Cameras

Gimmicks are the new megapixels: The new generation of unusual digital cameras

In the last year we've seen cameras with projectors, 3D, Wi-Fi, GPS, swappable lenses, extra screens and new sensors. The megapixel race is over -- all hail the gimmick

In the year Olympus declared an end to the megapixel race, we've seen all kinds of exciting, innovative and occasionally insane new digital cameras. From interchangeable lenses to built-in projectors, GPS and Wi-Fi, from touchcreens to extra screens to 3D pictures and transformed sensors, we run down the cameras with unique selling points, and decide if they're a stroke of genius or a hopeless gimmick.

This new generation of cameras no longer relies on the myth of megapixels to seduce you: you're tech-savvy enough to know that more megapixels doesn't necessarily mean better pictures. These days manufacturers have to think outside the box to differentiate their products. Way, way outside the box.

We've judged each of the cameras by wow factor (how excited we got upon first seeing the technology in action) and gimmickiness (is it fly-by-night frippery or here-to-stay genius?).

Interchangeable lenses

interchangeable

Interchangeable lenses have been a staple of photography for a long time, allowing you to achieve different effects in different situations. Previously, swappable lenses were the preserve of dSLRs, which are named for the single lens reflex action: this refers to the mirror inside the camera that lets you see through the viewfinder, then flips out of the way briefly to take a picture.

Moving parts are totally analogue-age, so this year we've seen a spate of digital cameras that do away with the mirror mechanism. First out of the blocks in late 2008 was the Micro Four Thirds system developed by Panasonic and Olympus. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 was the first, followed by the GH1 and compact GF1. Olympus joined the party with the retro E-P1 and recently-announced E-P2.

The idea of swapping bits of your digital camera is here to stay. Samsung's NX, announced early this year, has yet to surface, but Ricoh's GXR system is set to push the envelope by swapping modular units rather than just the lens.

Wow factor: Wow!
Gimmick or genius? Genius. Interchangeable lenses are here to stay, even if they move away from the dSLR-like form of the Micro Four Thirds system.

3D

3D

3D consumer electronics have been promised for years, and with films such as Up in the cinema and a week of 3D programming on Channel 4, three-dimensional entertainment seems nearer than ever. The first digital 3D camera was shown off by Fujifilm this year. The Fujifilm FinePix Real3D doesn't require special glasses to view its 3D effect, but it does need special paper or a special photo-frame viewer to see pictures and video in their triplicate majesty.

Wow factor: Wowwww!
Gimmick or genius? Gimmick. The cost of the 3D viewer or 3D prints will put off the casual consumer.

Wireless / GPS

wifi

If you've ever lost the cable for your camera you'll know just how useful built-in Wi-Fi could be. Nikon has offered wireless compact cameras before, but they weren't anything exciting. Samsung goes one better with the ST1000, which includes GPS and Wi-Fi to upload your pictures to the Web, with all the information needed to place them on a map.

Wow factor: Hmmmm.
Gimmick or genius? Genius. This is the one of the less showy, but most genuinely useful ideas on the list.

Waterproof, shockproof, everythingproof

waterproof

The Olympus mju Tough range has offered cameras tough enough to go anywhere for a while. They're waterproof so you can take them diving in the ocean, they're shockproof so you can knock them about climbing mountains, and they're dustproof so you can use them in a desert sandstorm. Or drop them in your pina colada on the beach.

This year has seen a slew of competitors arrive: the Canon PowerShot D10, Fujifilm FinePix Z33WP, and Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT1 and the Casio Exilim EX-G1 announced this week show this is a market segment growing in popularity.

Wow factor: Wowww!
Gimmick or genius? Genius. Probably the idea with the most mass-market appeal.

Projector

projector

One of the weirdest ideas in this line-up of weird ideas is Nikon's Coolpix S1000pj. It's a camera with a projector built-in. We were sceptical at first, but having seen the pocket projector in action, we were won over. This is one gimmick that has an instant wow factor when you start to flash it round the pub.

Wow factor: Wowwwwwwww!
Gimmick or genius? Bit of both. Projecting videos is very cool, but it's not changing the future of photography.

Extra screens

extrascreen

The live-view screen was the defining characteristic of digital cameras when the technology arrived. But we've had a few years of live view now, and screens are old news. Until the Samsung ST550 and ST500 arrived, both sporting an extra screen on the front. It's perfect for composing self-portraits, but if you're not a narcissist, the novelty will wear off pretty quickly.

Wow factor: Wow! Why?
Gimmick or genius? Gimmick. One screen is enough.

Touchscreen

touchscreen

If extra screens aren't for you, how about touchscreens? Touchscreens are coming to computers and are all over the phone market. Sony loves touchscreens in its Cyber-shot camera range, while the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550 is one of the best touchscreen cameras we've got our mucky fingerprints on. Touchscreens are handy for maximising your screen's real estate, and give a wider range of menu options when you're not tied to buttons. They also allow you to focus by tapping on the screen.

Wow factor: Oooh.
Gimmick or genius? Genius to some, gimmick to others. Fingermarks for everyone.

Automatic snapping

partyshot

Compact cameras are great for slipping into your pocket when you head for the party, but it's such an effort to actually get the thing out and aim it and take pictures. Fortunately, Sony takes the work out of taking pictures with the Cyber-shot Party-shot. Plug your Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 into the Party-shot dock and it goes to work spinning round (right round, like a record), detecting faces and firing perfect frames of your partying friends.

Wow factor: Wowwwwwwww!
Gimmick or genius? Gimmick. But king of the gimmicks.

Sensor design

sensor

The problem with the megapixel race was that increasing megapixel counts weren't matched by bigger sensors. Cramming more megapixels on the same-sized sensor is a recipe for noisy photos, and compact-camera sensors are pretty small anyway. So Fujifilm threw out the rule book and came up with the Super CCD EXR sensor, which arranges its light-detecting pixels so you can utilise them in different ways in different situations. The new sensor is available in the Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR compact superzoom, S200EXR superzoom and Fujifilm FinePix F200EXR compact.

Other cameras benefiting from unusual sensors include the Sony Cyber-shot WX1 and TX1 with their CMOS sensors, more commonly found in camcorders. At the high end is the Sigma DP2's Foveon X3 CMOS sensor, and the Leica M9's giant full-frame sensor, the same size as a frame of 35mm film and usually found only in high-end dSLRs.

Wow factor: Yawn.
Gimmick or genius? Genius. The least exciting idea to the casual user is the most important in the grand scheme of things. Sensors will never be the talk of the party, but better sensors mean better cameras and better photos.

High-speed, slow-motion

speed

Our heads still spin at the speed of the Casio Exilim EX-F1 and Casio Exilim Pro EX-FH20 superzooms, as well as the Exilim EX-FS10 compact. Firing up to 1,000 frames per second, the cameras are capable of amazing slow-motion effects, as seen in our FH20 video.

Wow factor: Wowwwwwwwwwwwww!
Gimmick or genius? Genius. Everything's better in slo-mo.

The future of photography?

This year has seen manufacturers slap all sorts of extras into cameras. It's been a fun period full of oddball ideas, but how many of these gimmicks will become a part of the camera landscape? Interchangeable lenses and improved sensors are worthy innovations, while built-in projectors and spare screens will probably end up in the drawer marked, 'What was that about?'

It's interesting that much of this innovation is coming from the names that aren't traditionally synonymous with photography. Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and Casio are all pushing the envelope with interesting -- and frequently bonkers -- ideas.

That's not to say the old guard aren't thinking outside the box: Olympus is on board the interchangeable lens train, and Nikon -- after years of underwhelming Coolpix compacts -- has come roaring back into the game with the bonkers S1000pj. Kodak has been quiet for a while. Canon, after building the IXUS brand's premium reputation on an aloof distance from the rest of the market, this year caved and introduced a number of cameras that directly compete in other market segments. Mad props go to Fujifilm in particular, for eschewing one-off gimmicks and looking to innovate inside the camera.

We're excited to see what the big names and newer arrivals have up their sleeves next. We'd like a camera which supports apps, such as geotagging, uploading pictures to the Web, and even supporting augmented reality. What would you like to see in the next round of gimmicks?

Which is your favourite of the new generation of genius gimmicks? Have you shelled out for one of these cameras, and has the novelty worn off? Tell us in the comments. For more wacky designs, check out our history of the digital camera.