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No need for point-and-shoot? Not quite yet

Do you even have to buy a digital camera anymore? It depends on your needs, but the answer for most of us is “yes” if you want good-quality photos.
Image: Sony mylo personal communicator
Sony's mylo personal communicator (around $200 after rebate) is a stand-alone Wi-Fi device for e-mail and Internet that also includes a 1.3-megapixel camera.Sony

Nintendo’s new DS portable game player will include a camera, and Samsung is coming out with a phone that includes an 8-megapixel camera, while Sony is reportedly working on a 12-megapixel camera phone.

Do you even have to buy a digital camera anymore?

It depends on your needs, but the answer for most of us is “yes” if you want good-quality photos.

Nintendo’s DSi, as it will be called, will include two cameras, and can be used by players to mix images and create new faces, a company official recently told The Associated Press.

Samsung’s 8-megapixel Pixon camera phone, due out this month in Europe, will also come with an LED flash, 16x zoom and autofocus. There’s no word on pricing yet, but phones with higher-capability cameras are pricey, often starting at $300 and up.

“Can you take a photo with a camera phone that takes as good a picture as a digital camera? That’s starting to be the case if you limit yourself to certain really high-end camera phones,” said Avi Greengart, Current Analysis research director for mobile devices.

“But in most cases, a $129 Canon or Kodak will take much better digital photos.”

Digital SLRs going strong
In the United States, the digital camera market is “slowing down after several years of very strong growth,” said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group market research firm.

“It’s a highly penetrated category at this point,” he said. “That's likely more to do with slowing sales than cameras being built into phones or other devices.”

One area of growth, however, is the digital SLR (single-lens reflex) category. “These are higher-end cameras that allow a great deal of flexibility for the photographer when compared with a mainstream point-and-shoot camera,” he said.

The market for digital SLR cameras is growing about 25 percent a year, with 2.7 million of them likely to be sold this year in the United States, said Chris Chute, IDC research manager, Worldwide Digital Imaging Practice.

It’s not necessarily because more photographers are getting serious about what they do, he said.

“The appeal is to people who have enough money to step up into digital photography because they’re pleased with the experience they got with their compact digital camera. And, the prices for SLRs used to be thousands and thousands of dollars, and now you can get a really nice product for below $1,000."

Chute said the average price of a digital camera is now $150 and is $800 for a digital SLR camera.

Combo approach is familiar
Digital cameras have been incorporated into several types of devices over the years — into digital voice recorders and media players, as well as phones.

Sony’s mylo personal communicator — geared to college students, says Rubin — is an instant messaging/mobile Web device that uses Wi-Fi and also includes a 1.3-megapixel camera and photo-editing software.

The device ($200 after rebates) also lets users re-size photos, write captions or draw on them, and then post them to social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace.

Most camera phones or combined devices with cameras have 1.3- or 2-megapixel cameras. Apple’s iPhone, for example, has a 2-megapixel camera. The HTC Touch Diamond, a new high-end touchscreen phone, has a 3.2-megapixel camera. It retails for $550, but is being offered for $250 after rebates and signing up for a contract with Sprint.

And while an 8-megapixel phone sounds appealing, it may not have the same qualities as an 8-megapixel camera.

“There’s a lot more that goes into creating a good digital camera than just having a high number of megapixels,” said Rubin.

“There’s the size of the sensor, the strength of the flash, features such as image stabilization and smile detection that camera makers are adding to their products.”

Pantech's C610 phone boasts "the world's smallest camera flip phone," and has a 1.3-megapixel camera. It is being carried by AT&T.

Greengart, of Current Analysis, said “most camera phones still generally are trying to be small enough to be used in a phone, so they end up not using a very large image sensor chip, and in some cases, use a plastic lens, so the whole optical path isn’t all that great.”

Flash is definitely important for any device with a camera, and phones have been slow to add flash. It’s not known yet whether Nintendo’s new DSi will include one.

“There are some camera phones that have LED flash, which is good if your subject is just a couple feet away from you,” said Greengart.

Very few, however, use Xenon flash, he said, which is what is used in regular digital cameras.

Nokia’s N95, a 5-megapixel camera phone that has been a hit in Europe and Asia, with more than 10 million sold, does not have a flash, he said.

Fewer higher-end camera phones in U.S.
While the N95 is available in the United States (retail price is around $500), no wireless carrier offers it. Many carriers are not eager to bring higher-quality phone cameras to their lineup if there aren’t other phone features that can bring extra revenue to the carriers, Greengart said.

“If you walk into an AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint or T-Mobile store, and you see a phone that’s free if you sign a contract, it’s not really free,” he said. “It costs the carrier a lot of money. They’re just fronting you the money. Basically, they’re subsidizing it so that you can become a subscriber for them.

“And they’re much quicker to subsidize a phone that they can make extra money on, whether that’s a smartphone that you’re going to spend money on for a data plan to get your corporate e-mail, or whether it’s an iPhone so that you can browse the Internet, or even a regular phone that has access to their latest streaming music service or whatever they’re promoting that day.

“It’s more important for them to subsidize those than a feature on the phone that will make them no money. If they give you a really expensive camera, how does that help them?”

Chute says in the United States, “people using mobile phones that have cameras kind of use them, but they don’t really value the images that come off them.

“What ends up happening is that there’s this halo effect — if you haven’t bought a digital camera and you use a phone camera, you’re more likely to go out and buy a digital camera than the other way around.”

Even with cameras added to devices such as game and media players, “each device, whether it’s a DS, or a phone, or a camera, is made to do one thing really well,” said Chute. “And consumers understand that, which is why they own a variety of different devices.”