Posted on January 12, 2006 by

Consumer Electronic Considerations; Digital Cameras

In todays world gadgets are everywhere and used by everyone, from school children to senior citizens – from mp3 players to blood glucose meters. There is little doubt in my mind that technology and everyday gadgets have made our lives better, albiet for the occasional vaporware and crippled consumer electronics. I try my best to follow the trends and future of such devices, mostly so that when it comes time for me to make a purchase (generally an expensive one), I don’t make the wrong decision.

People often ask me for my opinion on various electronics, from digital cameras to DVD players, and while I can talk for hours on end about the subject I try to leave them a basic set of rules or guidlines on what not to buy, or what features are generally meaningless, rather than an indepth understanding on how such devices actually work.

With the passing of Christmas I had countless converstations with family members and friends looking to make such purchases for themselves or as gifts. While the average geek should know the majority of these simple rules, I’ll take some time out to cover the basics should you be looking to purchase some new toys this year.

If you’re a gadget addict like myself, then you’ll want to keep up on the latest, greatest, and not so great products soon to be seen in your local electronics store. Luckily with the internet doing so is far from difficult, as opposed to researching a product just before you’ve decided to purchase it. There are countless consumer electronic magazines, blogs, and publications but finding one that will give you a honest opinion that is not swayed by marketing or close ties to specific vendors can be difficult.

First and foremost it’s probably a good idea to have a place to lookup some of those confusing terms that you might not be familiar with. For that I recommend searching for the term on Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia that is written collaboratively by it’s readers.

Digital Cameras

  • Digital zoom is not a selling point, in fact it is utterly useless. Digital zoom differs from optical zoom in that digital zoom is done through interpolation, the approximation of the surrounding pixels, where optical zoom is done with the lens and offers a true image at full resolution. In plain terms when you take a picture with digital zoom your camera is actually discarding pixels, resizing the image to full resolution, and using software to “fill in” the necessary pixels. You will get much better results by cropping your images and resizing them on your computer, with Photoshop for instance, than having your camera do it for you.

    It should be noted that digital zoom can, at times, result in decent images. However the more digital zoom you use and the further away the object you’re zooming in on, the worse the results. My advice is to never use digital zoom and if your camera allows you to disable it, do so.

    More information on digital zoom can be found at Wikipedia, and a detailed explaination at Cambridge in Colour.
  • Bundled software means nothing, and should not increase the price of your camera. It doesn’t matter what software they’ve bundled, unless maybe it’s the newest version of Photoshop (ya right!), or what it does. The bottom line is that there is plenty of free software out there that will do a far better job.

    A few examples are, Picasa from Google, Faststone Image Viewer, Image resizer and other Microsoft Windows XP powertoys, Paint.NET, and Gimpshop for Windows.

    My appologies for not covering free software alternatives for Mac, but I don’t have one nor access to one.
  • Proprietary lock-in features, also called vendor lock-in, are features that are only compatible with other products by the same vendor. With digital cameras this generally means some kind of software or connector to a printer by the same company that will make printing images “easier” or “automated”, but can extend itself to memory modules, for instance Sony cameras are only compatible with Sony Memory Sticks, lens mountings for SLR cameras, and even file formats.
  • File formats can differ from camera to camera, all cameras will take pictures in JPEG format, though some may support more. TIFF and RAW for instance, are higher quality images but will take up much more space on your memory card and aren’t necessary for normal usage. However where cameras can differ considerably is the format in which they record video files. Lots of new cameras are supporting MPEG-4 and Quicktime formats. While both formats produce high quality video at relatively the same cost in memory Quicktime locks you in to using their specific player, which I abhor (the player not the format).
  • Proprietary batteries vs. regular batteries. Batteries seem to be more of a personal preference than a selling point or lack there of. I personally prefer the proprietary batteries as they tend to last longer and cause less aggrivation than shelling out cash to buy packs of AA’s. However, one could make the argument that you can pick up regular batteries at just about every corner store so running out of batteries isn’t a huge problem, and you can always get some high quality rechargeables.
  • Eye finders are only useful on SLR cameras and most point and shoot cameras are not SLR. This means that what you see through the eye finder is only an approximation of what your camera is actually going to take a picture of, and if you’re using macro mode its probably nothing like what your picture will turn out to be. Use the LCD screen whenever possible.

So that’s basicly a run down of what I tell people to look out for when purchasing a new digital camera. Inevitably the next question is;
“What do you look for when you’re buying a camera?”

  • Price vs. Megapixels. Simply put you want the most for you money and just because a camera takes images at a higher resolution than another doesn’t make it better. If possible ask if you can take a similar picture with multiple cameras and see them up close on a computer screen. It’s not an unreasonable thing to ask for.
  • Lag time, or the ammount of time in which it takes the camera to turn on and be ready to take pictures. You never know when you’re going to see something you want a picture of, and chances are that opportunity isn’t going to last long, so the lag time should be a short as possible.
  • Burst mode is the ablity to take pictures in sequence, and is great for capturing movement or if you just want to take a bunch of images in a short period to be sure you don’t miss the perfect one. In this case you will be looking for the number of images that can be taken per second and at what resolution. Generally speaking the higher the resolution the slower and the less amount of time the burst can be sustained (due to limitations writing to the memory card).
  • Optical zoom, if you’re going to need to zoom in on things make sure you’re not going to be using a digital zoom.
  • Overall size; look and feel. Think about what you’re going to be using the camera for. If you’re like me and you want to be able to take pictures everywhere you’ll probably want something small, yet powerful, that you can keep in your pocket.
  • Moveable LCD screen, though it’s not a definitive selling point for me, if you like taking pictures of yourself you’ll probably want this feature.
  • Frames per second is the one of the most important things to look at when trying to understand the video abilities of your camera. If a camera can take video at 640×480 but at only 15 frames per second it’s generally useless for that feature. If video is important to you look for a camera that can shoot 60 frames per second, you’ll even be able to slow the video down to half speed without loosing quality.

Here is a small list of gadget and consumer electronic websites that I read on an almost daily basis to get the low-down on new products. Always remember to read the user comments on products that interest you, as some can be extremely insightful, but always take them with a grain of salt.

Gizmodo, Engadget, Living Room Photolog, Photography Blog, Tech Digest

And of course you’ll want to read about the latest-greatest photo software.

Download Squad, The Unofficial Photoshop Blog, Photoshop Support Blog

If you have any other recommendations or input, please make them in the comments for this entry. Enjoy and good luck shopping.