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Monday, September 26, 2011

Amazon Has High Hopes for Its iPad Competitor

One after another, like moths to a flame, technology companies have been seduced into entering the market for tablets. Apple made it look so irresistible, with 29 million eager and sometimes fanatical consumers snapping up an iPad in the device’s first 15 months.

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Brian Snyder/Reuters

A Kindle user in Cambridge, Mass. Amazon has been willing to sell its e-reader at a loss.

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Tony Avelar/Bloomberg News

Shoppers test out iPads at an Apple store in San Francisco.

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But neither Samsung nor Motorola nor Acer could beg or borrow any of Apple’s magic. Research in Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry, said it shipped only 200,000 of its PlayBooks in three months — about what Apple sells in three days. Hewlett-Packard, which flopped this summer with the TouchPad, was the latest to get burned.

Now comes a final competitor, the best-placed challenger of all: The retailer is on the verge of introducing its own tablet, analysts predict, a souped-up color version of its Kindle e-reader that will undercut the iPad in price and aim to steal away a couple of million in unit sales by Christmas.

A competition between Amazon and Apple tablets will be a battle that pits the company that created the first popular e-reader (and set off a still-unfolding revolution in how books are consumed) against the company that created the first popular tablet (and set off a revolution in progress about how entertainment and other media are consumed).

Both companies are riding high, racking up record revenues and seeing their stock market valuations cruise to new peaks. Each has ample resources to enjoy a pitched struggle for people’s attention and their wallets.

Whichever company triumphs, said the Barclays analyst Anthony DiClemente, “the consumer is going to be the winner.”

“The fact that Amazon is making such a huge investment might make Apple come back into the market at a lower price point,” he suggested. “What’s to prevent them from slimming down the iPad?”

Most tech companies like to keep their cards close to their vests, but Amazon, like Apple, strives to render the whole deck invisible. It has, though, scheduled a news conference in Manhattan on Wednesday, and the speculation on technology blogs and among analysts is that the tablet will be unveiled.

The original Kindle was not introduced until Nov. 19, 2007, which was rather late in the holiday season. It immediately went out of stock for five months. Amazon perhaps is learning from its mistakes.

The Amazon tablet, analysts believe, will most likely sell for about $250, half the price of the basic iPad. Its screen will be seven inches as opposed to the iPad’s 10 inches. Unlike the current Kindle but like the iPad and iPhone, it will operate by touch. A second tablet, with a bigger screen, is expected next year.

The competition will be asymmetrical. Apple sells movies, music and books in order to sell devices. Amazon sells devices in order to sell books, movies and music. Apple has never faced an opponent with such a vastly different strategy. Apple declined to comment on its strategy against Amazon.

Few if any analysts expect Apple to seriously stumble, but that is not to say it will emerge unscathed. The Amazon tablet might be underpowered when set against the iPad, a Corolla to Apple’s Lexus, but that might not matter.

“The No. 1 thing consumers do on tablets is e-mail,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester analyst. “The No. 2 thing is look up stuff on the Web. Then playing games and watching video. Amazon will offer all the tablet that many consumers need.” She estimated initial sales of as many as five million devices.

Amazon’s willingness to sell the Kindle e-reader at a loss — it dropped to $114 from $399 in less than four years — will doubtless be duplicated with its tablets. By concentrating on direct sales from its own Web site, Amazon does not have to share margins with another store.

All that makes Amazon “a nasty competitor,” Ms. Epps wrote in a recent report, and leaves Apple vulnerable among those who want a tablet solely for entertainment and not for professional uses. Since that is about two-thirds of tablet users, Apple’s product strategists will finally have to take a competitor seriously, she concluded.

Apple is not the only vulnerable one. The Amazon tablet will sell for the same price and offer many of the same things as Barnes & Noble’s successful color Nook e-reader. The once-mighty book retailer is staking its future on making the transformation to digital; otherwise it will end up like its one-time competitor Borders, now vanquished.

Amazon has 52 percent of the e-reader market against 21 percent for Barnes & Noble, according to the data firm IDC. A small harbinger of the cutthroat struggle between the two booksellers came this summer in the unlikely form of a best-selling German historical novel, “The Hangman’s Daughter” by Oliver Potzsch.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sony Announces New D-SLR and NEX Cameras

Sony made some noise this morning with announcement of five cameras. The new cameras include the Alpha A65 and A77 D-SLRs, both with a translucent mirror and OLED viewfinder. Three NEX cameras, the NEX-5N and NEX-7 for photographers and the NEX-VG20 for videographers arrived on the scene, along with a trio of new E-mount lenses.

The Alpha A77, which replaces the A700, is built around a 24.3-megapixel APS-C Exmor CMOS image sensor, and features a new Bionz image processor and a translucent mirror that allows the camera to shoot at an amazing 12 frames per second with continuous autofocus. An innovative shutter, which uses an electronic first curtain, helps to speed up shooting and reduces shutter lag to less than 50 milliseconds.

The camera's eye-level electronic viewfinder is built on OLED technology, and it's astounding to look through. It refreshes very quickly and boasts an extremely sharp 2.359 million dot resolution, with none of the light fall off or coverage issues that are present when using a pentaprism or pentamirror optical viewfinder.

Its rear LCD features an innovative hinge system, which makes it possible to position it so you can view it form the top, bottom, or either side of the camera. The A77 can capture video at 1080p60 or 1080p24 resolution using the AVCHD Progressive codec. If you’d rather record direct to MP4, you can do so at 1080i60 or 1080p30.

The camera’s magnesium alloy body is sealed against the elements, and includes built-in GPS for geotagging. A vertical battery grip accessory is available, which is also sealed. Sony is launching a new kit lens with the A77, a 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM zoom lens. The camera will be available in October for $1,399 as a body only or for $1,999 with the kit lens.

The A65

The A65, which will be made available at the same time, is a pared-down version of the A77, targeted at a consumer audience. The camera features a 24-megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor, and is capable of 10 frames per second shooting with continuous autofocus. Its AF system is less advanced than that of the A77, its kit lens is the standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 variety, and its LCD features a simplified tilting mechanism. The camera’s body is polycarbonate, and it is a bit smaller than the A77. There are many shared features between the two cameras, including the OLED EVF, GPS support, and the translucent mirror design. The A65 will be available as a body only for $899 or with the kit lens for $999.

The NEX-7

The second generation of the NEX system continues to roll out, featuring two more upgraded bodies and one completely new camera. The latter, the NEX-7, is an enthusiast-targeted mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, loaded with the same 24.3-megapixel sensor, OLED EVF, and video capabilities found in the A77. The camera features the same tilting 3” LCD that has been used across the NEX line, and is packed with as many manual controls as Sony could fit on its svelte body. It is capable of shooting images at 10 frames per second, and cuts shutter lag to 0.02 second thanks to its use of an electronic first curtain design.

The Tri-Navi system, which uses three control wheels, allows you to quickly adjust shooting settings, without having to delve into menus. It somehow manages to squeeze a built-in pop-up flash and an Alpha hot shoe in as well. The camera will be available in November at a price of $1,199 for the body only or $1,349 with an 18-55mm kit lens with a matching black finish. That lens will be available only in the kit.

The NEX-5N

The NEX-5N, which replaces the NEX-5, is a 16.1-megapixel camera with a touch-screen interface. Sony has designed the interface so that the screen augments the physical buttons on the camera rather than replacing them. The camera shares the shutter design of the NEX-7 for extremely fast performance, although it does not include an integrated OLED EVF. Rather, an accessory viewfinder, which will only be compatible with the NEX-5N, will be available to add the same high-resolution OLED to the camera, priced at $349. The camera will be available in early September in black, silver, or white as a body only for $599, or $699 with the 18-55mm lens.

Sony has also released an update to their NEX-VG10 camcorder, the NEX-VG20. Available in November for $2,199 with an 18-200mm lens, or $1,599 as a body only, the camcorder offers a few upgrades over its previous incarnation. Its resolution has been improved to 16.2 megapixels, and it can now capture RAW stills, 1080p60 and 1080p24 video, and 5.1-channel sound. A new grip and belt design, an additional Record button, and a wireless remote control are also now part of the package.

The NEX lens line-up is also expanding with three new optics. The E 50mm F1.8 OSS adds a fast, standard angle prime lens to the system, which should really work well in low-light situations when coupled with the outstanding high ISO capability of the NEX system. Sony has also announced a companion telezoom that should match well with the existing 18-55mm kit lens. The E 55-210mm F4.5-6.3 OSS lens will come in handy for situations when you need some extra reach with the camera, such as at sporting events or the zoo. Finally, the Carl Zeiss SonnarT* E 24mm F1.8, the first Zeiss-designed lens for the NEX system, steps in to provide fast, wide-angle coverage. Its offers a field of view that is equivalent to 36mm on full frame cameras, making it a great asset to street photographers, photojournalists, and others with the aspiration to be the next Cartier-Bresson.

Rounding out the announcements is a new Alpha lens adapter for the NEX system. It does not replace the existing adapter; instead it brings improved autofocus performance when using Alpha lenses on a NEX camera. The LA-EA2 adapter, set to retail for $399, features a translucent mirror and a dedicated phase detect autofocus sensor. This provides much faster focus performance than the contrast detect system currently used in the NEX. It is compatible with all NEX cameras, although a firmware update will be required for older bodies.

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