Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Easily compare cameras with Snapsort

A short while ago, I needed to buy a compact digital camera to take with me on my trip to Spain. My previous camera was kludgy, old, and I wasn't generally happy with the output quality, so deciding to upgrade was easy.

However, choosing a new camera to purchase was not so simple. Digital photography and feature sets have advanced considerably in the past few years (perhaps spurred by competitive innovation in the mobile-phone camera space?), and manufacturers now offer a wide plethora of different models with varying capabilities.

In 2004 Barry Schwartz wrote a popular book called The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In his book Schwartz argues that too much choice can be inimical, leading to decision paralysis and second-guessing. In modern Western economies, we celebrate the number of choices available to us in the marketplace as being a testament to our freedom and autonomy. Unfortunately, reveals Schwartz, this overwhelming swathe of choices contributes to psychological tension and unhappiness.

The disturbing prospect of possible buyer's remorse weighs heavily on consumers: We worry that we might choose non-optimally; there might have been a better product available, a more satisfying option. Our expectations are set too high and we stress out about possible opportunity costs.

This phenomenon vigorously manifests itself in the world of digital cameras. There are hundreds of models to select from. The accompanying marketing verbiage makes each one sound like the most incredible technological artifact you could possibly imagine -- until you read the next description. How could I pick out the camera that was right for me?

I didn't have a lot of time to make my decision: the trip was coming up fast and I needed to act. Comparing camera technical specifications and reading dozens of reviews on the internet was melting my brain into a hazy fog of insensibility. The paradox of choice was exhausting.

I happened to stumble across a handy product-comparison site, Snapsort.

Summary: Snapsort is a great site for comparing cameras. * 

It has a simple, succinct, clean layout (almost too clean -- some pages look a little sparse). It works quickly. It highlights the relative strengths and weaknesses of selected cameras, in an apparently neutral fashion. It lets you compare any camera to any other camera. It has discussion areas for each camera, and useful articles about digital photography topics (e.g. understanding resolution).

Easily compare and contrast camera models with Snapsort

A recently added feature is a 'Videos' section, where links to video samples as well as external video reviews and tutorials for the selected model are posted. Users can also suggest or contribute related video content from YouTube. It's a clever idea which works well for most cameras.

There are a couple of areas which could be improved.

The price comparison feature is presently weak: it doesn't seem to aggregate data from a significant number of sources -- at least not in Canada (I can garner broader results from shopbot or photoprice, which often come up in google searches for camera names). Their biz dev guy should get working on building some more relationships with local vendors that also ship.

The other area relates to the aforementioned Videos section. As I said it's a clever idea, but honestly it wasn't what I was expecting. It needs to leverage more content. I should give them the benefit of the doubt I suppose; maybe they just haven't had a lot of time to populate the database with videos.

If I were to speculate as to the design intent for the tab, confining the content to videos allows Snapsort to keep users on the site, and to summarize and present the content in an attractive manner. However, what I kept thinking I was looking for, was a curated set of links to external in-depth reviews from major third parties, e.g. CNET,, Engadget, and so forth. Not just videos. Stickiness in user navigation shouldn't override the value of linked content. In any case, they should consider partnering with other sites for access to additional external data sources and reviews. Perhaps a separate 'Reviews' tab?

In short I found Snapsort to be excellent for comparing and contrasting the technical specifications and quantifiable metrics of different cameras -- but less obviously useful for discovering expert qualitative opinions and assessments.

I'm curious to see whether in the future they'll expand their offering to cover other product types, like cars or televisions or mobile phones and tablets. Roughly speaking the underlying engine would be the same, just the field labels (and obviously the content!) would be different. I'm not sure what their ultimate business model is going to be like; right now it seems to be affiliate partner driven, as well as sporting the occasional advertisement. But I hope that they succeed. Maybe they'll stick to the photography niche -- it depends how big their vision is.

To end the story, I used Snapsort to help winnow down the field to a manageable set of candidate cameras. It was a huge time-saver. And the shots I took in Spain, from the camera I eventually bought, weren't too shabby either.

Trundling down to the local store and physically handling camera models should still be part of a disciplined evaluation process, but if you're doing research online, Snapsort is a solid, handy tool for comparing cameras -- and for battling the paradox of choice.

* Snapsort also happens to be a Waterloo startup housed in the Accelerator Centre. I grew up in that town, and my present company maintains an ongoing relationship with the University of Waterloo, so I feel a strong affinity for companies based in that region. Go Waterloo!