.
As you can see, I didn't find any obvious sacrifices of capability even at this low end of the market. The single biggest area of compromise, the resolution of the sensor, has vanished, with all three cameras offering 8 or more million pixels of resolution. (A little historical perspective: In 2003, I was happy to find a pocket-sized 5-megapixel camera for "only" $600, and in 2005 a 4-MP model cost me a mere $300.)
But I think that in winning this resolution race, the camera industry has lost sight of some other important factors. Some are the useful secondary features I've outlined in past how-to-buy-a-camera stories (for instance, stick with cameras that use AA batteries and SD Card storage, and optical image stabilization works better than digital image stabilization), but I also believe that basic usability is getting neglected.
It's fun to count how many goofy scene-mode options a camera offers (apparently, self-portraits taken by holding the camera in front of your face now merit their own mode), but how many people make their way to the menus listing all these options? How many remember to use them in the field? Me, I often have enough trouble just remembering to change the clock on my camera when I travel -- and I am enough of a photo geek to want to play with things like aperture and exposure when composing the shot.
What would you change on your current camera? You can stick to simple fixes (say, "move the flash button") or get a little more hypothetical ("have the camera suggest what scene mode I ought to use"). The comments await...
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