Monday, August 6, 2007

Welcome to the 12 megapixel Parade!

Almost everyone will agree that when we get new cameras each year, we want to have better image quality, better performance, improved features, and reasonable prices. But when it comes to agreeing on the right mix, there isn't as much agreement. Some people think more megapixels are better, others think that all they do is make the pictures noisier and result in aggressive or inefficient in-camera noise reduction, some even think that it's not the tiny pixels to blame, but the tiny sensors. A lot of people will agree that if image quality (IQ) is improved with more megapixels then that is not a problem. The problem people have with more megapixels is when the IQ is not improved, or it is similar to previous models, or even worse. Furthremore, the sequential technological improvements are sometimes taken back by the increase in pixels that need to be processed and digested by the camera. And of course noise and noise-reduction side-effects and artifacts (you may have heard the term "Monet" bandied around).

But who is really the guilty party here? Who is making decisions that do not result in the best possible IQ? Marketing!. In the sticker marketing wars of big electronics superstores, the bigger the number, the better. More horsepower, more megapixels, more gigabytes, more gigahertz, bigger screen size, more, more, more, more, more! So instead of IQ driving the develompent of new cameras and sensors, it is the marketing wars that do it.

This of course has been going on for a while, so when the first 10 megapixel camera came out, we knew it was only a matter of months before a 12 (or more) megapixel model would come out. We hoped that manufacturers would hold back but hope is not enough! :) And sure enough, just like clockwork, they started coming out o the "woods".

Sony of course makes their own sensors, and they usually give themselves the first batch of new sensors. And so they did this time around with the Cybershot W200. Kodak and Casio, two companies known for not being shy about jumping ahead in megapixels came out with their own 12mp models, presumably using a sensor from someone else (Sharp?). Kodak came out with the Z1275, a 12mp/5x mid-range camera, while Casio went with the sleeker-looking EX-Z1200SR with. Not to be outdone, Panasonic "slotted in" the FX100 between the traditional 1/2.5"-based FX-series and the 1/1.6"-based LX-series, offering a 28-100mm range with MegaOIS. Not wanting to be left behind Samsung joined the party with the NV20.

And then came Fuji, perhaps our last best hope for a low-noise sensor. Critical acclaim they received for their 6mp 1/1.7" sensor, but this time Fuji did not want to be left behind megapixel-wise. So jump they did to a 12mp 1/1.6" SuperCCD sensor in the F50fd. Added they did sensor-shift stabilization which is a good thing, but what will happen to their noise advantange now that the pixels are so tiny?

What's even more interesting is that these are the top megapixel models using the largest mass-market sensors, yet the cameras themselves are fairly mid-range in features. Sure some of them have bling-bling features and style, but that's about it. Not a whole lot of advanced features. And don't even bother asking for RAW!

So where do we go from here? The question a few months ago was "who will introduce 12 megapixel cameras?". The question has now become "will anyone not introduce 12 megapixel cameras?".
To answer that question, we will use our long-winded Fauxtokina 2007 speculation as basis. So who doesn't have a 12 megapixel compact camera right now?

  • Canon: Well, Canon prefers to upgrade most of their line-up together, and a few months after a new sensor is released. Most economists will agree that this will allow them to (legally) get the lowest possible price. Candidates for a 12mp sensor: G-series GINO follow-up to the G7 (let's call it G8), the new flagship of the A-series, and probably one of the Elphs (aka Ixus/Ixy).
  • Nikon: Just like the GINO above, the P5000 appears to be a reasonable candidate to get the 12mp sensor. Nothing else from their current models even uses a 1/1.7-8" sensor! It's not a surprise 27% of their camera shipments are DSLRs!
  • Olympus: Olympus almost doesn't have a camera to put the sensor in it. But the Stylus 1000 comes to the rescue. Just slap a 12mp sensor, and a Stylus 1200 sticker to it, and you are off to the races!
  • Pentax: Their 12mp models are predictable as their line-up has been very smooth the last couple of years. Take the A30, give it the new sensor and call it the A40!
  • Ricoh: The GRD is now two years old, and there is some chatter on a GR-D2 (or GRD2). The original was using an 8mp sensor, so naturally the update will use a newer one. Given the marketing dynamics, a 12mp sensor is likely. Ricoh is also having a success story among hardcore enthusiasts with the GX-100. Even though it was announced earlier in the year, Ricoh may want to capitalize on its success and the wide-open state of the prosumer market. After all their more mass-market R-series gets new models every 6 months or so.
  • Leica: It's a question of when (not if) they will port the Panasonic FX100 to the C-Lux/D-Lux series.
  • HP: Well, we may have found the one company that may not have a 12mp camera by December 31st, 2007!

    Are we done now? NOPE! How about the ones with 12mp sensors already? Are they done?
  • Sony: There's more! The N2 is at 10mp, slab the 12mp sensor and you got the N3. Since they make the sensors, it wouldn't be too hard for them to put the 12mp sensor in the Europe-only S800 body (1/1.8" 8mp, 5x optical) and make it a mass-market mid-range type camera. Finally the popularity of the Canon G7, Nikon P5000 and Panasonic LX2 may nudge Sony into producing something similar, either a new design or reviving their V1/V3 line.
  • Kodak: The V-series! They already put one in the mid-rangey Z1275 (Z885, C885 before that), and a V1203 or something like that is reasonable to expect.
  • Casio: Nothing else at 12mp this year. Probably a follow-up to the Z1200SR by PMA 2008. But Casio is not shy about quick follow-ups.
  • Panasonic: The last three years Panasonic was done with new announcements by August 1. This time it is different. They are due for a DSLR. So perhaps they are also due for more compacts. If so, a 12mp LX3 and 12mp FZ60 (or FZ55) are a predictable marketing decision (not saying it would be a good decision).
  • Samsung: Well how about a 12mp version of the NV11? Or are they saving it for CES/PMA 2008 where the S-series will also get the 12mp sensor? Other possibilities: 12mp version of the L85 (1.5 years old), and of the UK Xmas special follow-up of the D103 (the D123?).
  • Fuji: Welcome to the 12mp sensor S-series. The S9100 is due for a replacement and the signs point to a 12mp version with sensor anti-shake. The latter is good, the former, well, goodbye noise advantage. The S6000fd is probably done, but there is a remote chance of a 12mp version as well. But it would probably get too crowded if Fuji had a four-tier long-zoom line-up.

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