To compete with cellphones, these cameras try to do it all

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; G03

You could forgive your digital camera for feeling some of the same anxiety a film camera might have suffered eight years ago.

Just as the 35mm model of 2002 was threatened even by the limited capabilities of contemporary digital cameras, today's point-and-shoot digital models risk being displaced by the cameras in many new smartphones.

Yes, a phone's camera cannot match the resolution of even midrange dedicated cameras. It's also likely to trip on high-contrast scenery, leaving purple fringes at the boundaries of dark and light areas. But a phone's already something that most people carry everywhere. And any Internet-connected phone will let you share pictures on the go.

What can digital cameras do to stay ahead?

Two new high-end models, Panasonic's DMC-ZS7, $399.95, and Samsung's HZ35W, $349.99, try an all-of-the-above approach.

Each offers zoom lenses with wide-angle and telephoto reach, Global Positioning System receivers to "geotag" photos, high-definition video recording, a choice of point-and-shoot or manual modes, and a bundle of in-camera editing tools.

Some of these bonus features even justify the high prices of these cameras.

The most unambiguous benefit comes from the powerful zoom lenses on these two: 12x on the Panasonic, 14x on the Samsung. From three tiers above the first-base line at Nationals Park, each camera could easily zoom in to fill most of the frame with the batter, the catcher and the umpire. (Their optical image stabilization systems then kept the shot steady.) Or I could zoom all the way out to capture the entire span of the outfield, plus a generous spread of seats on either side.

Yet each camera measures about 1.3 inches thick with its lens retracted, compact enough for many pockets.

The benefits of GPS capability aren't as clear. All cameras suffer a performance lag compared with phones, which can use nearby wireless signals to approximate their position quickly. (Eye-Fi's Explore SD Card, which records nearby WiFi signals for later matching up with a database of WiFi signals , worked faster for the same reason.)

Without that acceleration, a loaner Panasonic model needed as long as 10 minutes to find itself, and it sometimes mistakenly tagged photos with an earlier location. At other times, it needed only a minute to fix its position.

The Samsung lent by the company's PR department exhibited a different issue: Its GPS never worked at all. The onscreen indicator never turned from red to green, no matter how long or where I tested it. A Samsung representative said the company hadn't heard of this issue, but users on the popular Digital Photography Review site reported the same problem.

Weirdly enough, in the Samsung's map-viewing mode GPS did appear to work, placing me within a few blocks of my spot in downtown Washington.

The Panasonic can also set its own clock from the GPS signal, but only if you click through several settings menus. The Samsung can't do that.

To use these geotags -- say, if you want to remember what you were looking at a year after the vacation -- you will need a program that reads them. Apple's iPhoto and Google's Picasa can do that; Microsoft's Windows Live Photo Gallery won't.

These cameras also provide dozens of picture-taking modes: 29 scene options on the Panasonic, 13 on the Samsung (including presets for sunset and dawn photography). But the most useful mode on each is a fully automatic option that has the camera pick the right mode based on the scenery -- for example, switching to macro when you close to within a few inches of a subject.

These models also offer numerous in-camera editing functions, for which I see no point. As long as you have to copy the photos to a computer to share them, why not use a regular program there?

Cameras still have a comfortable lead on phones in terms of video recording, but their real competition there isn't phones anyway -- it's Flip camcorders and other simplified video devices.

So although the Panasonic and the Samsung recorded some decent, sort-of high-def video (the former's looked a bit sharper and brighter), copying those clips to a computer for editing and sharing was a lot more complicated than it would have been on a Flip. It didn't help that the Panasonic stores some video clips in a folder labeled "PRIVATE."

Both cameras also commit unnecessary usability fouls. Each comes set to beep obnoxiously every time you do anything and use proprietary USB connectors. The Panasonic's settings menus are woefully cluttered. The Samsung can't automatically rotate pictures taken holding the camera sideways.

Even with those glitches, these cameras do verify that the simplest way to compete with phones is -- surprise! -- to take better pictures. But that will work only if we haven't already been conditioned to accept blurry, unfocused cameraphone shots as the real thing.

Living with technology, or trying to?

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