The term “smart camera” can mean any of many things depending on the target audience. In general, though, a smart camera is a camera that contains enough onboard processing power and software functionality to perform tasks one would normally have to do manually with a separate system. The more features get poured into mainstream cameras, the more people need help with harnessing all of that imaging power. Just how smart are today’s camera offerings?
The Difference Between Intelligent and Smart
“Intelligent” functionality does not make a device “smart.” Consider Canon’s new T4i. The camera’s new auto-focus system tracks subjects as they move about the frame, reducing the time needed to focus when the picture is taken. There are new high dynamic range, noise reduction, and scene detection modes, all of which require plenty of processing “intelligence,” but the camera wouldn’t normally be called “smart” since it’s not automating external tasks for the user.
As we saw with kitchen appliances, vendors are starting to use the “smart” term to describe devices with integrated Wi-Fi. Of course, Wi-Fi alone doesn’t make a camera smart. If it did, all we’d have to do is use Eye-Fi memory cards to make any camera smart. Eye-Fi products feature up to 8 GB of flash memory alongside a Wi-Fi radio, allowing the camera to send images directly to a computing device on the network.
Does integrated Wi-Fi make a camera “smart”? Not according to Samsung. The company currently offers eight camera models with Wi-Fi, but only three of these are branded as smart. Among the five not-so-smart models, the NX20 (one of the cameras using Samsung’s Electronic Viewfinder-based NX system) features a 21.6 total megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and integrated 802.11n. The $1,099 NX20 can upload images straight to social media or photo sharing sites.
Smartphones As Smart Cameras?
According to Flickr, the Apple iPhone 4 is the most popular “camera” on the photo site. Smartphones have an immediate connectivity advantage in that most can communicate by both Wi-Fi and 3G/4G service. This obviously makes photo sharing much easier, and trends clearly show that sharing is at the top of users’ priority lists – so much so that phones are displacing cameras as the most-used imaging devices. But at what cost?
Why Not Phones?
When image quality is important, dedicated cameras offer more features and better image control. Cameras also have larger image sensors. The size of the sensor will determine how much visual information gets recorded. The bigger the sensor, usually the better the image. Most smartphones currently us a 1/6” sensor, which has an area of 4.32 mm2. Compare this with the NX20’s APS-C, which uses an area of roughly 370 mm2.
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Camera, Meet Phone
Any smartphone user knows how to take pictures with the integrated camera. But what if that phone had a 16-megapixel CCD sensor and a motorized 3X optical zoom lens (36 to 108 mm) rather than the digital-only zoom found on smartphones? The Polaroid 1630 looks and feels like an Android phone, only without the phone part. The 1630 can still leverage the Google Play market, so it’s a 3.2” tablet with a real camera.
The App As Glue
Last March, Samsung announced the headline “The Smart Camera Era Begins.” This marked the launch of the company’s first two SMART Cameras, the WB150F and DV300F. Both are conventionally sized compact digital cameras. The headline selling point is the ability to wirelessly communicate with Samsung’s “ecosystem” of smart TVs, Blu-ray players, PCs, tablets, and smartphones. The Samsung TV Link app lets SMART cameras wirelessly stream photos and video straight to compatible TVs or Blu-ray devices.
At $299.99 (list), the WB150F sits in the middle of Samsung’s SMART camera stack. Top specs include 18x optical zoom and an effective 14.2-megapixel resolution from the 1/2.3” (7.76 mm) CCD sensor. Our fave feature is the ability to use your Android or iOS smartphone from up to 30 feet away as both a remote camera viewfinder and controller, letting you adjust settings, zoom, flash, and add metadata such as location.
The WB150F, Cont.
Because the WB150F includes a limited browser, you can log into public Wi-Fi hotspots, email pictures, and share them with social media services. Similarly, you can pour MP4 videos (the camera shoots at up to 1280 x 720 @ 30 fps) straight into YouTube. Samsung bundles an app for backing up camera media to your PC, but we’re most impressed by the ability to sync with cloud storage (Samsung’s Mobile Link or Microsoft SkyDrive).
Aside from sharing all of the wireless features in the WB150F, the DV300F steps up to 16-megapixel resolution (still with the same 1/2.3” CCD sensor) and adds a 1.5” front-facing LCD for self-portraits. To hold the entry-level $199.99 price, Samsung only uses a 5x optical zoom, although it still supports 720p video. Equipped with the same wireless functionality and apps as the WB150F, the DV300F marks a very affordable segue into smart cameras.
At $379.99, the WB850 offers the same 16.2 MP (1/2.3” CMOS sensor), but now the lens steps up to a 21x optical zoom Schneider-KREUZNACH. (Note that video can only utilize up to 18x.) Also, this model upgrades to recording 1080p MP4 (H.264) video at 30 fps and integrates GPS for location tagging. Looking across Samsung’s SMART cameras, one could argue that the “SMART” term has as much to do with software branding as hardware.
Coming Soon: Samsung NX1000
This gem popped up on Samsung’s site just before we published: the NX1000. This really has us excited. The three features we crave with DSLR cameras are 1) larger image sensor, 2) interchangeable lenses, and 3) a hot shoe for accessories. With its ASP-C CMOS sensor (20.3 effective megapixels), the NX1000 hits all three points along with full manual control, ISO sensitivity up to 12,800, 1080p video, and the usual SMART Wi-Fi features.
Nikon 1 V1
Samsung’s NX1000 mimics much of the Nikon 1 V1. The V1 offers no apps, only intelligent features. The GPS support comes via a $150 hot shoe accessory. The 10.1 effective megapixels captured by the 116 mm2 CMOS sensor lags most competing resolutions, but the V1 can capture 720p at 60 fps and 640 x 240 at 400 fps. But with accessory options and removable lenses, can the Nikon 1 can succeed without smart capabilities?
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Following the same add-on vein as Nikon, Canon offers a series of wireless adapters for its professional EOS DSLR cameras, such as these 802.11n Wi-Fi (WFT-E6A, $599) and GPS (GP-E1, $299) units, which screw into the side of the EOS-1D X. While lacking Samsung’s consumer-friendly apps, the WFT-E6A can work with up to 10 cameras linked in master/slave configuration, plus it incorporates Bluetooth, enabling a more professional class of “smarter” camera.
Can we still call a consumer camera smart if it lacks wireless? Kodak makes a persuasive case with its line of “SHARE”-enabled cameras, starting with the $79.95 C1530. When in review mode, you can tag photos to be shared via social media sites, email, or Kodak’s own Gallery site. Then connect to a PC via USB, and an app will help take care of the transfers. The sharing automation fits our “smart” definition, but losing Wi-Fi hurts.
Share It, Live
The Flip camera may be vanishing, but Sony is trying its own spin on the minicamcorder category. Thanks to integrated Wi-Fi, the horribly named Bloggie Live lets you stream in real-time to Qik.com. You can also connect to your phone and upload to Facebook, YouTube, and other sites via your data service. Beware of shoddy connectivity from the integrated Wi-Fi radio, but this is an interesting product for smart, personal broadcasting.
For those who enjoy the wireless capabilities of the Samsung SMART series but still prefer to shoot video with a conventional camcorder, there’s the Samsung QF20 ($349). Armed with 20x optical zoom and onboard image stabilization, the QF20 sports the same Wi-Fi, integrated browser, PC Auto Backup, TV Link and other wireless features found in the SMART series. You can also capture 5.3 MP still shots or 1080i60 video.
We’ve focused on consumer smart cameras, but there is an entirely separate world of smart cameras for industrial applications. Units such as this Matrox Iris GT are built to be dust-proof, water-resistant, and highly rugged. Outfitted with an Intel Atom processor, embedded Windows, and Ethernet, the Iris GT features resolutions up to 2448 x 2050 (at 15 fps) and is meant for machine vision applications ranging from robotics to QA assurance to biometric recognition.
Only Getting Started?
Radio-enabled cameras have definitely come a long way from those featured in the April 1948 issue of Mechanix Illustrated. Despite all of the advances in wireless networking, cloud synchronization, app-based sharing, and all the rest, one can’t help but wonder if today’s smart handheld cameras are only a short stop on the way to wearable or even implanted versions of the same idea. What will be the next big wave in photographic functionality?