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When high-tech luxury looks more like a commodity

As gadgets evolve ever more quickly, it's hard to know what to buy.
As gadgets evolve ever more quickly, it's hard to know what to buy. (Jock Fistick)
By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, December 12, 2010

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.


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.

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