In this column I want to talk about some of the recent trends in digital cameras. By the time you read this, things will undoubtedly have changed again, but it's good to know what direction digital cameras are headed anyway. And the trends I noticed are the kind that make sense, so if anything you'll be seeing those directions continue. I should also say that the observations I'll present here are primarily based on examining the latest generation of small and very slim digital camera models. However, almost everything applies to larger models as well.
Larger LCDs -- one of the really cool things about digital cameras is that they have LCD screens where you can see your pictures. That was a big selling point when the technology was young, and it still is now. The earliest screens were so small that you really couldn't see much even if you zoomed in. Sony and Casio were pioneers with larger LCDs, and the rest quickly followed. Amazingly, the smallest cameras often have the largest LCDs. These days you'll want a display that measures two inches diagonal or more. Two inches is what the original Apple iPod Photo had. There are a number of small digicams with 2.5 inch displays (like the new video iPod), and some are moving up to 2.7 and 2.8 inches. The larger screens make for an entirely different viewing experience. You can actually see a picture. You can watch movies. You can zoom in and really see if a picture is in focus. Larger screens are good.
However, there is always a tradeoff. In this case there are two.
First, the displays have become so large that most of the latest ultra-slim digicams no longer have an optical viewfinder. Not everyone will miss them, but they do come in handy under certain lighting conditions. While most of today's LCDs are daylight-readable, some are better than others. And while even good LCDs often make you hunt for an angle where you can actually see what's on the screen, the good old-fashioned optical viewfinder never had that problem. So if you want a glass viewfinder, make sure your digicam still has one.
Second, you rarely ever get something for nothing. As is, you get more megapixel and a larger screen in ever faster and ever more sophisticated cameras for less and less money. Manufacturers had to save money somewhere, and they did it with the LCDs: many of the large new screens actually have fewer pixels than the older, smaller LCDs. That means the new displays are not as sharp as some of the older ones. Then again, the much praised video iPod only has 320 x 240 pixel resolution, and apparently that is enough. Bottomline: check the display before you buy.
More pixels -- As far as resolution goes, you keep getting more megapixels for less money. Forget about 2 and 3.2 megapixel cameras. They are obsolete and have pretty much been relegated to bargain basement surplus outfits. 4 megapixel also is yesteryear's news. The new standard for your average economy consumer digicam is 5 megapixel. The latest models are in the 6 to 8 megapixel range. This is all good news as 5 megapixel means, depending on the camera, somewhere around 2560 x 1920 pixels. That's good enough for huge enlargements. Even 11 x 14s will look good. And with so many pixels, you can easily crop away what you don't need. So don't get talked into a low-res leftover shelfwarmer. 5 megapixel is the new entry level, and you deserve no less.
Movies -- Digital cameras are not just for pictures anymore. While they won't be replacing dedicated video cameras anytime soon, today's digital cameras can take very respectable movie clips. "Clips" is actually an understatement because most leading digicams now record 640 x 480 movies at a full 30 frames per second speed, and you can usually record until the card is full. Consider that the vaunted MiniDV format used by dedicated digital video cameras has only slightly more resolution (720 x 480) and you can see how far digital cameras have come. In fairness to video cameras, they are optimized for video and are thus able to create significantly higher quality video, but digital cameras have come a very long way. Even one of those ultrathin cameras you can stick into your pocket can record several minutes' worth of decent video even onto a relatively small memory card. That's not bad at all. Some even record stereo sound. If you like to take video clips, look out for a camera that can zoom while recording. That makes taking movies even more fun.
Internal storage -- As far as storage cards go, there seems to be another new format every other month. The handy Compact Flash cards we once thought were so small are now too big for the latest generation of ultra-thins. Most current digicams are using SD Cards except for Sony which uses its Memory Stick variants, and Olympus and Fuji who insist on the xD-Picture card. A new trend is for manufacturer's to include internal memory. Some have always done that, but the trend is spreading. Most new cameras now have at least 8MB built-in, and some as much as 50MB. Obviously, the more the better. The flipside is that most cameras no longer come with a "starter" memory card. That's no great loss as those cards usually were much too small for today's multi-megapixel resolutions anyway. This way you have some memory in your camera and you can buy a 512MB or 1GB card for very little money.
Batteries -- Power used to be a very sore point with digital cameras. Early models depleted alkalines within a few pictures and expensive Lithiums didn't last much longer. The combination of thriftier digicam technology and rechargeable AAs is a good solution, but AAs are too large for the new ultra-slims. Most of those now come with tiny rechargeable Li-ion batteries that aren't even as large as a CF Card. Amazingly, they last a good long time, but make sure you don't lose one as they are almost all proprietary and cost a bundle. Some cameras can only be charged while inserted into a cradle, and that is a drag. If you suffer from a shortage of power outlets, keep in mid that some digicam chargers use simple power cables whereas others have the prongs on massive bricks that take up three slots on a power strip.
So those are some of the trends. It's three steps forward and only one (or less) backwards, which means you are the winner.