Comdex Fall '98 Highlights
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Overview

As expected, there were relatively few new-product announcements by the digital camera manufacturers at Fall Comdex this year, as many of them have just announced new models within the last few months. We did see several new models, but all were under non-disclosure, so we can't talk about any of them yet. We can say though, that it will be an interesting first quarter in the digicam arena. (Although we will say that what we saw for the most part was evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Based on what we saw, we wouldn't counsel holding off buying a digicam if you're on the threshold of doing so anyway: There'll always be something bigger, better, faster around the corner regardless of when you decide to take the plunge. While there's some neat stuff coming from several players, none of what we saw fell into the "hold everything, wait right there" category.)

 

In the report below, most pictures are just reduced-size inline JPEGs. Where there's a higher-resolution image behind it, you'll see a border on the picture indicating a link.

 

Report From the Front: Slow but Steady Progress

We met with a number of manufacturers at the show, to persuade them to "join the club" on the Imaging Resource. The many testimonials and indications of support we've received from our readers definitely had an impact: While we can't announce any firm commitments as of this writing, we felt that we made excellent progress with several of the "holdouts" in the digicam arena. Hopefully, we'll have some announcements to make in this area in the next few weeks, although a couple may be linked to product introductions that won't happen until sometime into the New Year.

 

Hands-On the Sony DSC-D700

We got to play with the new Sony D700 in both the Sony and Lexar Media booths. (The D700 does exceptionally well with Lexar's new "Pro" series super-fast flash memory cards.) While we won't be able to tell anything about picture quality until we can actually shoot our standard test images, the control and flexibility the D700 offers is absolutely remarkable. Our ability to use the camera was hampered by the fact that the units in the Sony booth were early ("hand-built") prototypes, and apparently had a mechanical problem between the automatic and manual focus operation, and also by the fact that the show was the first time most of the Sony personnel had actually held one of the new cameras themselves! As a result, nobody was too sure just exactly how to exercise all the camera's many modes and features. But what a lot of modes & features it has! The pictures at right show some of the controls in (slightly) more depth than's been posted on the web so far. (Apologies for the poor lighting, the shooting conditions were pretty bad on the show floor in Sony's booth.) The entries on the mode dial give some idea of the range of adjustments, but each entry on the dial typically leads to an LCD menu with 5 or 6 options listed on it.

 

Probably the biggest news to us about this camera is that it truly allows "manual everything", in that you can use programmed autoexposure, either shutter- or aperture-priority AE, or you can set the shutter speed and aperture completely manually. Likewise, the camera can either autofocus or be focused manually. The zoom control is also manual, with the overall feel being very much like a conventional film camera. (And yes, it does have filter threads for front-of-lens auxilliary attachments.) While the $1800 price puts it at the top of the "prosumer" digicam market, the feature set is really more like that of a $10,000 professional SLR-based camera. We continue to keep our fingers crossed that we'll get to test this unit for the site! Other important news about the D700 gleaned at the show: First US shipments will apparently be on or about December 1, only a 1-month slip from the original November 1 schedule, and well ahead of some of the more pessimistic dates we'd heard mentioned recently.

 

 
 
 



Interchangeable-Lens Digicam: Minolta RDC-3000

We didn't get to hold one because they were locked in a Lucite case (it wasn't clear whether they were functional units or just mockups), but we did see the first samples of the forthcoming professional digicam from Minolta, the RDC-3000. This will be the replacement for the current RDC-175, and will be priced in the same "Above $5,000" price range, but has a number of very interesting characteristics. First and foremost, like the RDC-175, the new camera will be a multi-chip design, for higher resolution and less aliasing on difficult subjects. Minolta was very close-mouthed with the details, even to the question of whether the camera had 2 or 3 chips inside, but they did state the actual CCD resolution as 2.7 million pixels, a healthy increase over even the 2 megapixel point & shoot units rumored to be in development by other players. Another significant benefit of the (somewhat boxy) camera is that the optical system is built around lenses from Minolta's APS SLR line. This has two consquences. First and foremost, it means there will be a broad range of high-quality interchangeable lenses available for the new camera from day one. Secondly, the smaller form factor of the APS film combined with the optical design of the RDC-3000 means that the lenses will have the same effective focal length as they do on the APS camera. The size difference between the CCD sensor and 35mm film mean that there's usually a hefty focal-length multiplier that must be applied to 35mm lenses used on professional digicams based on 35mm bodies. In the case of the RDC-3000, there's no multiplier, meaning that you'll be able to get true wide-angle lenses for it, and zooms will cover the full range from wide-angle to telephoto. The best part? - Minolta has promised us a review unit when they get ready to ship! Stay tuned!

 

New Sanyo Cameras

We'll put the full specs on our main news page as part of the major news catchup we need to do post-Comdex, but wanted to mention two new cameras from Sanyo that were on display at the show. The really interesting thing about these units was the addition of a "solar powered" LCD display. No, there aren't solar cells built into the camera, but they have a clever arrangement by which ambient light can be used to backlight the LCD screen! When we first picked up these cameras, we noticed the strange hatch-like arrangement above the LCD panel. When you slide a rear-panel control, the hatch opens and the LCD backlight turns off. The idea is that in bright light, you can open the hatch, and let the ambient light in behind the LCD screen, to provide extra illumination, and save battery power normally required to run the backlight. A very interesting arrangement, but one that we really couldn't evaluate in the indoor environment of the trade show. One note though: Don't look for these units in your local home-electronics store anytime soon - They're currently only being distributed through Sanyo's network of presentation-product (LCD projectors, etc) dealers. (The hatch is a little hard to see in the photo, as we couldn't get a good angle to clearly show it, but it's half-open, at a 45 degree angle, right above the LCD screen on the camera's back.)

 

Epson PhotoPC 750Z

We also saw Epson's recently-announced, optical-zoom-equipped PhotoPC 750Z. It looks like a nice unit, with good resolution, a true optical zoom lens, and a bit more sculpted body than earlier Epson units. Epson's original PhotoPC had very good color at a breakthrough price, but we haven't had hands-on any Epson unit since then. (Epson is one of our "holdouts.") We had a good chat with the Epson product manager though, and while not exactly encouraged about their participation in the Imaging Resource, at least emerged from the meeting not feeling too beat-up. Keep your fingers crossed, we're still working on them, and hope we'll be able to bring you a presentation on the PhotoPC 750 sooner rather than later.

 

CLIK! Arrives

This was the third consecutive Comdex at which Iomega was pitching their diminutive "CLIK!" drive. (And the third year in a row that showgoers were driven to the brink of madness by hordes of people wandering around clicking the mechanical "crickets" given out by Iomega as promotional items!) This year though, it looks like the CLIK! will finally make it to market, and it looks like a pretty interesting product for digicam owners. For those not already familiar with the CLIK!, it is essentially a "micro-floppy" device, with a tiny cartridge that holds 40 megabytes of data, and that will sell for under $10 each. Iomega has positioned the CLIK as a CompactFlash alternative for portable devices such as PDAs and digital cameras. (Big news for Iomega at the show was that several manufacturers announced near-term design plans to incorporate CLIK drives into products. Among those making the announcement was Agfa, who says they will use the device in future digicams, although no timeframe was given for this.) The most interesting thing about the CLIK that we saw though, was a kit intended for digital camera owners. It consists of a CLIK drive, interface cables and software to connect to the parallel port on a Win'95/98 machine, and a flash media adapter. The idea is that you can pack the CLIK drive along on a trip, and use it as an image repository, sans computer: The flash media adapter accepts both CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards, and will automatically pull the image data off and store it in sequential folders, up to the capacity of the CLIK disk. Since the disks are less than $10 apiece, you can easily store an entire trip's images for only $20-30 total. The cost of the CLIK digital camera kit is projected at $249. Iomega said they'd get us one to look at, so we hope to have a review of it posted before the end of the year. We found the digital camera kit very intriguing, and believe it could be a key to finally getting the CLIK drive out into the mass market, as it so neatly solves the digicam dilemma of needing to bring a laptop along on vacation just to dump images to...

 

 

Syntran CamPrint

Many digicam makers are moving to make their cameras into standalone imaging systems, by providing connections directly to printers, taking the computer out of the loop. (Olympus offers a very nice little dye-sublimation printer that runs from their digicams, and the Epson cameras can connect directly to the Epson inkjet printers.) The only problem has been that these were close-ended solutions, tied to the given manufacturer's printer solutions. But what if you already have a printer, and want to achieve the same easy, direct printing? In the Kodak Solutions Pavilion, we saw an interesting gadget from Syntran, called the CamPrint. This unit is designed to sit between any of a wide variety of digital cameras and an equally wide range of inkjet printers, and handle the printing process automatically. Not only does it provide for multiple-up printing to save on expensive inkjet photo paper, but it contains color and tonal calibration data for all the cameras and printers it supports. The result appears to be significantly better print quality than when coming directly from the digicam's interface software to the printer via normal Windows print routines. (They showed an example of output from the Kodak DC210 taken directly from Kodak's software vs. printed through the CamPrint, and both color and tonal range were noticeably better on the CamPrint sample. The units are available immediately, for a cost of $149, with a $30 rebate through the end of the year.

 

New Memory/Storage Options

A few random memory notes: Lexar was demonstrating the speed advantage of their faster-than-the-average-card flash media, and the results were pretty dramatic in the right camera. Picture cycle times for the Sony D700 with the Lexar "Pro" series cards were as low as 1 second, vs 5-7 seconds with standard media. Alas, not all digicams are designed to take advantage of this speed, and it's a little hit-or-miss as to whether a given camera will benefit. We've begun including cycle time tests with Lexar media in our standard camera testing, to determine which cameras are so equipped. Curiously, not all high-end cameras are able to take advantage of the higher write speeds: The Canon PowerShot Pro70 we recently reviewed shows essentially no improvement with the Lexar cards, while the Casio QV-7000SX (used for all the shots in this article) speeds up considerably with them.

 

We also got our first look at (a mockup of) the Sony "Memory Stick" media. It's certainly very compact, but we still question the need for yet another memory format. Sony clearly sees it as the basis for removable storage in virtually their entire line of portable electronic devices. - They had an amusing video running in their booth, where a family experienced all the wonders of the Memory Stick, in just about every piece of electronic equipment they touched. (We didn't see a memory stick in a toaster, but there was probably one in there somewhere that we just missed.)

 

Only loosely related to digicams, we saw an interesting 2.2 gigabyte removable hard drive unit at the show, but at first ignored it as just another entry in a market dominated by Iomega. We didn't realize until we were watching the taping of a "ZDTV" segment at the end of the show that the disks for this unit sell for only $30-40 apiece. (A very good price for 2.2 gig of storage!) The drive itself only costs $199. While we missed the unit at the show, it will be worthwhile watching for them in the retail channel soon.

 

IBM had the two or three working prototypes of their "Microdrive", the 340-megabyte, CF TypeII-format miniature hard drive at the show. This is definitely an incredible piece of engineering! Based on the TypeII format specification, we expected the drive to be a fair bit bulkier than it is: It's only slightly thicker than a standard CompactFlash card, and exactly the same height and width. Yet, it contains an entire hard drive mechanism, with up to 340 megabytes of storage! We didn't actually play with one in a digicam, even though the units we saw were full working models. We photographed the one shown at left at Canon's table at the ImageScape '98 press event, while a (very nervous!) Canon staffer looked on. (The shiny black case combined with the flash angle to produce a pretty poor exposure, but truth be told, there wasn't a lot to see in the case itself anyway. The big news here is how tiny it is, for a 340-megabyte storage device!)

 

Summary

All in all, it was an excellent show for us, as we were able to meet with key people from a number of digicam companies, and received a very encouraging response in all but a few cases. We also had some worthwhile discussions with a number of software vendors, and can safely say that the next few months are going to be pretty lively at Imaging Manor (the galactic headquarters of The Imaging Resource)! Our sense though, was that Comdex is definitely on the wane as a computer show, with considerably lighter traffic than even last year. Interestingly though, the vendors who seemed to be suffering the most from lack of traffic were exactly the traditional Comdex ones -- conventional IT-oriented firms. By contrast, we felt the various imaging vendors all seemed to be doing quite well, in terms of interest and traffic level. Still, with the enormous costs involved in mounting a Comdex extravaganza, we have to wonder if it was really worth it for many of the comapanies involved...

 

Parting Shot: "Whatever it Takes"

No Comdex report would be complete without some attempt to convey the circus-like atmosphere that permeates the show floor: The whole name of the game is getting the wandering masses into your booth so you can get them to listen to your product pitch, and the method that seems to work best is to mount elaborate floor shows to draw a crowd. Some of the shows were probably the equal of anything going on in some casinos in town, and the mix ranged from the entertaining to the truly bizarre. At the entertaining end, Olympus had two rotating shows, one involving low-wire acrobatics, and the other a full Broadway-style musical number with four genuinely talented performers who could sing tight four-part harmony while simultaneously leaping gazelle-like through the air. The award for the bizarre clearly went to Fuji though, who had the equivalent of a carnival freak show performing in their booth every half-hour! Their retinue included a glass-eating master of ceremonies, an amazing double-jointed contortionist, a man with a pet tarantula that enjoyed riding in his mouth(!), and the gentleman shown at left. The shot here shows a man laying on a bed of nails, while a show attendee swings a sledge hammer to break a concrete block balanced on his face! (And I thought the show gave me a headache!) The act drew huge crowds of people to the booth, but we felt some pity for the poor Fuji staff who had to witness a man swallowing a tarantula every half-hour!

 













Top 3 photos this month win:

1 $300 Adorama Gift Certificate

2 $200 Adorama Gift Certificate

3 $100 Adorama Gift Certificate