A tale of two different approaches to WiFi: Canon PowerShot S110 and Nikon WU-1b for the Nikon D600

I happen to have just gotten Nikon’s new WU-1b WiFi adapter for my Nikon D600, and a Canon PowerShot S110 with WiFi for review, so it was a great opportunity to compare and contrast the two company’s approach to their newest WiFi solutions. Initially I expected the two devices to have very similar features, but as I explored them both I realized that the two were almost completely different in their functionality. Which approach you prefer will have a lot to do with your shooting style…

Nikon WU-1b for the Nikon D600 (and the Nikon WU-1a for the Nikon D3200 and Nikon D5200)

Nikon WU-1b Wireless Mobile AdapterNikon has taken a streamlined approach to providing entry-level wireless for its DSLRs. A simple and relatively inexpensive (less than $60) dongle plugs into the USB port on the camera’s left side. At about one-tenth of the cost of the pro wireless units Nikon continues to sell for outrageous prices, I didn’t expect it to do everything, but Nikon has picked a useable subset of wireless functionality and put it in a convenient package. Note though, that currently low-cost adapters are only available for two (soon to be three) models of Nikon DSLR.

The world’s best cameraphone?

Nikon helpfully points out that using its “Shoot and Share” mode, the Nikon D600 coupled with a Nikon WU-1b quickly becomes the world’s best camera phone. As you shoot images with your camera, this option automatically transfers them to your smartphone or tablet. It works with iOS and Android, although not with Mac or PC – I don’t know if that is some type of technical limit or a way to protect the higher margin WT series of adapters. Coupled with the sharing feature of the Nikon application …

The world’s coolest remote?

Nikon D600 Digital Camera with 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR LensNikon doesn’t call it that, but with the WU wireless adapters you can transmit the LiveView feed to your phone or tablet, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the action. A simple click on the shutter button pictured on your touchscreen snaps and image and optionally transmits it to you. This is a neat way to augment your remote control shooting with remote viewing. With the D600 version of the adapter you can also selectively focus on different parts of the image. Unfortunately, you can’t change any other camera settings from the remote, although you can shoot in Bulb mode and use distinct clicks to open and close the shutter.

This mode is definitely an alternative to an Eye-Fi card. It allows the same realtime image upload, while adding a remote shutter and live previewing through the viewfinder. Unlike Eye-Fi though, the upload only takes place if you are actively running the Nikon application when you capture the image.

Where the Nikon Software falls short

Unfortunately the current release of the Nikon application for use with your WiFi-enabled camera is quite limited in a few important ways. First, the images you capture through it are siloed within the application. On Android, for example, they do not show up in any of the other photo browsers, so you need to use the Nikon application to share them. Second, the “shoot and share” feature only works if you are actively on the screen where it is controlled. It should be able to operate in the background. Finally, perhaps because the images are siloed, instant and automatic upload features from your phone to the cloud don’t work with the remotely captured images. None of these seem like rocket science to fix, and unless Nikon has a particular reason to keep their otherwise nifty WiFi adapter crippled, should be fixable in updates to the utility. We’ll have to wait and see, but fortunately for $60 there is plenty to like even with just the currently supported functionality.

What Nikon should to make its wireless adapter great

Three hopefully simple enhancements would make Nikon’s wireless offering amazing. First, it needs to operate in the background. Currently, moving away from the camera application on your phone kills active file transfers, for example. Second, it needs to put the transferred images in the standard photo gallery, so other applications on the phone or tablet can get at them. Perhaps there is some way to do this currently, but if so it is not obvious. Third, and perhaps hardest of the three, is adding the ability to control more of the camera settings from the application, making it more useful for remote shooting. A bonus would be working through a WiFi access point rather than requiring a direct WiFi connection from the camera, but I suspect that will take an entire new generation of adapter.

Canon PowerShot S110: WiFi as cable replacement

I was expecting great things from the WiFi capability in the Canon PowerShot S110 – especially since Canon had dumped the native GPS in the Canon PowerShot S100 in favor of a system that combined photos from the camera with a track log from a smartphone or tablet. Perhaps I was naïve, or at least too optimistic, as the S110 doesn’t do several of the things I was hoping it would. First, it doesn’t seem to have any way to automatically send images to another device as they are shot. That seems like WiFi 101 to me. Instead it allows the user to select images from the camera and send them, one at a time or in batches. That’s nice, but really no better than connecting the camera with a cable – although more convenient of course.

The WiFi support on the S110 is very powerful when it comes to replacing a USB cable. It allows a computer to browse through and upload images from the camera, and vice versa for the camera. You can also use it to connect to a phone or tablet to browse, upload or share your images. Even some printers can be used directly with the camera. In total, there are a plethora of options, but they seem to all boil down to cable replacement features – not creative new shooting solutions that take advantage of the wireless capability

GPS track merging

One feature that may be familiar to those using dedicated GPS products, but is uniquely built-in to the Canon PowerShot S110 is the ability to merge a GPS track from your smartphone with your images while they are on the camera to geotag them. This is pretty cool, but it does require that you both remember to set up and turn on the track logging applicaton on your phone and keep your camera time accurate.

This and the other S110 wireless features interact with Canon’s free smartphone application, Canon CameraWindow. The Canon application can use the camera as an access point if you’re in the field and don’t have a WiFi access point already there to connect with. Only JPEG models can be transferred or shared, although Raw (CR2) and video (MOV) files can also be geotagged.

Using the software was pretty straightforward and fairly easy to master, since it is really just taking the place of a cabled connection. I was hoping the GPS feature would be a more complete replacement for the Canon PowerShot S100 having a GPS built-in, but having to leave my phone actively tracking my location the entire time I’m planning to use my camera isn’t a very good approach for long shooting days in the field or extended trips, as GPS chews through phone batteries.

What Canon should do to make its wireless capability great

If Canon could take a page from Nikon’s book and allow the application on the phone to actively control the camera and have realtime uploading of images, that would make a healthy competitor to high-end cameraphones. They don’t need to offer the remote viewing capability that Nikon does – that’d be icing on the cake – but a “shoot and share” mode is pretty essential if Canon wants its WiFi-enabled cameras to be more than glorified cable replacements.

The bottom line

It’s great that camera companies are working to embrace WiFi. If dedicated cameras are going to continue to be relevant in a world where nearly everyone has some type of camera phone, they will need to continue to embrace connectivity technologies. Both Nikon and Canon have taken some good first steps in this direction. Ultimately though, both products are really just teasers for what should be possible even with today’s technology, and just a small taste of what we should expect for connectivity options over the next few years. For Nikon owners lucky enough to own one of the models which support a WU adapter, the good news is that it is an inexpensive accessory which is a fun and useful addition to your camera bag. Canon users have a tougher choice. The venerable Canon PowerShot S100 has a great GPS built-in, while the Canon PowerShot S110 gives that up for WiFi. My full review of the S110 is still in progress, but based on what I’ve seen I’d be tempted to save the $120 price difference and purchase a Canon PowerShot S100 for about $330 instead of the Canon PowerShot S110 for $449.

Joined: 2009-03-12
Tip for anyone using a Nikon WU adapter

I found out (just after panicing myself) that if the adapter is on (and connected?) then you can't use the LCD on the back of the camera to review images. I had forgotten the adapter was in my D600 (it nestles down behind the L-plate, so you don't even notice it) and it must have automatically connected to one of the phones or tablets I was using with it, and I couldn't review any of my images. Pulling it out cures the problem, as you'd expect.


--David Cardinal Cardinal Photo

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