The Good: Image quality on high-definition TV is fabulous
The Bad: High-definition TVs aren't widely available and are expensive
The Bottom Line: For photography buffs and tourists alike, this is a fun application for digital imaging
I've found it harder than ever to get excited about digital cameras. Call me jaded, but it seems s if every few weeks a maker comes out with yet another new model promising even higher-resolution photos than the last.
Sure, these increasingly ultra-thin, point-and-shoot models are wonderfully designed and pack ever more megapixel capacity. But when it comes to image quality, can anyone really tell the difference?
Probably not. While camera makers talk about pixels and picture quality interchangeably, experts will tell you that contrast ratio (the difference between the blackest blacks and the whitest whites) and color saturation (which measures how faithfully the digital dots, or pixels, reproduce in-between hues) are just as important, if not more so.
Leader of the Pack?
That's why a new feature in Sony's (SNE) Cyber-shot cameras is such a welcome shift away from the pixel-centric rhetoric. It's called "high-definition output" in geek-speak. In plain English, it means that when you plug your camera into a high-definition TV, your photos appear in the satisfyingly sharp resolution in which they were shot.
It might sound like a baby step for camera technology, but this is just the kind of cool feature that could set Sony apart from the pack. The company is demonstrating that software can lead to useful synergies between products and raise the profile of TVs over PCs in the digital home. It also puts point-and-shoot cameras in a different league from cell-phone cameras, which are a growing threat at 3 megapixels to 5 megapixels.
Finally, there's something to all this talk of digital convergence—a world where all gizmos communicate freely with each other—that photography buffs and soccer parents alike can appreciate. In the past, you might have replayed high-definition videos on a top-of-the-line LCD or plasma screen but wondered why still images projected onto the same screen—especially when zooming in on finely textured surfaces—appeared fuzzy.
Ready for Its Close-Up
It wasn't that your pictures weren't detailed enough. Quite the contrary, any digital camera now on the market has a high enough resolution to view on the best of the full 1080 progressive (1080p) high-definition TV screens.
Two megapixel cameras are all you need to get the same picture quality as you do on your high-end flat-panel TV. The problem was, still cameras weren't equipped to beam a high-definition digital signal to your TV. To see your photos in detail, your best bet was usually to print them.
Enter Sony. For a Feb. 28 Cyber-shot press event, the company placed a half dozen of its own 40-in. to 52-in. Bravia liquid-crystal-display TVs around a room and set a slide show on a continuous loop. I didn't expect much, but Sony surprised me. The pictures taken with the slim and stylish T100 showed up in wondrous detail.
They were mainly of the indigenous flora in Hawaii: a close-up of water droplets on a leaf, an exotic brush-like plant set against a blue sky, grey-green fern fading into a morning mist. Sony credits the Bionz chip, which controls image processing and color and is standard hardware in the company's single-reflex lens cameras.
The result: Instead of showing the bright but limited color gradient that can produce flat photos and has been a major drawback of digital imaging, these pictures looked far more natural than anything I've witnessed so far.
Your Face is Familiar
That's difficult for a film shutterbug like me to admit. And being a cynic as well, I suspected that these photos might have been edited and confronted the photographer, Kazuyoshi Miyoshi, to find out if he had touched them up. No, he said, the pictures were as he had shot them.
The T100—a featherweight less than a half-inch thick that shoots up to 8 megapixels, comes with face-recognition technology, targets the party crowd, and is expected to sell for $400—isn't the only model that does high-def photos on TV.
Sony has an array of models, from the compact 8-megapixel T20 to the single-lens-reflex lookalike H7, with the same function.
They all rely on an improved chipset—image sensor and processor—that lets you store and erase quickly, a good idea since ever-bulkier photo data files can slow down a camera's basic operation. Sony also has updated the functions menu.
I remember being confused by Sony's camera menus when I shopped for a compact digital camera a few months ago, but the icons are now easier to identify and more intuitive to use. The cameras also have an adjustable ISO up to 3200 for setting the light sensitivity of the image sensors. And you can do simple editing tricks such as trimming and fish-eye distortions, without a PC.
Throw Us a Bone
Of course there is a downside. To be wowed by the difference in the quality of the shots, you need big high-def TV.
A 46-in. Bravia LCD TV will set you back as much as $2,000. You also have to fork out $35 to $80 for the cords and recharger/docking station to link to a TV. Sony execs say they didn't include TV-connector cords in the Cyber-shot's starter pack because there still aren't enough 1080p TVs out there to justify doing so.
Fine, but I would argue that a cord might encourage picture-tube-TV owners to swap their old sets for a flatscreen. Wait, I have a better idea: Why not future-proof the cameras with wireless technology so Cyber-shots are high-definition ready for a time when 1080p TVs are standard equipment?
There are more improvements in store for these gadgets. None of Sony's new cameras connects with an HDMI cord, which would allow for two-way, high-def digital signals.
Sony engineers said they decided against HDMI cords because they're not compatible with many flat TVs. But they will add them soon. Remember that the PlayStation 3 videogame console relies on an HDMI hookup.
That should give you some indication of what you can expect from the next generation of cameras, which could become even more like mini-PCs, allowing for expanded browsers and complex editing. (When I asked Shigeki Ishizuka, a senior executive in Sony's digital imaging division, what HDMI cords would do for cameras, he simply smiled and threw up his hands.)
If you're like me and just got a new camera, you might hold out for next generation of hardware. If you're shopping around now and own a high-def flat-screen TV, it's a no-brainer to choose one of Sony's new Cyber-shots.