Digital cameras do more stuff than ever—detect smiles, track specific people, shoot HD video—but while some are adding dials and buttons to manage feature bloat, others are shedding buttons like dead, obsolete skin.
Here's a sampling of user interfaces across compact cameras from every major digital camera maker: Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Casio, Olympus and Fujifilm. User interfaces matter in these cameras more than ever because they're increasingly the major way you drill down to change settings or switch modes—rather than manually cranking a dial, like on a pro DSLR. Some are pretty good (Canon, Samsung) while some are pretty bad (Casio).
The better ones tend to use a list or grid style, where everything is clearly laid out and easy to access, and more UIs seem to be trending toward the branching list model—when you highlight something, you can see its parameters underneath it. Fonts are rough on some but clearly polished on others. This is a make-or-break issue, since quick visibility is key when you shift from a button UI, or a visual one that only relies on icons.
Canon actually now has two sets of user interfaces: The old one you're used to if you've used Canon lately, and a totally new one that they're rolling out on two of their new cameras. It's slicker, with pop out animations and a more modern font, but I think a bit more confusing since it doesn't show you everything at once. It uses a list style for displaying settings. Once you get the hang of it, though, it's a solid UI.
Nikon has a few different UIs, but the style isn't even consistent within one camera. Oddly, its touchscreen camera shares its ugly UI with some of their other cameras, with few, if any tweaks to make it touch-friendly. It's only Nikon's second-gen touch camera, but its meh UI stands in contrast to the pretty capable one on their DSLRs.
Sony, too, uses the same UI on their touchscreens as they do on their non-touchscreen cameras. It works about as well in touch as it does on non-touch cameras—which is better than Nikon's I feel, since it uses a cross bar type of GUI that Sony's good at. Maybe slightly bigger buttons would help. Overall, Sony's is one of the nicer camera UIs—not terribly confusing.
Too much stuff happens on the back of their cameras, but Panasonic's touch UI seems 'specially designed for fingers, with big, finger-friendly options. (I didn't notice it on their other cams, so I think it was just for the touch FX580, but I could be wrong.) Their standard non-touch UI isn't too bad—I'd put it in the middle of the pack.
Olympus goes with a unique icon style, but it's pretty confusing in terms of trying to get to stuff quickly or navigate backwards and forwards, since you don't know what becomes before or after something in the hierarchy, conceptually speaking. That said, it looks better than the messy menu on the back of their latest DSLR.
Casio has the worst UI out of any camera I checked out. It's cluttered, tiny, ugly and every other sin in the book.
Basic, boring, not particularly helpful.
I mentioned how much I liked Samsung's list UI on the TL320 earlier. It's straightforward, easy to navigate and looks pretty good. When you highlight something, its sub-settings pop up as a list on the right, so you know what you'll be adjusting when you drill down a level. Their other UI isn't quite as good, but it's also fairly straightforward, if slightly more cluttered.
Here are all the touch UIs together. You'd think Panasonic's was the best, except it's wildly inconsistent about when you can touch a menu item and when you can't. So Sony wins by a nose. Weird, Sony winning a UI battle, I know. Nikon's touch interface is just too grotesque to be considered.
Camera UIs can definitely get better, and really need to, because it's clear that the feature-bloat train isn't going to slow down anytime soon. But it's a tricky balance: How do you simplify a user interface for quick, easy access to functions while containing the smorgasbord of new features crammed into every generation of cameras? Can you even make a truly usable touch camera? Uneasy questions without easy answers.
PMA is an annual show where we get to see tomorrow's digital cameras—the ones that'll be populating pockets and purses for the rest of the year.