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Improving digital cameras may overwhelm users

Digital cameras with dramatically higher resolution are in the works, potentially altering the digital imaging landscape but perhaps also bringing a whole new set of difficulties.

Dramatically higher-resolution digital cameras are soon to come, potentially altering the digital imaging landscape but perhaps also bringing a whole new set of difficulties.

Cameras capable of capturing images with 3 million pixels are close to appearing on the market, analysts say, upping the ante for existing mid-range and even high-end film cameras. Some of these advanced digital devices may arrive as soon as next month.

When first introduced, most digital cameras created images that contained less than 1 million pixels, drawing criticism for shoddy, grainy pictures. Two "megapixel" cameras started appearing earlier this year, helping to narrow the gap in quality between traditional and digital cameras.

With the advent of three megapixel cameras, questions about the quality of digital imaging may finally be put to rest. Still, the logistics of capturing, downloading, manipulating and sharing images of such high quality may present a new set of challenges, and many users may opt not to take full advantage.

Canon and Casio are said to have new three megapixel cameras in the pipeline, set for release early next year. "It's inevitable," one source close to the companies said.

The cameras, which were expected to be introduced in February, may be announced as soon as the Consumer Electronics Show on January 6, according to a report from Carl Holec, a digital imaging analyst with ARS.

Canon declined to comment on additions to its PowerShot line of cameras, citing a policy of not discussing unannounced products. Casio could not be reached for comment.

Typically, higher-quality cameras produce image files that are much larger in size than lower-resolution images. Although three megapixel images will undoubtedly be more appealing visually than printouts of images taken with existing cameras, the new devices may not offer much to users who want to email or share images electronically, which is by far the most popular application. Computer monitors are often relatively low-resolution displays, meaning even images taken with low-end cameras appear clearly on PC screens.

In addition, buyers have shown they prefer easy connections and interoperability with their computers over picture quality. Four of the five top-selling cameras for September were from Sony, which has cameras that record images on a floppy disk rather than a flash media card, for easy use with a PC. Despite relatively higher prices and unexceptional picture quality as measured by pixels per image, Sony's Mavicas have consistently been the top sellers this year.

But the introduction of the new cameras will likely have an enormous impact on the market, regardless of whether they sell well.

Traditionally, the highest-resolution cameras have debuted right around $1,000, resulting in price cuts down the line for existing models. A one megapixel camera, offering more than sufficient picture quality for Internet use as well as limited printing, can be had for under $300, according to Holec's report.

"The arrival of three megapixel cameras will certainly phase out some of the products in other categories, but before it does, prices on those segments will likely erode even further," Holec said in his report, issued yesterday. "The residual effect of these new introductions upon the current market will also be interesting to watch."

The whole of the digital camera universe is expected to grow rapidly. Worldwide shipments will reach 4.7 million this year, according to market research firm International Data Corp., and explode to total 22 million shipments by 2003. Such volume would account for $6.4 billion in sales by 2003, according to the report.

Both of the forthcoming cameras are rumored to offer 3.3 megapixel resolution, USB (or "plug and play") interfaces and support for CompactFlash cards.