CES Report, Part 2: The Highlight Reel

For photographers, a few bright spots

There were several innovative, darn-near-revolutionary photo products introduced at CES 2010, but if you scanned consumer electronics web sites over the last week or so, you would hardly know it. Let’s look at key photo products and trends that were overlooked because they weren’t 3D TV, new gaming devices, tablet computers, or new competitors to the iPhone.

A new chapter for APS sensors

With the long-awaited introduction of the Samsung NX-10, a new chapter opened for the APS sensor. APS sat forlornly on the sidelines last year as Olympus and Panasonic, amid much ballyhoo, announced competing mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras built around their pint-sized Micro Four Thirds sensor. Four Thirds is smaller than APS and so image quality has its limits, but APS sensors have the potential to deliver big blow-up prints at higher ISOs, and with Samsung’s announcement APS finally has the chance to strut its stuff in a smaller body.

As with Micro Four Thirds cameras, the NX-10 replaces the space-eating mirror prism or pentaprism optical finder with an electronic viewfinder showing a live image. Without the optical prism’s bulk, the camera body can be slimmed down. A new line of small lenses that accommodate a shorter flangeback (distance between the rear of the lens and sensor surface) has been introduced in a new mount, although an adapter for Samsung/Pentax SLR lenses is promised.

The only question now is not if, but when the next major DSLR maker jumps on this “mini APS” bandwagon. I’m betting we’ll see more next month at PMA.

Kodak gets it

Kodak has spent several awkward years trying to transform itself from a film-and-darkroom company to a high-tech digital powerhouse. At this CES, Kodak introduced the Playsport, Pulse, and Slice—definitely cutting edge-sounding products. The Playsport  is a waterproof, pocket-sized HD camera that was named by Kodak’s Twitter followers and Facebook fans.  The Pulse is a touch-sensitive digital frame with Wi-Fi connectivity and 4,000 image capacity. The Slice (shown) is a 14MP camera that can capture 720p HD videos and is operated via a touchscreen. Say what you will about the excessive megapixel count, the Slice represents a big jump into high-tech cameras.

My take on Kodak at CES is that it has become more Internet savvy and is using social networks to become more attuned to its customers. They introduced more relevant and eye-catching consumer products, which hopefully will help boost sales. After several years of wandering in the digital wilderness (with the slow sales to show it), Kodak is doing it right, and may have found the right path.

Polaroid apologizes

It takes a big company to admit that it screwed up. The outpouring of grief and anger over the last couple of years in the wake of Polaroid’s discontinuing its instant film apparently got through. While the current owners of the Polaroid name didn’t say it in so many words, their announcement of the imminent return of Polaroid Color 600 film and a new OneStep camera  has been joyously accepted Polaroid fans as an apology.

Polaroid’s owners couldn’t help but notice that Fujifilm stepped into the huge vacuum they left by bringing the Instax line of instant film cameras into the US. They might have felt pressure from a group of former employees, the Impossible Project, which worked, with some success, to revive Polaroid instant film by purchasing a former Polaroid facility in the Netherlands. Or perhaps the thousands of angry forum posts and discussions by the niche market they abandoned shamed them into it. The result is what counts: Polaroid Instant film and cameras are coming back, and the people are happy. Non-scientific evidence to confirm this is the fact that my Tweet announcing the return of Polaroid was one of the most popular I’ve ever posted.

It’s in the (memory) cards

Memory cards continue to get faster and hold more data. Lexar and Panasonic led the way. Lexar  announced 300x CF cards in 32GB capacity and 233x cards in 16 and 32GB, while its 133x cards now reach Class 10 transfer speeds. This is very good news for video recording, as the cards will record more video time, faster. Panasonic unveiled the first SDXC format cards, an expansion in speed and capacity of the SD format. Its new Class 10 cards come in 48 and 64GB capacities. That’s enough to hold up to 8.5 hours of 1080i HD video.

Sony surprised some by introducing a line of five SD and SDHC memory cards  and left some wondering if the electronics behemoth is moving away from its proprietary, pricier MemoryStick card format. Reaction from my Twitter stream? “I hope so” and “It’s about time” were typical. Perhaps Sony realizes that it is limiting sales by forcing people to use an unpopular storage card.


One lonely DSLR

The sole DSLR introduced at CES came from Sony—the Alpha 450, which seems to be a "high-end basic" DSLR, which means it's being marketed to and designed for first-time DSLR buyers, but it boasts some mid-range DSLR features. For instance, it has a 7fps burst rate, a feature most first-timers wouldn't appreciate, and built-in HDR, a feature that enthusiasts would understand but beginners may not. 14MP resolution is fine for big prints, but most step-up shooters don't need that much and in fact, the big files produced could gum up their computer's processing power. In other words, the A450 looks like a very capable camera, but it has a bit of an identity problem.


Canon becomes a little fish in a big pond

For items of interest to serious photographers, the pickin’s were slim: Canon, which will not be at PMA this year, had plenty of new products, but very little of interest for serious photographers. They announced a replacement for their 70-200mm pro lens and wireless transmitters for their high-end DSLRs—not the sort of stuff that will get much of a spotlight at a show like CES.

Canon did announce a new line of Vixia camcorders http://www.adorama.com/news/Canon-launches-new-Vixia-camcorder-line that record videos onto SD memory cards—which is good and appropriate for CES—and four basic compact still cameras. But unlike PMA, where Canon was one of the biggest and most prominent exhibitors, at CES it was just another company vying for attention.

Megapixel madness—still?

I give Canon credit for not going overboard with pixel density on their compact cameras, limiting their highest resolution to 12MP, which is already more pixels than necessary. But apparently, Casio, Kodak, Olympus, Panasonic, GE, Sony, Samsung and even Vivitar didn’t get the memo. All of them introduced at least one 14MP camera, even though we’ve established in so many ways that squeezing that many pixels on a pinkie nail-sized sensor will cause artifacts that will adversely affect overall image quality.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: If you’re like 95 percent of the population, the largest print you’re going to make is 4x6, maybe an occasional 5x7. For that, all you need is a 6MP camera, and even if you plan on making 8x10s, anything above 8MP is overkill. Shop for features and performance, not pixels.

But this is the mass-market mentality that CES feeds into: More megapixels are better. What a shame that so many people, dazzled by the pixel count, will be disappointed with their image quality while their image files become unmanageably huge.

Final words 

If CES proved anything from the perspective of the photography industry this year, it is that CES is not a photography show. Digital photography products may have been in the CES spotlight for a few years, but this year some innovative cameras were ignored for the sake of flashier gadgets. The public has moved on.

I note that there were no new product announcements from hardcore photo companies such as Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, or Pentax, although I suspect we’ll hear plenty from them in Anaheim next month.

As I said on Friday, there has been some discussion in the industry of folding PMA into CES, and because of the sheer size of the show and the fickle nature of the consumer electronics world, I think this would be a very bad idea. Keep PMA strong and give photography a stage where it will continue to be the star. Perhaps letting the general public in on the last day of the show could give the show a boost


What was your biggest CES news? Any disappointments? Leave a comment!


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