There are celebrations when a war ends, but sometimes confusion, too. The sense of purpose, the unifying morale lift, maybe even the economic boost, are over.
That was certainly the case during the Great Megapixel Wars of 1996-2007. During these years, the world’s camera companies fought doggedly for our hearts and minds, using megapixel count as a weapon. “Ours takes 6 megapixel photos!” “Ours takes 8!” And we marched to their orders, buying a new camera every other year just to keep up.
Now that that war has ended (the megapixel race has pretty much stopped at around 12) the camera companies find themselves flailing for new sales points. Cameras these days have more bells and whistles than a marching band: image stabilizers, superlong zooms, hi-def video, waterproof cases, face recognition, smile detection, even blink detection.
This month, though, some kind of line has been crossed. Two new cameras from Nikon and Samsung don’t just tinker with the camera formula, they rewrite it. One adds a second screen; the other adds a built-in projector.
Actually, Samsung’s DualView TL225 and TL220 cameras introduce two radical elements: a screen on the front and a gesture-and-tilt vocabulary for controlling the thing. (The TL225, priced at $350, has a 3.5-inch back screen, brushed-metal body and HDMI jack for a hi-def TV; the TL220, $300, has a 3-inch screen, plastic body and no HDMI.) What draws the most attention, of course, is that 1.5-inch front screen.
When the screen is turned off, it’s invisible. It vanishes completely into the camera’s smoky-dark case. When you turn it on (by tapping that empty spot with your finger), however, it’s capable of performing several ingenious stunts.
The obvious one is framing self-portraits. On ordinary cameras, that’s a matter of guesswork, or of handing the camera to passing strangers and praying they won’t just run away with it. On the DualView, you can see precisely how the shot is framed, how your expression looks and whether you’ve got spinach in your teeth.
Actually, why not use it even when you’re not taking self-portraits? Shouldn’t everyone have some say in what your pictures of them look like?
When you dial up Kid mode — one of the camera’s 13 canned sets of scene settings — the screen does something else clever: it displays a crude Japanese-style cartoon animation. (The camera comes with a clown animation; 20 more are available as free downloads.) It’s supposed to capture the attention of younger subjects, so that they face the camera.
It works like a charm (except in bright sunlight, where it’s nearly bleached out). Even older children are captivated, if only by the presence of a video screen on a pocket camera. Close-range photos sometimes reveal the telltale off-axis look of a child who was looking at a spot beside the lens, not into it, but it beats calling out, “Tyler! Hey Tyler! Look here! Hey Tyler!” for the 14th time.
The little front screen can also display a countdown in self-timer mode, current flash or macro settings, or a smiley face when you press the shutter, to cue your subjects when it’s time to pretend to be happy.
The question is: do self-portraits and child shots occur frequently enough to justify the higher price of this camera? (Rival touch-screen cameras cost $50 to $100 less.)
Before you answer, there’s more invention in the DualView than just the second screen. The huge, bright touch screen works really well, but what’s new is how you can control this camera, quickly and precisely, by tipping it and drawing on its screen.
For example, you draw a big X on a photo to delete it. You draw a circle, clockwise or counterclockwise, to rotate it. In playback mode, you advance to the next picture either by flicking your finger across the screen, iPhone style, or by giving the camera a little shake.
Cooler yet, you can switch modes — to movie mode and back, for example — by twitching the camera up, down or left while pressing a button with your thumb. It takes a couple of minutes to master, but it’s a genuine advance in the evolution of gadget controls, and wow, is it cool.
Lacking in one very important detail
Not so cool: in their “reinvent the camera” zeal, Samsung’s engineers adopted a nonstandard way to charge the battery (inside the camera, so you can’t charge a spare while using the camera), a nonstandard, proprietary computer transfer cable, and a decidedly nonstandard memory-card format (MicroSD, more common on cellphones). Whassamatter, Samsung — the SD cards used by every other camera company on earth not good enough for ya?
The other radical new camera is Nikon’s CoolPix S1000pj ($430). On most cameras, to show off your photos, you can pass around the tiny screen or connect a TV cable. This one, if you can believe it, has a microprojector built right into its forehead.
Last year, microprojectors wowed a lot of people. They’re little iPod-size pocketable gadgets that connect to phones, laptops or iPods to project stills and videos on any handy, light-colored flat surface.
Get ready for the dawn of embedded microprojectors in cellphones — and cameras, like this one. When you’re in playback mode, a dedicated button on the top edge of the Nikon turns on a gasp-inducing projected image, which can be as large as 40 inches diagonal, depending on your distance from the wall, ceiling or T-shirt.
Now, you’re not exactly going to get complaints from the neighbors; this thing pumps out only 10 lumens of light (compared with 2,000 lumens or more for conference-room laptop projectors). The projected image is only 640 by 480 pixels. The battery lasts for only an hour with the projector on.
But you know what? Absolutely nobody cares. The image brightness and clarity are perfectly adequate — especially in a dark room, on a white surface, and when the camera is fairly close.
Everyone who sees this stunt is captivated by the possibilities. Whenever you want to show off the pictures or videos on your camera, there’s no need to transfer them to a computer or hunt for the TV cable; just aim the camera, set it on its little stand if you like, and maybe whip out the included remote control.
You can take pictures on a camping trip, far from computers or TV sets, and conduct on-the-spot slide shows. Take pictures at a party and immediately show them off. Load up a memory card with PowerPoint slides and carry your sales pitch in your pocket. It’s fantastic.
This miracle comes at a price, though. An equivalent camera without the projector costs about half as much. Furthermore, while the Nikon isn’t nearly as big as it appears in photos (it’s roughly the same size as most pocket cameras), it is just as homely.
Both of these cameras represent huge high-tech leaps, for sure. Both have mighty zooms (5X or 4.6X), smile and blink detection, superb close-up modes (0.6 inches away), excellent facial recognition and so on.
Unfortunately, neither of them takes particularly good pictures. That could be considered a drawback in a camera.
As in most CoolPix and Samsung pocket cams, these models have tiny sensors, so blur is a problem in low light or when your subjects are moving. Shutter lag is a huge problem, so sports photography is nearly out of the question. (On the Samsung, the shutter sometimes doesn’t snap until a full second after you’ve pressed the button.) The Samsung’s shots also fall consistently short of crisp sharpness.
Still, there are an awful lot of goodies to distract you from the photo quality. Let’s hope that the wow-inducing ingenuity on display here makes its way, eventually, to cameras that take wow-inducing photos.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.