24 Jan 2014

Old-Fashioned Cameras

I ended up buying two high-end cameras with a few months of each other: the Sony NEX-5R, and the iPhone 5s.

Both take excellent photos, but the NEX is much harder to use, and has a much worse user experience. Not only does it not take better photos than the iPhone 5s in bright light, but it's also much harder to use. Even if it did take better photos, I'd expect the increase in complexity to be proportionate to the increase in photo quality. But the complexity is much higher.

Hardware
To begin with, the NEX has a touch screen, but a terrible resistive touch screen (rather than the capacitive one you use on smartphones and tablets). You have to press so hard to get it to register the touch that the camera shakes and you end up with a blurry photo.

The UI is also not designed for touch. Rather, touch is grafted on. For example, there are some screens where touch doesn't work. If you innocently try to tap something on screen that looks tappable, you'll get a message that tells you sternly that touch is not supported on this screen.

There are buttons with vague descriptions like “Fn”. Sony still seems to be stuck in the command-line era. Ideally, especially when you have a touch interface, buttons should be labeled with their function.  I understand that hardware buttons are easier to press than on-screen buttons, but the difference is not as much as it is for dials. Buttons on touch screens are okay, while dials on touch screens are terrible. Even on iOS and Android, which have wonderful touch interfaces compared to this camera, dials are hard to manipulate, much harder than buttons. Maybe Sony should have used the limited amount of available space on the camera for dials, leaving many of the buttons to the touchscreen? Perhaps an exposure compensation dial, a mode dial, and so forth. Have only a few physical buttons, like the shutter button, and perhaps a button to record video.

It doesn't look like Sony took this kind of holistic approach. They instead added a touch-screen to an interface not designed for touch, much like Symbian and other crappy pre-iPhone smartphones.

Software Organization
Coming to the software design, the UI is a bewildering maze of dozens of options jumbled together, rather than organized according to some logical structure. You have to hunt through all the menus to find what you need, because it's anybody's guess where that option has been placed.

Options that are needed often aren't that much easier to find and change than options that are needed rarely. Rather, the UI should be organized by asking: what are the functions that everyone (or most users) use? What functions are used by only 10% of users, or only 10% of the time? And what functions almost never need to be changed, like disabling electronic front curtain shutter? Then, divide up the UI into clearly separated sections, with the things that are used daily placed front and center, the occasional stuff a click or two away, and the rarely used stuff somewhere in the settings.

Not clearly differentiating between the 90% stuff and the 10% stuff and the 0.1% stuff leads to a train wreck.

Modes
The NEX has the usual PASM modes. Modes are known to be a bad form of UI design, because the user may not know what mode he's in, what modes are available, what each of them does, what the pros and cons of each of them are, and so forth.

And Sony disables a somewhat arbitrary set of functions based on the mode. If you press the wrong button or try to choose the wrong option, you'll get an unhelpful message telling you that that option is not available. These error messages sometimes say what you need to do to use the function you wanted to, like "Unavailable in this mode. Use P / A / S / M" or "Not available in RAW mode". But sometimes the error message says, in effect, "This function is not available." This is irritating, because I don't know what to do to get it to work. This is a basic principle of writing error messages: don't just say that something couldn't be done; say what the user needs to do to achieve their goal. Of course, a UI without arbitrary restrictions is better.

For example, why can't I change the ISO in Auto mode? And why are aperture and shutter speed separate modes, but not ISO, which is merely a setting in other modes? Is there a logical reason for this? The mode UI is arbitrary and confusing, and irritating to use. It comes in the way of taking great photos, rather than helping.

Besides, some of the “modes” on my NEX have sub-modes within them, which is making something that’s bad worse. For example, there's a scene mode, with sub-modes like Sunset or Sports or Handheld Twilight (which, despite the name, is most useful to me when it's night, not during twilight). Some of these modes are cheesy filters that do things like give a sepia tone, or accentuate the green in landscape sub-mode, etc. But some of them are things that you can't do in post-processing, on a computer, like Handheld Twilight mode, which takes a half dozen photos and merges them together to reduce noise. There's also another section called Picture Effects or something, which is different from the Scene modes. I don't know why some filters are in the Picture Effects section and some are in the Scene modes.

On the topic of sub-modes, if we must have sub-modes, I at least expect some logical organization to decide what's a top-level mode and what's a sub-mode. Panorama, for example, is a separate top-level mode, while the thing that takes many photos and fuses them together to reduce noise is a sub-mode. Why?

Apps
Apps may be a good way to clearly separate out the functionality into separate, self-contained units, rather than as a single, monolithic maze of menus. Modes are supposed to achieve the same goal, but they are messed up, as we saw above. Having separate apps would be a better way of partitioning the functionality into separate pieces, each of which is easy to use.

Nokia's Lumia phones, for example, have a Camera app for most users, and a Pro Camera app for power users. By the same token, the NEX could have a Manual app, which lets you adjust aperture and shutter speed, combining the traditional Aperture, Shutter Speed and Manual modes. Don't have aperture and shutter speed options outside the Manual app. And options relevant to very few users, like electronic front curtain shutter, would be available only in the Manual app.

Similarly, there could be a video app, which lets you record videos and adjust settings related to videos, like the frame rate.

Don't have monolithic controls. Imagine how your phone would be if it's functionality wasn't separated out into clear, self-contained apps. Imagine if, instead of opening the Facebook app to make a post, you had to put your phone into the S mode (for Social, of course — what could be simpler than that?). You'd then press the compose button, and ignore the CC and BCC fields as you type your message (since Facebook doesn't have those notions). Compare that with the beautiful user experience you get from self-contained apps.

Phones do lot more than cameras. They combine the functions of a phone, computer, camera, alarm clock, pedometer, calculator, compass and more, while still letting you do everything you want to do intuitively. Using the NEX makes you appreciate what a marvel of UI design your smartphone is.

Not only is the functionality of a smartphone separated out into apps, but the settings are, too. Imagine, again, if your phone had a monolithic settings screen that intermingled Facebook settings with whether Maps should use km or miles. Such a UI would be a train-wreck, but that's exactly what the NEX has.

(Even without having apps, settings can be grouped intelligently. For example, non-photography related settings like the date / time, formatting SD cards, wifi settings, UI themes, etc can be in a separate section, not intermingled with photography-specific settings.)

I can imagine other apps on the NEX, like a timelapse app. Each of these apps would have their respective settings contained within them, not complicating the UI outside that app.

There could also be a simple photography app for 80% of uses. Think of the Camera app on the iPhone. My mom should be able to pick up the NEX and start using it as easily as she can take photos on an iPhone. If a device that's meant to be a dedicated camera is harder to use as a camera than a device meant to be a phone (or miniature computer), that means the dedicated camera is an abject failure.

Other apps could provide non-photography related services, like automatic upload to Dropbox or to the laptop. Seamless, and automatic.

Sony does have apps, but not only do they not fix any of the above issues, but they introduce new ones. For example, apps on the camera use a different look-and-feel from that of the camera itself. Some settings that are available on the camera are also available in the app — the app ignores the camera settings and pretends it's a world onto itself.

Worse, in some cases, you need to install an app on your phone or tablet. When you do that, you have three UIs to wrestle with — the UI of the camera itself, the UI of the app running on the camera, and the UI of the app running your phone.

Sony charges extra for some apps, like timelapse, which should have been a basic function of the camera itself. To download apps, you need to go a URL, which gives a 404. It refused to let me create an account, telling me to try again later. I tried four times over a few weeks, and it would consistently fail. Finally, it turned out that I had to claim I live in the US, where I don't, just to get it to work. Then it said that I need to use an older version of Safari for it to work. And it installed a plugin, which is insecure. Even then, I couldn't install the app because I didn't have a US credit card. The level of incompetence here is stunning.

Further, there are no third-party apps in Sony's app store, as far as I know. Which defeats the entire point of having an app store in the first place, which is that no single company, whether Sony or Apple or Google, can do everything users want. Nobody has a monopoly on all good ideas, thousands of them, and a single product with so many features would be unusable anyway. That's why we need app stores. Not because it's trendy to deliver functionality to users as part of an app when it could be in the camera itself, like timelapse. And not to rip off users who paid a thousand dollars into paying $10 more.

Grab Bag
When you buy an NEX, you have to research what SD card to buy. Do you need the expensive Sandisk Extreme, that supposedly gives you 95MB/s? Is that the average or the max speed? The read or the write speed? Or would the much cheaper 80MB/s Sandisk do? Or would it do to just use whatever SD card you already have?

When people pay $1000 for a camera and lenses, can't Sony include 32GB of built-in fast storage?

The Wifi is terrible. It doesn't stay connected, which is fine, for battery life reasons, but it takes ages to reconnect when you try to use it. And often refuses to connect, though all other devices in my house connect just fine.

Many of the options are not explained well enough and you have to consult the manual.

Sony, like many of the brainless consumer-electronics companies, makes too many models, making it hard for you to chose what camera you want. For example, a $500 NEX may not support recording 1080p video at 60 frames per second. This is a shame when my iPhone can take 120 FPS video (even if it's at 720p).

My guess is that Sony artificially cripples some models to drive people to the higher-end models. Having a dozen very similar models makes it hard for users to decide what to buy. And it means that many users will find that their iPhones work better as cameras. Sony is digging its own grave.

I'm fine with intrinsic tradeoffs, like a camera with a built-in viewfinder being bigger and heavier than one without (assuming, for the purpose of this discussion, that it's not possible to have both at once). This genuinely calls for having two different models — users who want a small camera can forgo the viewfinder, while ones who think they will use it often and is worth it can buy the model with the viewfinder. But stop the artificial differentiation, created by crippling various features and slapping a new model number on it. This, as we saw, only makes it harder for people to buy a camera, and it means that people who buy anything but the top-end model (which may cost $1000) will find their expensive camera limited in many ways compared to the iPhone.

Conclusion
The NEX, and its brethren, are the equivalent of Symbian phones today. Clunky, poorly designed, and hard to use. And, like Symbian, they risk getting swept away to the trash bin of history as phone cameras get better every year, and more and more people find that they can takes great photos, not just okay ones, on their phones.

Standalone cameras should use a smartphone OS, like Android. They have much better interfaces, they are designed for touch, they support apps, both technically and in the sense of having a thriving app ecosystem.

Most importantly, the smartphone world understands the importance of having a great user experience. Sony and friends don't, which was fine as long as there was no alternative. But there is now, and most users come from smartphones. Sony is like a solder equipped with bows and arrows, and facing a tank.

Sony and friends need to change their culture to compete with the Googles and Apples and Nokias of the world. They probably won't be able to, and end up joining Symbian as technology that was once advanced, but failed to keep up changing times and increasing user expectations.

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