Canon N Takes on Phone Cameras

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Technologies come and go in waves. And lately, the waves are coming and going faster.

Incoming waves: tablets, e-books, movies online. Outgoing waves: Desktop PCs, landline phones, anything on disc, tape or paper.

It's fascinating to watch outgoing industries struggle to remain relevant. Take, for example, the outgoing wave known as pocket cameras. No wonder nobody is buying them anymore. Your phone takes pictures nearly as well and is far more convenient. You always have your phone with you, and you can transmit the photos wirelessly as soon as you take them.

But Canon, the world's No. 1 camera maker, has dreamed up an ingenious response to the phone-camera threat. It's a camera designed to attack the cellphone threat on three fronts.

First, it emphasizes the features that a smartphone can't match, like a zoom lens. Second, it imitates the workings and design features of a smartphone. Third, it can transmit new photos to your phone for immediate sending or posting online. The result, the Canon N ($300), is half pocket camera, half photo-taking accessory for your phone.

In the category of features a phone camera lacks, the Canon N starts by offering a powerful zoom lens -- 8X, compared with zero X on a smartphone. Digital zoom, where the camera just enlarges a photo to make it seem as if you're closer, doesn't count.

The N also has a much bigger, more sensitive sensor and lens. Now, the N's sensor isn't very big for a camera -- it measures 0.4 inches diagonally -- but it's much better than what's in a typical phone. Finally, the N's screen flips out 90 degrees, so you can take photos at interesting angles.

The second category, imitating a phone's design and operation, is more intriguing. The Canon N is one of the weirdest-looking cameras you've ever seen. It's a nearly square, nearly featureless block, in black or white.

It has only three physical buttons, all tiny: Power, Play and Connect to Phone. As on a phone, the rest of the controls are all on the touch screen.

Now, you might have noticed that that list does not include "shutter button"; this camera doesn't have one. Instead, you take a picture by pressing up or down on the silver plastic ring around the lens, which budges slightly and clicks.

And what, you may ask, is the point of that design? Simple: This camera works equally well upside down or at 90 degrees. Like a phone, it detects which way you're holding it and flips the screen image accordingly. Thanks to this ring-shutter system, you can take a shot no matter how you're holding the camera.

Left-handers might also appreciate this setup; it frees them from the tyranny of right-side shutter buttons. The downside of the shutter ring is that it's very skinny and right next to the equally thin zoom ring. Often, you snap a shot by accident when you're just trying to zoom.

The upside-down feature also mitigates the limitations of the flip-out screen, which has a hinge that is far less ambitious than the ones on other cameras. When you hold the camera upright, the flipping out aids you only in taking photos of low-down subjects (that's low down as in "children and pets," not "yellow-bellied scoundrels"). But because you can use the camera in any orientation, the flip-out screen also helps you take pictures holding the camera over your head or even around corners.

Even so, the screen can never face you, so it's no help when you're taking self-portraits -- a real shame.

There are other cellphone similarities. There is no external battery charger; you charge the battery in the camera, by connecting a USB cable to your computer or a wall adapter. The battery itself looks like a squared-off AA battery; it's tiny. Canon says it'll give you about 200 shots on a charge, which is very low.

This camera takes the same kind of memory card used on many cellphones, a microSD card, rather than the SD cards used in most cameras. That's unfortunate, because it means you can't copy the pictures to your computer by popping out the card and inserting it into your laptop. You'll have to use the USB cable or a wireless connection.

On the side, a tiny switch moves between Automatic mode and Creative mode, which would be better named Instagram mode. When you press the shutter button -- sorry, shutter ring -- the camera takes six pictures instead of one. It applies a different filter to each one, of the sort created by the popular Instagram phone app. That is, it degrades each with various degrees of exposure adjustment, color saturation, tints and even oddball cropping. The results are never the same twice, and sometimes they're interesting.

In Automatic mode, the camera is a basic point-and-shoot, with almost no photographic controls. With a tap on the Menu button, however, you can gain access to a Program mode that lets you make manual adjustments of exposure (brightness), white balance, ISO (light sensitivity) and so on.

Wi-Fi is the third unusual feature, although it's becoming less unusual with every new camera model. On the Canon N, you can do three things with Wi-Fi.

First, you can send your photos from the camera to the phone; from there, you can send them wherever fine photos are sent. The setup requires you to install an iPhone, iPad or Android app and connect your phone to the camera -- that's the purpose of the Connect button on the side -- which now impersonates a Wi-Fi hot spot. Almost instantly, the thumbnails of your photos and videos show up on the phone. Copying them off the camera requires two taps each, and you must transfer one at a time; you can't select a batch and say "transfer these." Still, it sure is nice to have those camera pictures on your phone, ready to send.

This is the feature that makes the Canon N feel most like a phone accessory; it almost becomes like a detachable, hand-held external lens.

If the camera is in a Wi-Fi hot spot, it can also transfer photos to Twitter, Facebook and so on directly, without requiring a phone. The setup is fairly complicated, but once it's done, you just tap the on-screen icon of the service you want to post to.

Finally, you can send your pictures from the camera to the computer over Wi-Fi instead of using a cable or transferring the memory card. This, too, takes quite a bit of setup.

Despite its fairly small sensor, the N takes very good pictures. In many cases, they're much better than what you'd get from a phone's camera -- after all, that's the whole point. As you can see in the samples that accompany this article at nytimes.com/personaltech, the color is terrific and the autofocus works well and quickly.

The videos are especially impressive: stable, clear and quick to refocus as you shift to subjects different distances away. Very smart: the Record button is always on the screen. When you want to shoot video, you just tap. There's no switching modes or digging into menus.

At the same time, this $300 camera is no $500 camera. The bright areas in the N's photos are sometimes blown out, and low-light shots can be grainy.

The Canon N is a refreshing, out-of-the-box idea -- especially surprising coming from a huge, conservative corporation like Canon. And it works, both in concept and execution, both as a stand-alone camera and a cellphone companion.

It may not represent the future of pocket cameras. But if anything can slow the sinking of the pocket-camera industry, it will have to be bold, not-me-too thinking like this.

E-mail: pogue@nytimes.com

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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