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PMA 2002: The Year of the Digicam

PMA 2002: The Year of the Digicam

The PMA show for 2002 probably set a few records. There were, for example, more digicams introduced than ever before. Is that impressive? Let's examine the stats more closely. The largest number of digicam intros were entry level models, inviting the public to swell digital's ranks. How impressive is that? Or let's look at it another way. The number of new digital procams—that is, SLRs—was greater than ever, too. So we're growing on the high end, we're growing on the low-end. Is there any other end that could grow? How about the back-end? There were more kiosks than ever, too.

Fujifilm's FinePix S602 Zoom, one of many new digicams introduced at PMA 2002.

It looks like all ends are anticipating growth, if the hard stats are any guide. Hard? Sure, if hard means factual, accurate, and immutable. Hard as in difficult? I don't think so.

The year 2002 marks the tenth anniversary of the digital photography market. It was in 1992 that the first digital photography products began shipping to consumers, and what a ride it's been ever since. In one short decade, we've seen digital go from a promising niche to the principal commodity of the game. When we initiated this column, it was with the intention of highlighting events in an upstart and obscure market. Now digital is the market. All of photography is now digital-related, and it's the film-based market that deserves the special column for "vertical markets." The hard stats prove it.

The very best film quality still exceeds the very best digicam quality, in most areas (it was generally conceded years ago that on the highest of high-ends, the studio-camera market, digital is better). But the fact is that on the level of the 4x6-inch print, digital originals are indistinguishable from film originals. Many of the claims made for digital are still hype, but the claim that it's more fun is incontrovertible. As soon as the public grows fully aware of the back-end services, with photofinishing as simple for digicams as it is for film, the floodgates should be cast aside and the torrents should begin. The photo trades should congratulate themselves. In ten short years, they've re-invented the business from the very top to the very bottom. The products they now trade have more dash and pizazz, and 2002 may prove to be the watershed that highlighted it all. Let's take a look at the high points among this year's products.

Entry Digicams: Oh Boy!
I stopped counting the new digicams at the show when my total reached 35. Is this

Matter of fact, eight new digicams seems a lot for one time and place, and that's how many Samsung alone announced, with prices starting at $199.99. Sony brought three new Cyber-shot models to the show, including the DSC-P31 with an MSRP of about $250. Argus brought five digicams (all under $250), and Konica brought four. See that, we've already listed 15 new digicams at the show, and we haven't even mentioned Concord or Pretec.

Panasonic showed their four new Lumix models, with MSRP's ranging from $499 to $899. SiPix arrived with their new 2.1-megapixel SC-2300 Deluxe for under $180. Toshiba brought three new models (up to 3-Mp) to the show "officially," and showed a fourth, a tiny little thing, unofficially. Also seen under the Benq name (formerly part of Acer Computer) was another tinycam, the DC300mini. HP showed their 3.9-Mp, 3x Photosmart 812, and Kodak presented their 4-Mp, 2x EasyShare DX4900 with a $399 price.

Fuji also introduced three new models, although not all on the entry level. The FinePix S602, their new top-of-the line in the consumer market claims the ability to shoot full VGA-quality motion video at 30 fps, as well as 3 megapixel stills. We've been entertaining the prospects of a "universal" camera, equally adept at stills and movies, for years. Possibly, the S602 will show how it's done.

Nikon's Coolpix 2500 has some serious operating features, but its high-fashion styling has earned it the description, by male chauvinists behind-the-scenes, as a "chick camera." This borders on political incorrectitude, if you ask me, and I'm sure this is only a matter of mispronunciation and nothing more. With its high-fashion styling, the 2500 is a chic camera, a point nobody would dispute.

Minolta presented the charming, eminently practical Dimage X, probably the smallest, tidiest 3x 2-megapixel camera to date (I worked with a prototype before the show, and can say it's a winner). Minolta was also showing its splendid Dimage 7i behind closed doors, forget I mentioned it in this PMA review.

Microsoft tells me they considered 3-Mp to be the "sweet point" for mass-market digicams, the one around which they built Windows XP. Yes, there are 5-Mp cameras in the consumer market, but 3-Mp looks like the focus for action as far as beginners are concerned. Even before the PMA show, 3-megapixel cameras of considerable flexibility were selling for under $500.

Pro Digicams: Oh Brother!
Sigma drew an extra-super-colossal amount of traffic to their booth because of their new SD-9, a digital SLR with a new kind of imaging system. You mean it reinvents digital photography? Oh brother, have we got some explaining to do.

The first off-the-record announcements placed this camera at over 10-megapixels. As the show approached, the question arose, what do you mean by "pixel," anyway? The formal definition doesn't really apply to the new sensor, and the manufacturer of that sensor places its performance at an "equivalent" of 7-megapixels. Yup, a lot of explaining.

The imaging system was the X3 from Foveon, and we profiled it in our March issue. Not much has changed since we ran that profile, nor should we expect much change before the Sigma camera ships (scheduled for this spring). Still, it was fun to watch the progression of scuttlebutt. Before the show opened, everyone seemed quite sure the Foveon chip would achieve world domination. Then reps from two of the "big five" camera companies told me they'd been approached by Foveon long before the show, and that they'd dismissed the X3 as "too noisy for us." The critique was particularly ironic in light of the fact that reduced noise is one of Foveon's major claims for the X3.

Is the X3 "too noisy" because somebody has contracts to buy a jillion other chips? That's not for me to say. All I can say is the X3 is provocative. This is a breaking story, so stick with us.

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