Technology trickle-down

Here’s my latest review from Amazon.com. While the review addresses a particular product, there’s a more general question – how quickly does technology “trickle down” – that I’d like to dig into sometime. I would be curious to track various consumer electronics features to see how long it takes for an innovation to make the transition from “expensive differentiator” to “Wal-mart standard”. Anyway, here’s my take on the “Fujifilm FinePix S1800 12.2 MP Digital Camera with 18x Wide Angle Optical Dual Image Stabilized Zoom”:

Technology trickle-down needs to be given a bit longer… [Two stars]
We take the “trickle-down” of technology for granted, and nowhere more so than in digital photography. A couple of years ago, most cameras had sensors that could register 3-4 megapixels and “optical zoom” of 3x. Indeed zoom was so pitiful that camera incorporated the widely ridiculed “digital zoom” which traded image quality for zoom. Things like 10MP sensors and zooms of greater than 12x were the province of the semi-pro and DSLR crowd, and commanded commensurate prices. Today, every camera can handle more pixels than we know what to do with, and even shirt-pocket sub-compacts can do impressive optical zooms using bizarre optical plumbing.
I used to have a rule: buy the best digital camera I could get for $250. Every 18 months I would get a new device which absolutely knocked the socks off its predecessor. Technology trickle down.
But how fast does stuff trickle down? And what happens if a manufacturer gets it wrong?
Coincidentally, I got hold of the subject of this review, the Fujifilm S1800, just a few days after I’d bought myself a Nikon Coolpix P90. On paper, they look fairly comparable. The S1800 is 12MP, with 18x zoom; the P90 is 12.1MP with 24x zoom. (But how often will I care about the difference between 18x and 24x?) Both have image stabilization (essential at high zoom, unless you carry around a tripod), and loads of fancy features which take forever to learn. The biggest difference is the price: the P90 cost me just under $400, while the S1800 is $204 – almost half the price. Clearly the S1800 is a great demonstration of technology trickle-down: features which used to be expensive are now available at a more modest price.
Well, maybe not. My partner and I tried the S1800 in various settings – portraits, landscapes, action shots, bird-watching, macro – and neither of us was impressed. The autofocus light is extraordinarily bright: portrait subjects were literally dazzled by it. Action shots and birdwatching were frustrating, because the shutter lag is so bad. Landscapes? Every shot required color rebalancing. And the slow, noisy zoom discourages the use of the available 18x magnification.
You can see a couple of comparative shots at my MobileMe gallery – go to gallery.me.com/geoffarnold#100132

The S1800 certainly includes a number of interesting features, and I’d encourage you to see if any of them address your personal photography needs. It offers HD video, but frankly if I want video recording I’m going to use a dedicated camcorder like my trusty JVC Everio GZ-HM200. But at the end of the day, I felt that the FinePix S1800 wasn’t ready for prime time – that the relevant technologies had not yet “trickled down” to the point where they were really usable. The worst offender is the shutter lag, which is probably symptomatic of a range of small design choices and technology selections.
I’m sticking with my P90.

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