A little while ago I wrote about the Nikon Coolpix S800c, the Android-powered camera that is essentially a smart phone/point and shoot hybrid. The S800c is now part of a revolution - sort of. It might be more accurate to just call it a pioneer, like those first airplanes that weren't particularly safe and really couldn't cover much distance, but showed great potential for the future - if only designers could get past all those bumps in the road... err, sky.
The S800c isn't the only bird in the sky: Samsung released its Galaxy Camera late last year, and Polaroid has just announced the iM1836, which has the distinction of being the world's first Android-based camera with interchangeable lenses. So now that there is actually a smattering of choice in this marketplace, is it a good time to jump on the "smart camera" bandwagon?
Polariod's IM1836 Camera
The general consensus seems to be "no," but the answer really depends on how you weigh photo quality against the ability to share images instantly and, let's face it, all those extra toys - not to mention the prestige of being the first guy on the block to own one of these gadgets.
Android cameras have a lot going for them. They've got apps, and everyone loves apps, right? And you aren't just limited to photography apps, either. You can purchase and download any app in exactly the same way you acquire apps for your smart phone. These cameras run GPS apps, email apps, music apps, web browsers - and yes, even Angry Birds, so you can absorb yourself in beating those pigs' smug little butts while all those photo opportunities pass you by. Of course if you banish games from your camera (as any smart photographer should) you can instead focus on all those fun camera apps that allow you to do post processing, apply cool retro effects to your images and - perhaps the biggest plus of all - share your photos on Facebook, Twitter or through email or text without having to wait until you get home and find time to sit down in front of your computer.
In fact it is this very feature that has driven sales of camera-loaded smart phones while simultaneously having a negative impact on sales of point-and-shoot cameras. In our social media-obsessed world, people love to stand on top of that mountain and let everyone in their circle see the view in real-time, and they'll give up a lot for the ability to do so. Image quality? Optical zoom? F-stop and shutter speed? Trite. Instant distribution to as many people as possible trumps all of that.
That's why manufacturers are scrambling to get a bite out of the Android camera marketplace, because although many people are willing to make those sacrifices they are still painfully aware of what their smart phones can't do. These Android cameras have all those great smart phone features and many of the great camera features as well, including a 16 megapixel resolution and the aforementioned optical zoom. The Samsung even has voice control, which is great if you can get past that "I'm talking to my camera" feeling (of course, many photographers already do that anyway).
So why don't reviewers like these cameras? Well, for the same reason that reviewers don't like many of the inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras. The image quality isn't that great (at least not in the Nikon and the Samsung, the two cameras that are actually available at this time) and the battery life is abysmal (some reports claim that they can only grab a couple of hundred shots before dying, and that's if you're not also playing Angry Birds). They're expensive, especially considering the image quality, and many of the photo apps that are designed for your smart phone don't actually work well in these cameras.
Of course it remains to be seen if the Polaroid iM1836 will change all of this, or at least be an improvement on that first-but-still-young generation of Android cameras. At $399, this camera is still priced in the mid-range, but it comes with a 10-30mm lens, which makes the price tag more reasonable. If you want to add more lenses to your kit, you don't have to wait for Polaroid to come out with a series of them made specifically for this camera, since an adapter will allow you to use already-available micro four-thirds lenses with the iM1836.
The iM1836 has a lot of features that will certainly make it attractive to the average camera geek: it does panoramics, 1080p HD video and has a built-in HDMI output. It has built-in peer-to-peer WiFi capabilities with preinstalled photo sharing apps. It is also mirrorless, which means it is compact and light, but also means that you will have to live without a viewfinder and rely instead on the LCD screen.
Regardless of whether the iM1836 proves to be a gem or a disappointment, it is important to remember that these cameras are pioneers, and should be valued for their innovation - they are those first, lumbering beasts that proved the concept and opened up possibilities for all those manufacturers who will soon follow.
That doesn't necessarily mean you should go out and buy one, though. Of course, I'm of the belief that you can't really have too many cameras, so if you're the kind of person who loves social media, snaps hundreds of photos on an iPhone while leaving that poor Canon at home in its carry bag, one of these Android cameras would be a fun toy to add to your photographic arsenal. But don't make it your only camera. You will still need a higher-end point and shoot or a DSLR to capture those photos that really matter - the ones you want to look good at 8x10 or those scenes where you'd like a little more control over how your final image comes out. And you'll need to have that extra camera in your bag, too, when the batteries in your Android camera succumb to the early death-throes that these pioneers are prone to.
Regardless of their imperfections, these Android cameras are still worthy of our attention. After all, the Wright Brothers know that their Flyer wasn't perfect, and that didn't stop them from getting it into the skies. And now just over a century later we have jumbo jets, stealth planes and space shuttles. Smart cameras are going to go that way too, just wait and see.
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