How to Evaluate Smartphone Cameras

The Motorola XT928 (Dinara) is the world's first 13MP camera phone

A 13 Megapixel Camera Phone?

Today’s best smartphones have 5 to 8-megapixel (MP) rear-facing cameras  which take surprisingly good pictures. 8MP is impressive, but 13-megapixel camera phones like the Motorola XT928 are available today in China (and soon in the U.S). Unfortunately, most tablets are way behind smartphones when it comes to camera technology. The iPad 2 has one of the worst cameras, while the iPhone 4S has one of the best. Both of the cameras in the iPad 2 are less than one megapixel and take horrible looking photos and video. What were they thinking? The good news is, cameras in tablets are starting to improve. The HTC Jetstream has an 8MP camera.

The HTC Jetstream was the first tablet with an 8MP camera.

Newer phones also have front-facing cameras which are used for video chat and other applications. For example, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus uses its front-facing camera to unlock the phone after it recognizes your face. Today, most front-facing cams are only 1.3 to 2.0 megapixels, but there are some exceptions — like the BlackBerry PlayBook, which has a 3MP front-facing camera.

Where are the Xenon Flashes?

The camera flash is another area which is improving. Some mobile devices have dual-LED flashes which put out more light than a single LED. A Xenon flash puts out even more light than a dual-LED flash. Although no smartphones have Xenon flashes today, a Xenon flash was first seen on a Sony Ericsson camera back in 2009.

Phones like the HTC Evo 3D have dual-LED flashes

Face detection is another feature which is present on many newer camera phones. It ensures the selected face is in focus. What’s needed now is image stabilization and an optical zoom. Optical zoom is a must for both photos and video. That’s why it’s so surprising none of the popular smartphones available in the U.S. have it. A company called Altek has a 14-megapixel camera with a 3x optical zoom that could rival some point-and-shoot cameras.

Now that’s a lens!

Although 3D cameras may be a gimmick, they’re fun to play around with. Phones like the HTC EVO 3D can take 2-megapixel 3D photos today.

More than Megapixels

There’s evidence that megapixels alone aren’t the best indicator of photo quality. The iPhone 4 only has a 5-megapixel camera, but takes higher-quality photos than some Android phones with 8-megapixel cameras. One reason for this could be the fact it has a better lens. Let’s hope manufacturers pay attention to this important detail.

One of the most talked about features of the Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0 is its lack of shutter lag. With this feature, you can take pictures as fast as you can touch the shutter button. Keep in mind this only works when auto-focus isn’t needed.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus has a stellar light sensor and almost no shutter lag when taking photos in rapid succession.

Easy Panoramas for All

Although panorama apps have been available for years, this feature is now standard on all devices with Android 4.0. After panorama mode is enabled, you just need to press the shutter button while you pan to the left or right. When you’re done, the images are automatically stitched together. Now Anyone Can Take Great Looking Panorama Shots

Making Movies

Video recording is another area which can be improved in smartphones. The iPhone 4 records video at 720p, but displays it on a 640-pixel screen. The iPhone 4S and most of the new Android phone phones (e.g. HTC Rezound, Motorola Droid RAZR, all Samsung Galaxy phones) record video at 1080p. 3D video recording is improving as well. The HTC EVO 3D can record 3D 720p videos. In the not so distant future, phones and tablets will also support Dolby Digital.

The iPhone 4S can now record 1080p video

Microphone quality is another area that can be enhanced. The Droid X’s camcorder has three microphones and four different audio recording modes.

Running Out of Space?

Storage can be a problem for those who take lots of pictures and movies. Some phones on have 16 or 32GB of storage and that’s not enough for some users. Expandable storage is available today on most Android devices, but many limit this to 32GB. Those who need more than this, should consider devices with hybrid or solid-state disk (SSD) drives which provide up to 250MB of storage. Because SSD drives have no moving parts, they are up to 2 to 5 times faster than conventional hard drives. Because these devices are larger, initially, they will only be available with tablets.

The Last Word

The cameras found in the best mobile devices take photos in good light which look surprisingly good. In some cases, they look similar to those taken with a point-and-shoot camera. Although a good DSLR still has it’s place, you can’t beat the convenience of camera phones and the quality of their photos continues to improve.

Thanks to @rossrubin for pointing out that camera phones with optical zooms are available in Japan.
Copyright 2011 Rick Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged.

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About Rick E. Schwartz
Rick Schwartz is blogger from San Diego. You can learn more about Rick by clicking on the "About" tab at the top of mostly-tech.com.

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