Model refresh – an appraisal

10 Aug

“It’s not enough of an upgrade” – a phrase frequently heard on gearheads websites when new models are announced for an existing product line. It was one of the responses to the recent Pentax Q-S1 as much as for the Canon EOS 700D or Nikon D3300. The air is getting thin in the digital camera market, and manufacturers need to cut corners – their manufacturing needs to become more modular, the model refreshes more incremental.

Sony did this masterfully from 2008 to 2011 – their Alpha 200 was chased by an A230, then an A290; likewise, the A350 was succeeded by an A380, then A390, almost at 12-month intervals. They repeated this with the A500 and A550 DSLR lineages. then the A33 and A55 SLT lines, the latter of which endures in the shape of the A58. Most of these models were relatively simple upgrades of a previous one, differing by a few megapixels or a small saving on the sale price.

The downside to this strategy is that not every new model will get fully reviewed by photography and tech publications. For instance, many did not review the Pentax K-50 because while the body was completely redesigned, the internals were nearly identical to the K-30, except that a higher maximum ISO had been enabled in the firmware. Similarly, in the Sigma DP line, many publications will review only one model from each generation as the DP1, DP2 and DP3 do not differ in anything other than focal length and the slightly different properties of the lens; however, even the widest aperture is the same among them.

Nonetheless, each new model release creates headlines in technical publications. Pentax has arguably followed a similar concept to advance coverage of its DSLR by announcing new colour choices or special editions at certain points in the product life cycle. Canon’s “Rebel” entry level DSLRs get extra column inches by having three names each – the 700D mentioned above is also known as the Kiss X7i, or Rebel T5i, depending which market you’re in. International coverage always has to try and address readers from all regions, so each name must be mentioned when referring to the camera. (At other times, redundant words are included in the model name, such as EOS, Lumix DMC, Coolpix or Cyber-shot DSC, in the belief that they confer a particularly sought-after brand identity.)

It is clear that some companies follow such schemes to a lesser extent. While Panasonic’s GH4 is in many ways an incremental upgrade of its GH3 model, it does include one big headine feature – 4k video. Other Panasonic interchangeable lens models have generally stood on their own in this reviewer’s impression. Olympus mixes up its models only in the PEN series (where the difference between E-P, E-PM and E-PL models is generally small, and some upgrades have been minimal), whereas each model in the OM-D series has been individually designed for its intended market.

Samsung has only very recently shown inclinations towards incremental upgrades, whereas Fujifilm has only upgraded one X-series ILC so far, with the X-E2, which was widely considered a success.

In some cases, a quick succession of model increments can be an indication of the health of a model line – Sony’s RX1 was followed by an RX1R, and its RX100 is now on its third model iteration. Nikon’s 1 series has similarly exploded in model lines and generations – again, we are counting the third generation of this mirrorless interchangeable lens camera line. Both the RX100 and Nikon 1 series have undergone significant changes during their existence, however.

And while Olympus and Pentax (with their K-500) have succeeded in diversifying their price points in the entry market by adopting a more incremental and modular approach to design, none of these manufacturers can escape the truth that more radical redesigns are necessary from time to time. The ability of manufacturers to correctly judge the best time for such redesigns, and ability to get them right on the first release will be a large factor in their ability to stand their ground in this highly competitive market.

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