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Compact Cams Take Aim At Smartphones

LAS VEGAS — It may not have been quite as bad as Superstorm Sandy, but the digital camera business was clobbered in 2012 — particularly compact point-and-shoots.

IDC imaging analyst Chris Chute reported 23 million compacts were sold in 2012, down 18 percent from 2011.

Chute predicted sales of 19 million this year with the downward trend continuing. Before you think the end of the world has arrived, step back and realize sales of interchangeable- lens cameras are still growing and mega-zooms and rugged digicams are maintaining their popularity; overall ASPs are rising as well.

And, according to Chute, there are glimmers of hope for the point-and-shoot category, with such highlights as Samsung’s connected Galaxy camera.

Although 84 percent household penetration is part of the reason for the decline, smartphones and tablets — with their built-in photo taking and sharing capabilities — are really punishing the business.

Currently with a household percentage of nearly 50 percent, the smartphone headwinds will keep pressuring camera makers. Are they rolling over?

Hardly, and a new year brings CES, new products, technologies, enthusiasm — and a new realism.

“Camera manufacturers have finally woken up to the fact the era of standalone, non-connected devices is ending — especially in the lowend, no-frills portion of the market,” Chute said. “The industry took baby steps with Wi-Fi connectivity years ago and those steps have become a rush as they realize they have to live outside of their bubble” in the always-connected world of Facebook and Instagram. He feels the connected Samsung Galaxy Camera (3G/4G plus Wi-Fi) is the new benchmark compact camera with its instant-sharing capability, 20x zoom and access to hundreds of thousands of apps. “Vendors who fail to meet this challenge will really be hurting in the years ahead. They really have to focus on higher-margin products such as long-zoom and rugged cameras with online connectivity as part of the mix,” Chute said.

No one argues with the analysis: It’s more about find a solution to the troubling trend that keeps executives up at night.

Sony’s Mark Weir readily admitted smartphones have severely impacted the low-end of the point-and-shoot business but maintained cameras have distinct advantages over smartphones, especially in low-light shooting and optical zoom capability. “The gap remains significant — that’s why we believe cameras should do the capture and let smartphones do the communicating.”

To that end Sony is developing “bridges” between the two, offering Wi-Fi in the camera and apps to move images to the outside world.

Sony is unveiling five new compacts at International CES, starting with the entry W170, priced at a $99 suggested retail.

The new Cyber-shot W170 has a 16-megapixel CCD imager, a 5x optical zoom, 720p movie capability and Optical Steady Shot image stabilization.

The W730 ($139) has the same sensor and feature set but a more powerful 8x zoom. The $199 Cyber-shot WX60 has a 16-megapixel CMOS imaging device and 8x optical zoom. Not only does it have better video quality (1,920 by 1,080/60i) with Optical SteadyShot but it has built-in Wi-Fi so you can share content using the Sony PlayMemories Mobile app.

Sony also has a new $199 take anywhere camera, the new Cyber-shot TF1. It has a 16-megapixel CCD with a 4x optical zoom. Like the Tough models, it’s waterproof to 33 feet, dust-proof, shock-proof and freeze-proof. It takes 720p videos with Optical Steady- Shot and has a new Intelligent Flash with expanded range and brightness.

Sony’s newest mega-zoom is the Cyber-shot DSCH200 ($249). The camera has a 20-megapixel CCD, 26x optical zoom, uses AA batteries and captures 720p movies.

Samsung is no stranger to smartphones and digital imaging. “Our push last year was to improve the wireless camera experience, and this year it’s all about making it easier for consumers,” said Reid Sullivan, mobile entertainment senior VP, Samsung.

To give you an idea how important Wi-Fi is in 2013 models, Samsung will introduce eight point-and-shoots at International CES and all but three have Wi-Fi. Samsung’s new point-and-shoot lineup with Wi-Fi ranges from $129 to $299.

Sullivan pointed out last year’s opening price point was $199. Of note is the WB800F Smart Camera with a 16 megapixel (MP) CMOS sensor and FullHD video capture. Not only does it have a 21x optical zoom but it also features a 3-inch capacitive touch display and touch user interface.

Panasonic is introducing 10 point-and-shoot cameras at International CES and three have Wi-Fi. The company is pushing mega-zoom and rugged digicams, since it too knows no-frills models are losing their appeal. Highlights are the Lumix TS5, a Wi-Fi-enabled tough camera, the ZS25, as 20x FullHD model and the ZS30, a 20x zoom model with added Wi-Fi capability.

Panasonic, well-known for its quality megazooms like the FZ200, has a new series of compact long zooms. The most potent is the 35x Lumix Wi-Fi-enabled LZ30 with a range of 26-910mm, while the ZS25 without Wi-Fi has a 20x zoom. Also with Wi-Fi is the TS5 tough edition and the SZ9 with a 10x zoom and 10 fps shooting. These new models will be in stores in March.

Olympus, meanwhile, wasn’t expected to deliver any Wi-Fi-enabled cameras here, but its new models are in the sub-categories that are holding their own against smartphones — rugged and mega-zoom.

“A camera is an optical device, and it’s physically impossible, no matter what the smartphone’s megapixels, to offer similar quality. So that’s where we focus,” said Nacho Abia, Olympus Imaging America president.

Olympus is well known for its “Tough” lineup of waterproof, freeze-proof and shock-proof digicams. Its top new model is the Tough TG-2 ($399, due March).

It beats last year’s TG-1 with its ability to reach 50 feet underwater, rather than 40, plus it has enhanced underwater white balance for truer blues, according to the company. The camera has a 12-megapixel backside illumincated (BSI) CMOS sensor, a 4x f/2.0 wideangle zoom (25-100mm) and a 3-inch OLED screen, plus it takes FullHD videos.

Also arriving in March is the $299 Tough TG- 830 that’s waterproof to 33 feet, shock-proof, crush-proof and freeze-proof. It has a 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor, a 5x zoom, a 3-inch 460K pixel LCD and the ability to take FullHD videos. The company’s most affordable rugged edition is the $199 Tough TG-630. This compact has a 12-megapixel BSI CMOS imager, 5x zoom and 3-inch 460K LCD, and it can take FullHD movies. It’s waterproof to 33 feet, shock-proof, freeze-proof and dustproof.

In the mega-zoom category, Olympus has three new models and all have 24x optical zooms. The 16-megapixel BSI CMOS SH-50 is $299 (due March) has the TruePic VI processor, five-axis image stabilization and a 3-inch touchscreen. The slimmer SZ16 costs $229 and has a 14-megapixel CMOS sensor while the $199 SZ15 has a 16-megapixel CCD, a 3-inch screen and takes 720p videos.