Big numbers alone no longer sell digital cameras. The race for megapixels helped feed a steady market of upgrades for a decade. Now most households have one or more cameras, and it's harder to push new models on higher resolution alone. So camera makers, and their cameras, are getting smarter. Snapshooters increasingly have access to sophisticated computing power stuffed into compact cases. Resolution and zooms continue to creep up, with 12 megapixels and 4x zooms not unusual. But cameras themselves are shouldering more of the thinking needed to produce quality shots under tough conditions:
Mode Maestro. You no longer need to take an up-close portrait of a distant mountain. Camera makers are doing away with fidgeting for the correct mode on digital cameras. Models from Nikon and Sony, among others, automatically guess at the right settings for what's being framed. With what Nikon calls "Scene Auto Selector," a camera sizes up what it's pointing out and changes settings, whether for a distant mountain or an up-close face. New Nikons, such as the Coolpix S620 ($270), will try to choose from among the six most popular scenes automatically. You can override the auto setting, and you may want to as the cameras sometimes guess wrong. Or maybe you really intend to take a macro shot of Grandpa's face.
[Video cams are also getting easier to use]
Quieter Pics. All those megapixels offer flexibility for creative camera makers. The upcoming FinePix F200EXR ($400) is the first to employ's Fujifilm's ability to trade pixels for cleaner pictures. Fuji's EXR technology automatically adjusts a camera's resolution to light conditions. That is, it cuts resolution in darker environments, which should reduce the extraneous "noise" that can infect low-light images. The camera can capture 12 megapixels in bright light. Or, when the camera senses less light, it combines diodes -- the electronic components that capture light -- to make them larger. That cuts the effective resolution to 6 megapixels.
Super Speed. Even rank amateurs can get the exact shot they want with Casio tech that enables high-speed frame grabs. The super-slim EX-FS10 ($350) can capture a burst of 30 frames per second of high-resolution still pictures. The camera can also capture an astounding 1,000 frames per second of video at lower, but still-good quality. Those rates are slower than the original 60 fps and 1,200 fps that can be captured by last-year's EX-F1, but that was a SLR-like model that sold for $1,000. It's impressive that Casio could quickly cram the capability into a consumer-priced and tiny FS10, which is in the credit-card-size case that Casio first pioneered.
[A different Casio innovation is less appealing]
Fave Faces. Panasonic is taking face recognition to a new level with cameras that remember people from previous shots. When someone's mug is recorded several times, models such as the upcoming Lumix ZS3 ($400) will suggest that the snapshooter register the face by entering a name. When a registered face appears again in the frame, the camera will display the name and focus on them. The camera will also adjust exposure settings to that person's face. It's an effort to make sure a loved one is the center of a camera's attention in group shots.
Pixel Power. A segment where higher resolution still grabs attention is in camera phones. One side of the upcoming Samsung Memoir cellphone looks much like a digital camera. With good reason, as the upcoming Memoir's camera can capture a market-leading 8 megapixels. Other features blur the line between camera and phone, including smile detection and face recognition -- capabilities that came to dedicated cameras only a few years ago. But no optical zoom. The 16x digital zoom just crops into the photo. Then again, 8 megapixels offer more room for error, and the digital zoom might be useful for crops when sending photos for immediate sharing. The camera, uh, phone will be available soon from T-Mobile.
[Another exciting phone is on its way]