Smartphone cameras have gotten so good—and sharing photos from them has gotten so easy—that in most situations, a simple point-and-shoot camera seems like an unnecessary inconvenience.
But point-and-shoot manufacturers, eager to keep their products relevant, have begun equipping the cameras with built-in Wi-Fi transmitters. These combine a legitimate camera's lens and sensor with a phone-like ability to quickly share photos without a cumbersome cord. Even with the new feature, a solid camera can come in under $300. Wi-Fi point-and-shoots to the rescue! Right?
For this test, we chose the Canon Elph 320 HS ($280) and the Samsung WB150f ($230). We wanted to know how these cameras stacked up against each other, and also how the features measured up in common tasks—like posting a photo to Facebook—when compared against most folks' default tool for the job, the iPhone 4.
Why Do I Need A Wi-Fi Camera?
Camera phone photos fill Flickr and Facebook pages all over the world. The pure convenience of a phone's portability and connectivity make it the everyman's photographic weapon of choice, even in spite of huge sacrifices in image quality. Some smartphones, like the iPhone, can sync themselves wirelessly with a computer and instantly store photos online as backup.
But even cheap point-and-shoots outshine a phone's photographic features. Point-and-shoot cameras usually have powerful optical zooms, much higher-resolution images, better performance in tricky low-light situations, and more control in general. Combining that functionality with the smartphone's convenience would make for a very powerful machine. That's exactly what a point-and-shoot with Wi-Fi connectivity can do.
Canon 320 HS
The tiny, five-ounce Canon Elph 320 HS has a streamlined, clean design with almost no buttons on the body. There's only a playback button on the back, and the top panel has the shutter release, power button, and a switch that toggles between Auto and Program shooting modes. Everything else, from video recording to the built-in flash, is controlled by the camera's attractive touchscreen. In playback mode, a button appears to activate the camera's wireless features. The specs are pretty standard for current point-and-shoots: It has a 16.1 Megapixel, 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor with a maximum 3200 ISO, it shoots HD video up to 1920 x 1080 at 24 fps, and a 5x optical zoom is supplemented by a 4x digital zoom.
The Samsung WB150f is a physically beefier camera than the 320 HS, due in part to its larger battery. There is no touchscreen; the menus and camera settings are controlled via a shooting mode dial on the top of the camera and a four-way directional pad on the camera's back panel. An 18x optical zoom offers much better quality than the Canon on an extreme close-up, and the camera's difficult-to-use full manual mode affords more control over the image it's taking. The Samsung has slightly lower resolution all around. It sports a 14.2-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor with a maximum 3200 ISO, and shoots only 1280 x 720 video at up to 30 fps.
Both the Canon and Samsung cameras use their Wi-Fi powers in two ways. They can upload images to an online storage service using an existing wi-fi network in the area, or they can use the cameras' built-in wi-fi transmitters to establish a direct wireless connection with a smartphone, tablet, or computer.
Canon 320 HS
The 320 HS requires you to go through Canon's cloud storage service, Canon Image Gateway, to upload photos to Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube over a local Wi-Fi connection. Setting up with the Image Gateway requires you to connect the camera to a computer and to register the product with Canon. It's a bit of a pain. At home, the camera simply would not connect to my wireless network no matter what I tried (at the office, it connected quickly). It's tough to enter a login password on the camera's tiny keyboard. Once it's connected and all of the services are set up, though, the camera's Wi-Fi works quickly.
For mobile applications, Canon currently has the CameraWindow app for iOS, and an identical Android app is due out next month. CameraWindow allows you to wirelessly connect an iPhone directly to the camera. Then, you can use the phone to share the camera's images online. The application worked flawlessly.
The Samsung WB150f can use an existing wireless network, without going through an intermediary like Canon Image Gateway, to email photos from the camera or to upload images and video to Facebook, Picasa, YouTube, and Photobucket. Data goes straight from the camera to the internet. The camera supports automatic backup—Windows only, unfortunately—which will sync up photos with your computer. If you have a Windows Live account, you can also upload photos to a SkyDrive. Setup for all of the services occurs on the camera itself.
The WB150f usually connected to wireless networks without a hitch, but it ran into problems trying to connect to YouTube. When uploading to YouTube, it was a bit of a downer that the camera would only upload low-resolution files (320 x 240). Once configured, we were able to rapidly upload photos to both SkyDrive as well as to Facebook in seconds.
As for apps, Samsung's MobileLink, available for both Android and iOS, allows you to view, email, or share the camera's photos on a tablet or phone. Another application, Remote Viewfinder, lets you control your camera and shooting settings from other devices.
We managed to get both of the applications to work on an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy Tab, although not without some hiccups along the way. We often needed to restart the devices to get them to sync up properly—a problem that'll probably get pretty annoying if you're using these features frequently. At the time of writing, even when comparing MobileLink side-by-side against it Android counterpart, the iOS version of app would inexplicably only display in Korean. Kamsahamnida, Samsung.
Uploading to Facebook: The Drag Race
Moving photos off the camera and on to the internet is what this is all about. It's one of the biggest advantages of using a smartphone over a point-and-shoot. So how fast can each of these Wi-Fi cameras make the transfer?
For this test, we timed how long it took each camera to connect to a local Wi-Fi network, connect to Facebook, and successfully upload a file. In each case, the cameras automatically scale the images down for the transfer. Both of the photos uploaded were taken at the same time and were uploaded to Facebook at the same size and pixel dimensions.
Canon 320 HS Time to Facebook: 4 seconds
Samsung WB150f Time to Facebook: 15 seconds
Canon 320 HS iPhone Time to Facebook: 8 seconds to transfer the image from the camera to the iPhone; 17 seconds from the camera to iPhone to Facebook
The Verdict: Should You Buy a Wi-Fi Camera?
When each camera is up and running, being able to just upload stuff effortlessly is pretty great. But it's rarely effortless, from the initial setup to the continued connectivity hiccups I'm still dealing with after nearly a week of use. Point-and-shoot cameras should be idiot-proof—but, on a few occasions, it would have been easier to simply connect either camera via USB than to wrestle with the Wi-Fi features.
If your priority is reliable and easy Wi-Fi connectivity, a smartphone could be a better choice—especially if you're using an iPhone, which comes with Wi-Fi syncing and iCloud storage built in. Both of these cameras are capable of better pictures than an iPhone, though. For a consumer seeking quality images with no need for a speedy post to the web, skip the Wi-Fi features and get a better or cheaper point-and-shoot. The $230 Canon Elph 110 HS, for example, is essentially the same camera as the 320 HS, except it costs $50 less and comes without Wi-Fi.
These cameras are right for the non-iPhone-using consumer who wants a wireless way to shoot and post images and video online. For that buyer, we recommend the Canon 320 HS. It was a little more complicated to configure, but once it got going, the Wi-Fi features were faster and the design was a notch better than the Samsung WB150f.