Camera Developments

Desperation is definitely having useful effects in the camera market. Having recently succumbed to temptation and bought a D7000, I’ve been avoiding camera news (and concomitant buyer’s remorse).

Q-Branch’s Latest Silly Gadget

Pentax has beaten Nikon to the small sensor interchangeable lens punch with its Q-series. Unfortunately, a 1/2.3″ sensor is, in my opinion, a bad, bad choice — it’s smaller than necessary to get the lens size down (and indeed the initial lens offering looks tiny; the mount seems superfluously large, and the lens itself seems to be far deeper than necessary, essentially a giant lens shade) — indeed, it’s smaller than the sensors in the enthusiast compacts like the XZ-1 and LX-5. I just don’t think serious shooters will pick an expensive camera with a new lens system and a 1/2.3″ sensor over a cheaper camera with a good fixed lens and better sensor as a primary or secondary camera.

Oh, and I think it’s the butt-ugliest design I’ve seen in years (although it looks better in black, assuming you don’t pop out the flash). It’s one thing to make your camera look like a classic rangefinder, but the Q looks more like one the clunky Russian Leica knockoff I owned as a teenager.

A Pen for the Pixel Peepers

Olympus has released a slew of new Micro 4/3 cameras, and the E-P3 in particular appears to address every possible complaint about earlier cameras, namely:

  • autofocus speed
  • display resolution and quality
  • video resolution and data rate
  • high ISO performance

This means that Olympus has finally released a compact micro-four-thirds camera with fast autofocus, sensor-shift stabilization, good display, and — judging from the high-ISO comparison shots on dpreview, competitive low light performance (no question it trails the NEX and X-100, but it’s at least in the fight which is adequate for most users). It makes me wish Apple actually would release a Micro Four-Thirds iPhone.

Living Pictures

Lytro is a company commercializing a Stanford research project (one of the committee members who signed the dissertation in question (PDF) is none other than Mark Horowitz of Andreesen Horowitz). The basic idea is that rather than focusing the image using a lens you record both the color and direction of incoming photons (using micro lenses on the sensor). Then, with a whole bunch of math you can calculate an image with more or less depth of field focused at whatever distance you like.

All this lets you make the same kinds of tradeoffs as with normal photography (use more samples but get less depth of field or use fewer samples and get more depth of field) but you can make those tradeoffs at processing time, or create interactive images with varying focus and depth of field. In theory, you could create 3d scenes with eye-tracking to simulate depth of field and focus point based on what you look at.

It’s a simple but brilliant idea. I remember reading about it a few years back (Hacker News?) and it’s amazing how fast things come to (or at least approach) market these days. Of course, it’s still vaporware for the moment, and the big question to my mind is whether it will end up being competitive with more conventional cameras that use brute force approaches to get similar results (e.g. Sony’s pellicle cameras can shoot rapid bursts and use the additional data to improve low light performance; they could easily vary focus and aperture and produce similar results to Lytro, at least for still scenes.

Still, I want to play with one.

How I’d improve the iPad

As I approach six months of living with the iPad, it seems a good time to think about how it could be better. After all, we’re about to see a deluge of cheaper (or perhaps less obviously expensive) knock offs, and it’s worth reminding myself just how good this “1.0” product is.

I was not an iPhone early adopter. I didn’t have the bandwidth to learn to develop software for it, and while it was a very impressive device, I was working from home and don’t use the phone very often. Most importantly, however, we were in the middle of a two year verizon contract. I think it’s safe to say that was the clincher, and it says a good deal about the anti-competitive nature of the US cellphone market.

The iPad doesn’t require a contract (even for the 3G version, which is something Apple hasn’t done a great job of communicating), which is one reason for its instant success.

Anyway, what’s wrong with the iPad?

Well, it’s going to need more memory. A lot of very nice iPad apps are clearly limited by available memory (e.g. the various excellent image apps, such as Sketchbook Pro and Art Studio have fairly harsh layer limits) and I often crash my browser (iCab) by having too many tabs going.

It’s going to need a camera — preferably two. Facetime is seriously awesome on the iPhone 4, but even more useful for me is the ability to use it’s camera as a rather high quality scanner. This lets me sketch something, photograph it, email it to myself, and then work on it with my iPad. But it would be nice to reduce this convoluted workflow to, e.g., “new layer from camera” right inside Art Studio, say.

I can understand Apple’s reluctance to put an SD card slot in the iPhone — e.g. one major source of problems in the iPhone is pocket lint being forced into the works of the iPhone through the earphone socket (seriously), and an SD card slot is going to make this problem much worse (although a plastic blank that can fill the slot when not in use would help). But, iPads don’t live in pockets, and the advantages of being able to work with images straight out of a camera would be huge.

Autocorrection needs a lot of love. To begin with, the widgets are just too small. It’s hard to press the “x” or the word precisely, and why can’t we have more than one suggestion? It’s also high time the correction code recognized things like “e.g.” and stopped trying to start new sentences.

While we’re on the topic, I think that the keyboard could probably use some tweaking. I wouldn’t mind a landscape keyboard with smaller keys and more of them (I have no problems typing on the portrait keyboard, so use keys that size and give me punctuation and numbers instead of bigger keys).

Standardized hard game controls are something Apple needs to start thinking about now, across all its products (including “iTV” if the rumors are true). I get that Apple is cleaning the rest of the game industry’s clock now despite having no capable middleware and treating game developers like second class citizens, but gaming made DOS and Windows successful and eventually folks will catch up close enough to Apple that not having a decent joystick is going to matter.

Heck, don’t build the damn things in, but just bless some kind of standard. Please.

The industrial design of the iPad is very much the ultimate expression of the iPhone design language. It’s nicer than any iPhone prior to the iPhone 4 (about even with the super slim iPod Touch) but next to the iPhone 4 it just looks old. I’d love to see the iPad redone in the new design language.

And that’s about it. Obviously doubling screen resolution (a la the iPhone 4) would be great when the cost benefit makes sense and we can always use more of everything, but really the iPad is pretty darn close to perfect. At 1.0.

Apple is Doomed

iPhone 4's "flawed" antenna design
iPhone 4's "flawed" antenna design

I’ve now had an iPhone 4 for about a month (as you no doubt recall, I queued for a product on launch day for the first time in my life) and my (apparently) free bumper case is in the mail (it’s in Netherlands orange — so much for my plans to bask in reflected glory).

A friend of mine used to joke that if Microsoft ever released a version of Word that actually worked it would go out of business. Word is the very heart of Microsoft’s revenue stream: people buy PCs (and thus Windows) to run Word, not the other way around. People upgrade their PCs to run newer versions of Word they hope might address their current problems with Word. So it follows that once people have a version of Word they’re happy with, Microsoft would be in big trouble.

Word hasn’t become a perfect product, but it’s good enough and Microsoft’s record of improving it is bad enough that no-one feels very compelled to upgrade. But Microsoft isn’t in trouble. The fact is that a lot of computers are out there and they die fairly often, so just based on the need to maintain the fleet, Microsoft will make money for a long, long time, but its days of giddy expansion are behind it. It’s gone from being the phone company of the late 19th century (rapaciously devouring competitors) to being the phone company of the 1950s (fat and happy and utterly dominant).

The iPhone 4 just works. Forget the baloney about its “flawed antenna design” — no-one who has one cares. It has awesome battery life, runs as fast as an iPad, is a better camera than a point-and-shoot (except for lacking optical zoom), feels like a piece of jewellery in your hands, and is rock solid (yeah you can smash one if you drop it on concrete). And here’s the kicker — it’s price competitive with its shoddy plastic rivals that run “free” open source software (developed by an advertising company to spy on its customers and deliver ads to them). All this, and Apple’s margins are almost certainly higher than its rivals’, which means that in a race to the bottom, Apple won’t bother competing.

It follows that Apple is doomed. The original iPhone was a great idea for a device, crippled by lousy battery life and a slow CPU, that became enormously successful in chief because its rivals were so incredibly worse (kind of like Word vs. Wordperfect). Of course, what Apple is doomed to is becoming a fat happy complacent company raking in cash for generations.

I hope the title of my post drives down Apple’s stock price a little bit further, but I’m not holding my breath.

Convergence

Apple got 600,000 pre-orders for the iPhone 4 on launch day. AT&T’s web servers basically died (but not before failing in even more embarrassing ways). Apparently Apple’s Apple Store App (specifically developed to streamline pre-orders) also had issues (my wife and I only had one problem with it — it wouldn’t let us preorder two phones from one iTunes account, so Rosanna had to go update her ancient, unused iTunes account specifically to pre-order her iPhone).

This is amazing, but should hardly be a surprise. The iPhone 4 is the first major iPhone revision to follow the first really big wave of iPhone purchases (i.e. the ones that followed the release of the 3G) when the people who bought those plans are able to upgrade within plan. That’s certainly my case. Everyone I know who has an iPhone 3G and is eligible plans to upgrade, and most have pre-ordered.

Why?

Here’s what I said the iPhone would do for me before I actually bought one:

  • Not replace a laptop. Correct. The iPad hasn’t replaced my laptop either.
  • Allow me to read product reviews in stores before buying. Absolutely correct. More importantly, it lets me price compare while I’m in stores, which often leads me to rethink a purchase or simply save money.
  • Read books. Incorrect. Nope the display isn’t up to it.
  • Replace iPod. Correct. And I’ve always got it with me (whereas I’d usually not have the iPod when I most wanted it).
  • Replace paper notebooks. Incorrect. But the iPad has.
  • Be a decent personal organizer. Correct. Actually better than correct — recurring alarms are totally awesome.
  • Get photos from phone without paying service provider. Correct. And they’re surprisingly good. I also use it as a scanner in a pinch, which is awesome.
  • Make my own (free) custom ringtones. Correct.
  • Replace my DS. Correct. The only thing I’ve done with my DS since getting the iPhone is play Scribblenauts for a few hours.
  • Develop apps. Finally shipping in July I hope!
  • Replace (good) pocket calculators. Correct.
  • Fail to stop me pining for an updated Newton. Correct — and neither has the iPad. (I want pressure-sensitive stylus support.)
  • Stream internet radio. Correct, although the twins pick what we get to listen to on road trips these days. Argh!
  • Fail to replace my Panasonic TZ-5. Pretty much incorrect, because I’ve always got it, and the photo quality is very good. (In fact on one vacation my DSLR ran out of juice and all I had was the iPhone, which took some pretty nice pictures.)

But, for all its many virtues, the iPhone 3G has lousy battery life, its slow, its camera is lackluster, and, let’s face it, the curved shape is getting old. $199 (or $299) may seem like a lot, but bear in mind what it replaces. The last time I bought an iPhone I looked at the gadgets I’d never buy again (e.g. Nintendo DS, Cell Phone, iPod) and the price suddenly became a bargain. The new phone is replacing point-and-shoot cameras and video camcorders (like my beloved Panasonic TZ-series or the Flip) in a way that the 3G didn’t. Just two weeks ago I was amazed to see the previous generation Panasonic TZ camera (basically just like the current one, without GPS) selling for $170 in Costco and was sorely tempted until I realized that for $199 (of course I’m getting the $299 version, but that’s not the point) an iPhone 4 would (a) shoot HD video, (b) include GPS, and (c) not be one more damn thing to carry around and recharge. This is without even considering its virtues as a phone, iPod, or iPhone 3G replacement.

It’s the Convergence baby.

Meanwhile, the only company in the world that’s as user-focused as Apple has a new trick up its sleeve.

Nintendo has been showing off a new prototype DS with a genuine, working, apparently non-sucky 3D display. This sounds like a pretty wondrous device, but one has to ask if it justifies its existence against the iPhone or iPod Touch. In the end, pretty much anything in the way of a gaming console, computer, audio or video accessory, or camera these days is a computer, and why buy, maintain, and carry around more than the minimum number? If my iPhone could support a large display, keyboard, and mouse when docked — why would I want anything else?

I’d probably be more tempted if their launch game weren’t Zelda. (And MGS is barely any better.) I’ve never even gotten half-way through a Zelda game before becoming too bored and frustrated to continue.

Nintendo can sell new gameboy variants to its user base with features as banal as a new headphone Jack, so I have no doubt this gadget will sell, but in the end it only staves off convergence. To actually compete in the long term, the DS needs to start boring other stuff, and that’s not going to happen.

New Mac Mini

$699 (notice how it’s crept up in price from $499 in the G4 days to $599 for the Intel version and now to $699?): 10W, unibody construction (thinner!), no tools required to get to RAM, no power brick, 2.4GHz Core2Duo (2.67GHz in dual 500GB no optical drive “server” version), HDMI, SD, FW800, GeForce 320M, up to 8GB of RAM.

This is Art.