“Android camera.” Wow, that has a weird ring, doesn’t it? You just don’t think of a camera as having an operating system. It’s like saying “Windows toaster” or “Unix jump rope.”
But yes, that’s what it has come to. Ever since cellphone cameras got good enough for everyday snapshots, camera sales have been dropping. For millions of people, the ability to share a fresh photo wirelessly – Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, text message – is so tempting, they’re willing to sacrifice a lot of real-camera goodness.
That’s an awfully big convenience/photo-quality swap. A real camera teems with compelling features that most phones lack: optical zoom, big sensor, image stabilization, removable memory cards, removable batteries and decent ergonomics. (A four-inch, featureless glass slab is not exactly optimally shaped for a hand-held photographic instrument.)
But the camera makers aren’t taking the cellphone invasion lying down. New models from Nikon and Samsung are obvious graduates of the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” school. The Nikon Coolpix S800C ($300) and Samsung’s Galaxy Camera ($500 from AT&T, $550 from Verizon) are fascinating hybrids. They merge elements of the cellphone and the camera into something entirely new and – if these flawed 1.0 versions are any indication – very promising.
From the back, you could mistake both of these cameras for Android phones. The big black multitouch screen is filled with app icons. Yes, app icons. These cameras can run Angry Birds, Flipboard, Instapaper, Pandora, Firefox, GPS navigation programs and so on. You download and run them exactly the same way. (That’s right, a GPS function. “What’s the address, honey? I’ll plug it into my camera.”)
But the real reason you’d want an Android camera is wirelessness. Now you can take a real photo with a real camera – and post it or send it online instantly. You eliminate the whole “get home and transfer it to the computer” step.
And as long as your camera can get online, why stop there? These cameras also do a fine job of handling Web surfing, e-mail, YouTube videos, Facebook feeds and other online tasks. Well, as fine a job as a phone could do, anyway.
You can even make Skype video calls, although you won’t be able to see your conversation partner; the lens has to be pointing toward you.
Both cameras get online using Wi-Fi hot spots. The Samsung model can also get online over the cellular networks, just like a phone, so you can upload almost anywhere.
Of course, there’s a price for that luxury. Verizon charges at least $30 a month if you don’t have a Verizon plan, or $5 if you have a Verizon Share Everything plan. AT&T charges $50 a month or more for the camera alone, or $10 more if you already have a Mobile Share plan.
If you have a choice, Verizon is the way to go. Not only is $5 a month much more realistic than $10 a month, but Verizon’s 4G LTE network is far faster than AT&T’s 4G network. That’s an important consideration, since what you’ll mostly be doing with your 4G cellular camera is uploading big photo files. (Wow. Did I just write “4G cellular camera?”)
These cameras offer a second big attraction, though: freedom of photo software. The Android store overflows with photography apps. Mix and match. Take a shot with one app, crop, degrade and post it with Instagram.
Just beware that most of them are intended for cellphones, so they don’t recognize these actual cameras’ optical zoom controls. Some of the photo-editing apps can’t handle these cameras’ big 16-megapixel files, either. Unfortunately, you won’t really know until you pay the $1.50 or $4 to download these apps.
The cameras themselves, each available in black or white, are clearly designed to flaunt their superiority over cellphone cameras. You get 16-megapixel resolution. You get a true built-in flash, rather than the feeble LED built onto the backs of phones. And these cameras have incredible zoom ranges, even while recording video – 10X for the Nikon, an impressive 21X on the Samsung. Phones, of course, generally don’t have any optical zoom at all.
All the usual touch-screen tricks work: tap to take a photograph; swipe to view the next or previous shot; spread two fingers to zoom into a photo.
Neither camera has an eyepiece viewfinder. Both offer automatic, self-stitching panorama mode, where you create an ultrawide photograph (as wide as 360 degrees, in fact) just by swinging the camera around you.
The Nikon S800C is compact and attractive. To the right of its 3.5-inch touch screen, physical plastic buttons appear for the standard Android functions: Back, Home and Menu. (On the Samsung, they’re on-screen buttons that sometimes disappear.) Cleverly enough, Nikon made the camera turn on very quickly so that you can start taking pictures; Android itself takes another 30 seconds to load behind the scenes, during which the Home button doesn’t work.
Touch buttons for exposure, self-timer, macro (close up) and flash flank the left side of the screen. That’s handy, because unless you intervene, the camera fires its flash too often. The Smart Portrait mode is handy; it doesn’t take the shot until your subject smiles.
The Home screens look a little dated, because the S800C runs a nearly two-year-old version of Android. But the sharing options are plentiful: Pinterest, Facebook, Gmail, Google Plus, Instagram, Picasa, Skype or Twitter. You can post to Flickr by e-mail or certain add-on apps.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera is a completely different beast – and beast it is. It’s huge and heavy, as befitting a camera with a 4.8-inch screen. (Samsung asserts that it’s the largest on any available camera.) You won’t fit this baby in your pocket unless you’re wearing overalls.
It runs the more recent Jellybean version of Android, and it teems with features. Voice control is truly useful: you can say “zoom in,” “shoot” or “capture,” which is much better than any self-timer.
Only the Samsung offers full manual controls, and its scene presets are far more interesting. There’s slow-mo video; a mode that lets a buddy draw against darkness with a flashlight or sparkler; and Best Face mode, which lets you choose the best face from each of several group shots. The camera assembles the different heads into a single perfect shot.
As convenient as these cameras are, you probably shouldn’t buy them. For three reasons.
First, the battery life is terrible: 140 or 280 shots on a charge (for the Nikon and Samsung). And that’s assuming you don’t use any apps (surf the Web, navigate with GPS, play Angry Birds), which slurps up juice even faster.
Second, the price is very steep. If that sharing-online business intrigues you, here are two words that must make these cameras’ product managers shudder: EyeFi card.
The EyeFi X2 series are standard SD memory cards ($30 for the 4-gigabyte model) that add Wi-Fi to any camera. Turn on the Direct Mode feature, and boom: your camera now sends every new photo to your smartphone as it’s taken, ready for uploading. Setup is far more complicated, but it gets your freshly shot photos online at a fraction of the price, and it works in any camera you choose.
Finally and this is the heartbreaker – the pictures just aren’t very good. The digital “noise” (mottled pixels) and softness of the images are what you’d expect from a camera that costs half as much. And no wonder; both of these cameras are based on non-Android models from the same companies that cost hundreds less. For the $500 you’d pay for the Samsung, you could buy an S.L.R.-like camera that delivers absolutely spectacular pictures, like Sony’s NEX-5N.
But don’t hate these cameras because their price-performance ratio is appalling. Love them for what they really are: bold 1.0 pioneers grand experiments that hint at the very happy place cameras may go in the next few years.