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Cameras, MP3 players, GPS devices losing their luster as technology advances

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 10:43 PM

Gadgets can't stay exciting (often another word for "scary") forever. As the costs of components deflate and manufacturers join the market, competing devices both get better and grow more alike.

In this way, a high-end luxury can become a near commodity - with no need for careful parsing of specification sheets and no point in bragging about the purchase afterward.

Sometimes, the evolutionary cycle is even more cruel: A certain species of gadget can lose its reason for existence when another breed does its job better.

You can see these trends at work in three categories of formerly exciting devices, all of which have become considerably easier to buy - assuming you want to invest in them at all.

Cameras

Now that nearly every phone has a camera, do you need a camera that's not a phone? Yes - for action shots, long exposures, distant shots and indoor photography, among other jobs that phone cameras do poorly.

The most important advantage a camera retains over a camera phone is not more megapixels of resolution - a number you can ignore when comparing cameras - but a feature on most but not all models called optical image stabilization.

This allows the camera to dampen out vibrations and take clear shots even when the shutter's open for as long as an eighth of a second. Digital image stabilization, in which the camera processes the image to remove evidence of jitter, is cheaper but doesn't work as well.

But this feature will make its way to smartphones at some point.

The same goes for another temporary advantage of cameras: automatic mode selection, in which the camera picks the right settings for a shot automatically. (For instance, it will switch to macro-focus mode when you point it at a subject a few inches away).

It will be harder, however, for phones to match the lenses of cameras. Even cheap point-and-shoot models offer zoom lenses with at least a 4x reach; many also have wide-angle capabilities that you'll appreciate when you don't have to back up as much to get the scene in the frame.

("Ultrazoom" cameras can offer 20x or farther telephoto capabilities, but then you no longer have a device you can fit in your pocket. The same goes for expensive digital SLRs that don't make sense for casual photographers anyway. Both types of camera should continue to do well among enthusiasts and pros.)

On the other hand, you have to consider one area where smartphones shut down cameras, both still and video models such as Cisco's Flip: sending and sharing photos and videos on the go. For cameras to act like that, they'd have to become much more like phones in their own right, with wireless-data and social-networking features to match.

MP3 players

This category looks ripe for retirement and replacement by phones. Even if smartphones and simpler "feature phones" lack the elegance and ease of Apple's iPod, they're usually good enough for everyday use.

It doesn't help that the iPod itself has lost the appeal it had in prior seasons. The newest version of the iPod Shuffle and iPod Nano disappointed me, especially the Nano. The iPod Touch is a lot better but also more expensive.

On a Mac, where you presumably already have all your music in Apple's iTunes, an iPod does offer the simplest setup. Or you could flip that sentence around and note that Apple has given itself an advantage by blocking other devices from syncing to iTunes.

In Windows, Microsoft provides a rough equivalent of the iPod-iTunes combination with its Zune HD player (a sleek but aging device with an HD Radio tuner that gets some interesting extra HD-only stations, such as WAMU's bluegrass channel) and Zune software.

But its Windows Media Player will sync to just about any device, phones included.

Considering that you pretty much have to carry around a phone and might as well use that to listen to music, it's hard to write a scenario in which the dedicated MP3 player sticks around except at the low end of the market.

GPS receivers

The same story is writing itself for GPS navigation units. If you have a smartphone - especially an Android device, on which turn-by-turn, traffic-sensitive navigation comes free with Google's own software - you can usually skip the GPS receiver.

Manufacturers of GPS units have tried to keep up by bundling free traffic-data services. That's a smart move on their part and a feature worth looking for if you do get one (perhaps because you don't use a smartphone). But you should allow for the possibility that your GPS unit's service might end at some point; it has happened before.

You can also expect to get map and software updates much less often than a smartphone's navigation software.

Meanwhile, smartphone GPS apps that store map data, such as those available for the iPhone, get around the need to have a wireless signal - and end one advantage of GPS units.

These things can have a future in specialized uses; think of the GPS receivers optimized for hiking or fishing. But on the road, the dedicated GPS receiver is nearing its exit.

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