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Android on cameras: Like combining a toaster and a refrigerator or the future of digicams?

5 January 2013

By Alan Zisman 2013

Like you, I suspect, I own a digital camera.  And like you, I suspect, I’m more likely to take pictures on my smartphone, even though it takes lower-quality photos. I really miss my digital camera’s optical zoom – the pixelated digital zoom on my phone’s camera is pretty disappointing. But I’m still far more likely to take a picture with my phone.

Two reasons, one obvious, the other maybe less so.

The obvious reason is that I’ve almost always got my phone in my pocket while my camera’s mostly in a drawer at home. The other reason is that photos taken on my phone can be instantly shared – emailed, posted to Facebook, and more. I can do all those things with photos taken with my digital camera but I need to wait until I’m home, connect the camera to my computer, download the images, and then – finally – do what I want with them.

The result is that sales of digital cameras – at least of the once-popular pocket-sized point and shoot models – are much less robust than they used to be. Recent stats suggest sales for the first three quarters of 2012 dropped 16% compared to 2011. British sales in 2011 were 28% lower than in 2006.

But what if digital cameras offered the same sort of connectivity as smartphones? A number of models have been released with Wi-Fi built in, while Eye-Fi SDHC memory cards (starting around $40) let you add storage and connectivity to standard digital cameras. But these can be awkward and limited to use, at least compared to what we’ve gotten used to on our smartphones.

But like smartphones, digital cameras already have a reasonably large display panel, a processor, and storage. Some models even have a touch screen. What if you added a standard smartphone operating system?

Two cameras Nikon and Samsung both hope you’ll think that’s a good idea – each has recently released a digital camera model with the popular Android smartphone operating system and connectivity features. I had the loan of Nikon’s Coolpix 800c (about CDN$325) and Samsung’s Galaxy Camera (about CDN$600) this past December.

Both run a full version of Android on a screen that resembles a smartphone’s, letting you check email, log onto Facebook, and connect to the Google Play store to install free and paid apps of your choice – including popular photo sharing, editing, and manipulating apps. You can store and watch videos or listen to music, or use the built-in GPS to get driving directions. You can even make Skype calls, though with no back-facing cameras video chats are awkward.

And with either, you can take a photo – using all the features of a standard compact digital camera including fairly hefty optical zoom (10x for the Coolpix 800c, a massive 21x for the Galaxy Camera) and instantly upload or share it.

Both models take 16 megapixel images and real flash. Each has Wi-Fi built-in; Samsung adds  mobile data connectivity that can be used with pretty much any mobile carrier – at an added cost (perhaps $10-15/month) for the added convenience of being always connected.

The wide range of Android photo apps is a big plus – many (including Snapseed, Pixlr Express and Instagram) let you shoot photos directly from the app. Shoot, crop, edit, apply filters, upload – all from the camera. Note though that not all apps realize they’re on a dedicated camera; some may not be confused by the physical optical zoom controls or not be able to handle big 16 megapixel images.

How are they different?

Nikon’s Coolpix 800c is more compact, with a 3.5-inch touch screen and a 10x optical zoom, physically much like the company’s $200 Coolpix S6300. It runs the older Android 2.3 Gingerbread version and has physical Home, Back and Menu buttons, along with several buttons to control camera features like exposure, flash and macro. Nikon doesn’t bundle many apps in its default Android installation – if you want to use this for more than camera functionality, be prepared to download the apps of your choice.

Because it’s Wi-Fi only, you may find yourself waiting to upload photos until you’re in range of a hot spot, though you could set it to communicate with a smartphone.

Samsung’s Galaxy Camera (based on Samsung’s $350 Wi-Fi-enabled WB850f) is much bigger, with a 4.8-inch screen and 21x optical zoom. The power comes at the expense of portability; it didn’t fit in any of my pockets and at 11 ounces, feels heavy.

It comes with 2012’s Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (though not the current 4.2 version) and a fuller set of apps than Nikon includes – email, Google Maps, and more. There’s voice control, which can be surprisingly useful. ‘Expert Mode’ gives photographers manual control of aperture, shutter speed and more, while ‘Best Photo Mode’ automatically picks the best of a series of 8 shots.

In Canada, Telus sells the Galaxy Camera online as well as through Telus-owned Black’s Camera shops, but any mobile provider that supports iPads with data plans should be able to offer data plans for this one.
Downsides of both

Like most smartphones, battery life is nothing outstanding – you’ll get fewer shots on a charge than with most digital cameras and will probably have to recharge daily. The cameras are pricier than - by about double - the non-Android models each is based on. And neither of those non-Android models was best-of-breed; you can get better photos from other point-and-shoot digicams, including models that are much less expensive.

The verdict 

I enjoyed both these cameras; the combination of much better than smartphone picture taking with improved connectivity and the ability to do other smartphone-like tasks and games was engaging. However, since most of us will still carry a phone everywhere using one of these means hauling around two gadgets – and in that case, do you really need a full-blown smartphone operating system on your camera?

I suspect that we’ll see more Android-powered cameras in the future; I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of years it will be widespread – with pressure on Apple to release an iOS camera. (Update: On Jan 7, Polaroid announced the first Android camera with interchangeable lenses - due Q1-2013 and priced at $399).

However, for now, with each of these models costing about double the price of the otherwise-similar model from the same manufacturer, the cost is just too high. Instead, maybe it’s worth getting an Eye-Fi card and setting it to automatically upload each shot taken to your smartphone.

I have one on order – I’ll let you know how it works out when it arrives.

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I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Twitter for notice of new blog postings.
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