nikonp2frThe future is now–almost.”

Imagine a digital camera with the same functionality you get from your camera phone–but with the quality-control functionality that you expect from your regular camera. The future is now–almost.

Wireless digital cameras are arguably the next big thing in the photography world. A marriage between Wi-Fi technology and digital cameras allows the photographer to connect to a wireless network without needing cables. Photographers can download the pictures to a computer, save the pictures directly to a computer as they are shot, send images to a printer, or share photos via a cellular network the same as with a camera phone.

Take last summer’s World Cup, for example. As fans screamed, professional photographers sent pictures of Zinedine Zidane head-butting Marco Materazzi flying to photo editors’ screens around the globe. The cameras’ Wi-Fi transmitters sent the images wirelessly to a nearby colleague with a laptop, who in turn sent them zipping around the world.

The Wi-Fi advantage for professional photographers is apparent–but what about the rest of us? Do we have a use for this feature? Camera manufacturers are betting we do. Increasingly, wireless technology is incorporated into high-end digital cameras, as well as in the point-and-shoot models available to the home consumer. Kodak set the ball rolling by announcing a wireless-enabled, point-and-shoot digital camera at the CES trade show in 2005. Nikon and Canon threw their hats into the ring shortly afterward. Sony came on board in March of 2007.

A Must-Have Feature?

I’m predicting it won’t be long before we think of Wi-Fi as a must-have feature when we shop for our next digital camera. Picture the next big corporate event, where the office’s rising star snaps pictures of schmoozing executives and projects the images on the wall via a projector hooked to a laptop. Imagine making a huge splash at your kid’s birthday party when you snap pictures of arriving guests, wirelessly zoom the images to a printer, and tuck the picture into the kid’s goodie bag moments later. Or, how about your next vacation, when you instantaneously send your vacation pictures to a Web page or to someone’s computer?

Even better, consider that Wi-Fi cameras use 802.11b and g computer networking technology to connect to a wireless network. If your home computer is Wi-Fi enabled, you can connect your wireless digital camera to it and download your photos. Say goodbye to card readers and USB cables.

However, there are a couple of things you need to be aware of. First, Wi-Fi-enabled digicams are still new technology–so expect some bugs to iron out. Secondly, Wi-Fi-enabled cameras “talk” only to their manufacturer’s propriety software, restricting you to use of that one particular element. (Oh, where have we heard this complaint before in the technology world?)

And lastly, the Wi-Fi capability adds about $100 to the price of the camera, so expect a reduction in camera features as the manufacturers try to make the cameras affordable to home users. Prices vary, but the cameras are more reasonable than you might think.

Today’s Technology

Nikon’s CoolPix P2 5.2 MP camera is Wi-Fi-capable, and sells at Amazon for around $200. The camera can transfer your saved images to a printer (no computer required), or to a wireless-equipped computer, or can send the images directly to the computer as you take them.

Amazon consumer reviews vary, with some saying the camera works fine, but the Wi-Fi is a dud, and others claiming the Wi-Fi is fine, but the camera is flawed. Still others rave about both, but claim that the Wi-Fi connectivity is difficult to set up. A Photo.net review of the CoolPix P2 and its sister camera, the CoolPix P1, points out that the Wi-Fi support permits sending pictures to a computer fewer than 100 feet away, and that this computer must be running Nikon’s photo-management software. Also, when in the wireless mode, the camera offers pure “point-and-shoot” functionality–a fact that will irritate more experienced photographers.

On the plus side, however, the camera supports “slide show” functions, so you can do that corporate party thing mentioned earlier. Imaging-resource.com calls the camera a good choice for beginners or for experienced photographers wanting a “take-anywhere” camera.

Kodak’s EasyShare One takes a more ambitious approach. This camera uses a touch screen and a Wi-Fi adapter card (sold separately) so you can plug into any Wi-Fi hotspot and send the pictures wirelessly to any e-mail address stored in the camera. The 4MB camera sells at Amazon for about $175.

Consumer reviews, for the most part, rave about EasyShare One. The camera uses Wireless B (rather than the faster G), but sends at a good rate of 11Mbps. The initial setup is somewhat complicated, however. First you calibrate your screen, next you set the date and time, and then you provide your EasyShare Gallery account information. This free service allows you to upload images to share online via e-mail notification. Finally, you bring up the Wi-Fi system and look for wireless hotspots. When you select one of the hits for a protected hotspot, you enter a password. The camera remembers it for the next occasion. Image-resource.com rates this model as suitable for the novice to the experienced amateur.

The Canon PowerShot SD430 5MP Digital Camera with Wi-Fi capability sells at Amazon for about $300. This camera includes an automatic wireless image transfer and wireless control of camera-shooting functions from a PC. An included wireless printer adapter permits direct printing to any Canon PictBridge-compatible printer. It requires no configuration to print, since the camera is pre-configured to recognize the print adapter.

This camera also provides an interesting Remote Capture feature, which gives you a live view from your camera transmitted wirelessly to your computer screen–where you can use the keyboard to do various configurations. Imaging-resource.com rates this camera as good for the novice and experienced amateur, and a good “take-along” camera for the experienced user.

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Wireless digital cameras have come a long way since 2004, when Concord released the Eye-Q Go, a Bluetooth-enabled digital camera selling for about $130. Allegedly, the camera transferred 7MB of images in 15 minutes. (A USB cable provides an 8-second transfer.) PC World included the Eye-Q Go in its list of the 25 worst tech products of all times, saying, “The Bluetooth was a bust, the camera was crude, and the pictures were awful. Aside from that, it was just fabulous.”

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