November 29, 2021

State of the Art: A Camera That Honors Old Virtues

In the last few years, the definition of a camera has been pulled and twisted like taffy. Some are huge, heavy machines with lenses like telescopes. Others are candy-colored minis, as much fashion statements as recording devices. Some are specialized for use underwater or taking hundreds of shots a second. Some are phones.

And the new Fujifilm X100 is — different. Quirky, amazing, baffling, out-there different.

For starters, it’s been designed to look exactly like some Leica film camera from 30 years ago. The top portion and bottom plate have been “die-cast from magnesium alloy” (it’s silver metal, in other words); the grippy part is black and textured. The control dials are physical metal wheels, so you can check the settings even before you turn on the camera.

The retro look gets plenty of stares in public. The joke is that you know you are carrying the very latest, cutting-edge, $1,200 semiprofessional camera, but passers-by think you’re the last Luddite film buff in America.

That’s right, $1,200. Pro photographers have been drooling over the arrival of this thing for months; it’s no point-and-shoot, that’s for sure.

You’re expected to know something about photography if you use this camera; for example, there are no scene modes at all, like beach, twilight, portrait. Instead, there are dedicated shutter speed and exposure dials on top and a metal aperture control ring around the lens.

If you know how to use aperture and shutter speed controls, no camera on earth gives you quicker and more direct access. (Each of these controls also has an automatic setting.)

As a further reminder that this camera isn’t for the Wal-Mart masses, this camera also has — are you sitting down? — no zoom. That’s right; it has a fixed nonzooming lens.

A nonzooming lens has a bunch of advantages. It’s flat, so it makes this camera small enough to slip easily into a coat pocket or purse.

It never has to extend or retract, so the camera is ready to shoot instantly after you flip its clicky on/off switch. And it ensures that photos are razor-sharp across the entire frame, with little of the distortion that can result at the corners when you use zoom lenses.

But no zoom? Really? That seems awfully Cro-Magnon in an age when much cheaper pocket cams can zoom 18 times or 20 times.

Real photo devotees don’t see a fixed lens as a huge detriment. They see it as a limit that inspires compositional creativity, like the 140-character limit on Twitter. And on the X100, the lens is the equivalent of a 35-millimeter film lens, perfect for portraits and a nice balance for landscapes.

Other fixed-lens digital cameras, like the Sigma DP2, embrace the same design philosophy — eliminating zoom for the sake of compactness, speed and quality.

But one X100 feature in particular sets it far apart, and accounts for a big chunk of its price. It not only has an eyepiece viewfinder, but a switchable one. It can be either a pure glass viewfinder that you see right through, as on an S.L.R., or a tiny TV screen; you switch back and forth by flipping a lever by the lens.

When it’s in see-through mode, you get a bright, big, beautiful view of the world around you, complete with superimposed electronic information about your settings. When it’s in electronic mode, you see a preview of the actual photo you’re about to take, complete with exposure, depth-of-field and white-balance effects.

Each is useful in different situations, and it’s fantastic to be able to flip between them. A truly great feature, beautifully executed — a photographic first.

It’s also an f/2.0 lens, meaning that it lets in a lot of light; this camera does exceptionally well in low light, even without its built-in flash. It can also create absolutely gorgeous blurred background effects. The photos have a clarity, a depth, that you’d expect from a still more expensive S.L.R.

On a spring-break trip to a theme park, this camera produced some of the most memorable photos of my children I’ve ever taken.

It also ruined a lot more shots than any camera I’ve used.


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State of the Art: A BlackBerry Tablet, but Where Are the Apps?

The BlackBerry tablet, though, seems worth a look. The tech world’s been hyperventilating over this thing. It’s called the PlayBook, and it’s a seven-inch touch-screen tablet ($500, $600, and $700 for the 16-, 32- and 64-gigabyte models).

The iPad, of course, is a 10-incher, but seven has its virtues. It’s much easier to hold with one hand, for example. In principle, you ought to be able to slip the PlayBook into the breast pocket of a jacket — but incredibly, the PlayBook is about half an inch too wide. Whoever muffed that design spec should be barred from the launch party.

Still, the PlayBook looks and feels great: hard rubberized back, brilliant, super-responsive multitouch screen, solid heft (0.9 pounds).

Its software is based on an operating system called QNX, which Research In Motion, the BlackBerry’s maker, bought for its industrial stability. (“It runs nuclear power plants,” says a product manager without a trace of current-events irony.)

Nor is QNX the only other company that lent a hand. Palm and Apple were also involved, although they didn’t know it. The PlayBook software is crawling with borrowed ideas.

For example, to remove or rearrange apps, you hold your finger down on one app icon until all icons begin to pulse (hello, iPad!). And to close a program, you swipe your finger upward from the bottom bezel to turn all app windows into “cards,” and then flick one upward off the screen (hello, Palm Pre!).

There are no buttons on the front at all, and the top edge has only On, Play/Pause and volume keys. Instead, you navigate by swiping your finger from the black border, which seems unduly wide, into the screen itself.

Swiping upward reveals your app icons (and turns your apps into “cards”). Swiping left or right cycles among open multitasking apps. And swiping down reveals an app’s toolbar, if it has one.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing beforehand if a toolbar exists, so you often swipe futilely and feel silly. Similarly, if app icons completely fill the home screen, you can swipe upward to reveal more — but you won’t know if there are more until you swipe, because no scrollbar appears beforehand to let you know there’s more below the screen.

But the PlayBook does three impressive things that its rivals — the iPad and the Android tablets — can only dream about.

First, with a special HDMI cable (not included), you can hook it up to a TV or projector, which is great for PowerPoint presentations. (Apparently they still do those in corporations.)

The iPad does that, but the TV image is identical to the iPad’s screen image. The PlayBook, however, can show two different things. On the TV, the audience sees your slides; on the PlayBook, you get to see the traditional PowerPoint cheat sheet of notes and slide thumbnails.

The second cool feature has to do with loading the tablet with your music, photos and music. Unfortunately, there’s no iTunes-like software to do this automatically. You have to drag files manually from your computer into the PlayBook’s folders (Music, Photos and so on). But once you’ve set up this process using a USB cable, you can do it thereafter over Wi-Fi — wirelessly. The PlayBook can even accept such wireless transfers when it’s in sleep mode, sitting in your purse or briefcase across the room.

Finally, there’s a wild, wireless Bluetooth connection feature called BlackBerry Bridge. In this setup, the PlayBook acts as a giant viewing window onto the contents of a BlackBerry phone. Whatever e-mail, calendar, address book and instant messages are on the BlackBerry now show up on the PlayBook’s much roomier screen — a live, encrypted two-way link.

(Another advantage of pairing the PlayBook with a BlackBerry: The tablet can get online using the BlackBerry’s cellular connection. You don’t have to pay another $15 or $20 a month for a tethering plan, as you do with iPhones and Android phones.)

BlackBerry Bridge is supposed to appeal to the corporate network administrators who are R.I.M.’s bread and butter, because they can deploy PlayBooks without having to worry about security breaches. Everything they’ve worked so hard to secure on your BlackBerry — e-mail, calendar and so on — stays there. It only appears to be on the PlayBook.


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