The Incredible Shrinking Digital Camera


Small cameras: Panasonic GF3X, Nikon J1, Sony RX100 and Canon S100.

The digital camera industry finally seems to be slowing down a bit.  The number of manufacturers has shrunk a bit and there’s no longer 2 or 3 new models announced each week.  I suspect the explosive growth of the cellphone cameras has a little something to do with that.

On the surface, the DSC RX100 that Sony announced today is just another highly-specified compact digital camera, with a price-tag to match.  The zoom range is nothing special (28-100mm equivalent).  The lens is fairly fast, but no faster than many others (f/1.8-4.9).  At $650, it’s certainly no bargain breakthrough.

What makes the RX100 unusual?  The sensor.  It has a 1″ (13.2 x 8.8 mm) sensor – the same size as the one Nikon uses in its mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (the Nikon 1).  It’s more than twice the size of the one in leading compact cameras, and closer to four times the area of the one in more typical compacts.  The image quality has yet to be reviewed (it won’t ship until July), but as sensor size is a defining aspect of image quality (larger sensors capture more light, which makes for better quality images), it would be very surprising if the Sony is not significantly ahead of all the other compacts.

Granted, there have always been digital cameras with larger sensors.  But none anywhere near as small as the RX100.  When I bought the Olympus XZ-1 a little over a year ago, it had the largest sensor in the smallest body with a fast lens.  In short it was the best of the breed, and yet this new camera has a sensor twice as big, and a comparable lens, and a slightly smaller body.  Compared to my earlier digital compact, the RX100 is positively tiny.  The Canon Powershot G5 that I began my digital photography with in 2005 had an even smaller sensor than the XZ-1, in a body more than twice as thick.  The lens was also more restrictive.

In short, today’s small cameras are offering performance that larger cameras only a few years ago could only dream of.  No doubt there will be a limit to how far these advances go – the laws of physics and particularly optics are quite inflexible.  But it’s still pretty amazing the progress that has happened in a few short years.

Meanwhile, there should be plenty of reviews of the RX100 in the next few weeks.  Judging by current developments, digital cameras aren’t done improving just yet.

Micro 4/3 lenses

Since being introduced in September 2008, the micro 4/3 camera system has grown by leaps and bounds.  At last count, there were more than 30 lenses from 6 different manufacturers available.  I spent a chunk of this last weekend tracking down specifications in order to build a table that would provide the salient information at a glance.

Those details are available on the micro 4/3 lens page.

Lens chart

The future of big cameras


Yesterday Nikon announced their new D800 digital SLR.  The headline feature that everybody is talking about is the 36 megapixel 135-format (36x24mm) sensor.  If it performs as expected, it’ll offer image quality comparable to a $15000 digital medium format system, in a camera half the size and 1/5 the cost.

The D800 is of course the slightly-delayed successor to the D700, a camera I’ve been happily using for more than 3 years.  My D700 has been up dozens of mountains, seen hundreds of trails and been to Europe twice in that period, wracking up a little more than 60000 shots in that period.  In addition to offering triple the pixel count of its predecessor, the D800 adds high definition video capture, dual memory-card slots and a 100% viewfinder and even manages to lose 10% of the D700’s weight.  All for the same official price that the D700 sold for when it came out.

The D800’s problem, if it can be called that, is that there are a lot of good cameras available these days.  Not that the D800 won’t sell tremendously well of course, but the fact of the matter is that for many, I daresay most, applications, the existing options are well past the point of ‘good enough.’  The main advantage of 36MP over 16MP or 12MP is that you can print larger, or crop more.  Don’t do either of those?  Then a camera half the price and half the weight will likely serve just as well.

For my part, much as I’ve enjoyed my D700, I’ve gotten somewhat tired of lugging it around.  With a good lens, the kit is over 4 pounds, which is to say too much to bring along casually.  The size also makes it intimidating.

Looking ahead, it’s fairly clear that smaller cameras are going to continue to improve.  While the absolute gap in quality and capabilities between small and large cameras may remain the same, the relative difference will continue to become less important.  The number of people who want to print 11×14 is larger than those who want to print 16×20, and that still larger than 24×36.  Likewise, the number of people willing to pay for a camera that goes to ISO 25k, 50k, 100k and 200k drops substantially at each step.  The cost and convenience of the smaller cameras at a certain point will be compelling enough that all but the most die-hard technology junkies will jump off the upgrade bandwagon.

So in some sense, I see the D800 as the beginning of the end.  It’s a great camera, but an evolutionary dead end.  In a future where quality requirements have been met, convenience and connectedness will be the most important metrics, and in that future there will be only a small niche for the large black bricks that we call cameras today.

Android out

I’ve had my Nexus S phone for only about 3 weeks, but at this point its main purpose is decorating a drawer in my desk.  That wasn’t exactly my plan, but it looks like it will soon be back on eBay, from whence it came.  There are two real problems I have with it.

1) It’s not a good phone.

I’ve dropped goodness knows how many calls in the past week.  It got so bad that for long conversations, I just started using Skype and paying by the minute.  I have one call that got interrupted 4 times in 15 minutes.  Granted, the reception isn’t great in my room, but the little Samsung dumb phone I borrowed before getting the Nexus had no such problems.  Other annoyances include limited battery life and the fact that the phone gets noticeably warm during long calls.

2) Application quality is mediocre.

This is a slightly unfair generalization, but of the basic apps I use, every single one is clunkier than on the iPhone, starting with the Browser and Mail apps.  It is frankly a little surprising given how slick Chrome is on the desktop, but there it is.

I guess the moral of the story is that mobile platforms are difficult, and even large successful companies like Google are still figuring things out.  I hope they figure out fast though.  I’d hate for Android to wind up being the Windows 95 of the 2010s.

Unimpressed with Android


I’ve been curious about Google’s Android for some time.  Technically, it’s an interesting design – a curious amalgam of Linux, free software packages, and a custom Java runtime.  Moreover, unlike Apple’s iOS, Android isn’t a closed system.  You can more or less run whatever you want on the phone.  In fact last winter I installed an x86 port of Android in VMWare as part of a class project.

Meanwhile, my iPhone has remained essentially unusable at my apartment (thanks AT&T).

So when I found I could get a Nexus S with a prepaid phone plan that was both cheaper than my current plan and offered coverage at home, it seemed like a good idea.

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Fun with OpenVPN


One of the disadvantages of working from places like the library and the train is that the wireless network connections aren’t exactly secure.  For casual browsing, that’s not terribly important, but even for stuff like Facebook and GMail it would be nice to have a way of ensuring the connection is secure.  Unfortunately, it’s not always possible or practical to use HTTPS connections for such things.

The obvious solution is a secure point-to-point connection to another machine on a wired network – in other words a VPN.  The secured machine will act as an IP routing gateway, so that any insecure traffic that is intercepted will appear to be coming from that machine.

While I was at the library yesterday I created just such a setup using OpenVPN.  As usual, it was more complicated to configure than I’d anticipated.

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MacOS X 10.7 compilers

Compile window

As part of a little project to make detecting memory/pointer errors easier for beginning C/C++ programmers, I’ve installed a number of different compilers on my system.  I wanted to make sure that my approach was widely applicable.

At this point, there are 4 (3.5 really) major C/C++ compilers available for MacOS X 10.7.  What follows is a brief description of each, and some background as to how we got here.

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Mobile phone annoyances

Cell carriers

Thanks to (previously mentioned) problems with AT&T at my new apartment, I’m in the market for a new cell phone carrier.

Unfortunately, this being the US, that means I also am in the market for a new phone.  Mind you, I’m perfectly happy with my current phone.  if I could use it on someone else’s network (i.e. not AT&T), I’d be happy to.  But I can’t.

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