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.

How to Evaluate Mobile Processors


Since this article was first written, an updated version has been posted here. Check it out. A lot has changed.

The Need for Speed

The HTC Rezound has a 1.5GHz processor making it one of the fastest smartphones

The processor is the engine behind your mobile device and determines its speed. Mobile processor speeds have been increasing quickly over the past few years. Today, most of the best smartphones have processors which are either 1.2GHz or 1.5GHz. The HTC Rezound and Samsung Galaxy S II HD LTE both have dual-core 1.5GHz processors. Processor speed isn’t the only thing that matters. The number of cores is important as well. Back in February, we saw the first smartphones ship with dual-core processors. Dual-core processors allow your mobile device to do more things at once without slowing down. They are also faster than single-core processors and this can result in a more responsive user interface. Over the next year, dual-core processor speeds are likely to top out around 1.7GHz. Although processor speeds will continue to increase, there are limits to how fast they can get. Mobile processors are beginning to face the same performance and power challenges desktop CPUs faced a few years ago. Demanding applications such as HD video playback and advanced gaming are stretching their capabilities. In order to further increase performance and stay within the available power limits, mobile devices will migrate to processors with more cores.

Apple iPhone 4S

HTC Rezound

HTC Titan

Motorola Droid RAZR

Samsung Galaxy S II

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket

800MHz dual-core

1.5 GHz dual-core

1.5 GHz single-core

1.2 GHz dual-core

1.2 GHz dual-core

1.2 GHz dual-core

1.5 GHz dual-core

Chart 1: A comparison of the processor speeds of popular smartphones

Four Can Do More

Like PCs, mobile devices will migrate from dual-core to quad-core. Quad-core makes even more sense on platforms like Android which allows multiple apps to run in the background. Having four different cores allows your phone (or tablet) to do more at once without slowing down. Tablets will be the first mobile devices to get quad-core processors.  The NVIDIA Tegra 3 will be the first quad-core processor available on mobile devices. NVIDIA says it has 2 to 5 times the processing power and 3 times the graphic performance of the Tegra 2. This will result in smoother graphics and better gaming performance. The Tegra 3 is also capable of 1440p video playback. That’s higher quality than you can watch on your HDTV. The Asus Transformer Prime will be the first tablet to ship with a Tegra 3 processor, but rumors are also circulating about quad-core tablets from Motorola and others. Smartphones won’t be left out of the party; phones with quad-core chips will be announced at CES in January.

The Asus Transformer Prime will have the first quad-core CPU

Most quad-core processors are more efficient and generate less heat than today’s dual-core chips. That will result in better performance and longer battery life. How much longer? NVIDIA says a Tegra 3 tablet should be able to provide 12 hours of HD video playback.  The first quad-core processor will be 1.3GHz, but speeds will increase to 2.5GHz next year. Those chips will be faster than some of the CPUs that ship with mid-priced home computers today. Of course, NVIDIA isn’t the only company making quad-core processors, Qualcomm, Apple and others will also launch products containing quad-core processors next year.

Amazon Kindle Fire

Apple iPad 2

Asus Transformer Prime

B&N Nook Tablet

HTC Jetstream

Motorola Xoom 2

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

1.0 GHz dual-core

1.0 GHz dual-core

1.3 GHz   quad-core

1.0 GHz dual-core

1.5 GHz dual-core

1.2 GHz dual-core

1.0 GHz dual-core

Chart 2: A comparison of the processor speeds of popular tablets
 

The Importance of the Graphics Co-processor

Some of the fastest phones have separate graphics co-processors, which can have a big impact on performance. Even though the iPhone 4S has a slower processor, it outperforms the Samsung Galaxy S II in some benchmarks. This occurs mainly because the iPhone 4S has a faster graphics coprocessor. See the chart below for details.

Even though the iPhone 4S has a much slower processor than the Samsung Galaxy II S, it outperforms it in some benchmarks. Chart courtesy of AnandTech

 

Final Thoughts

In summary, the speed of the CPU and GPU in your mobile device has a major impact on its performance. Dual-core processors almost always outperform single-core processors, and quad-core processors outperform dual-core processors. Although dual-core processor speeds are starting to slow down, quad-core speeds will improve substantially next year.  By the end of the year, quad-core processors will be found in most high-end tablets and smartphones due to their improved performance and extended battery life.

In case you’re wondering, my next post will discuss the importance of 4G on data performance speeds. Stay-tuned…

– Rick

Copyright 2011 Rick Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged.

How to Evaluate Mobile Displays


Since this article was first written, an updated version has been posted here. Check it out. A lot has changed.

In my last blog post I talked about the best mobile devices on the market today. This will be the first in a new series of posts that will help you evaluate each part of a smartphone or tablet. Since the display is the main interface to your mobile device, let’s start with it.

Bigger is Better

Three main parameters are used to specify the size and quality of a mobile display:

  1. Screen size measured diagonally in inches
  2. Screen width and height in pixels
  3. Screen density measured in pixels per inch (PPI)

The Samsung Galaxy Note has a much larger screen than the iPhone 4S

Today’s best smartphones have displays which are 4.3″ or larger. The largest screen available on a smartphone in the U.S. today is 4.7″ and can be found on the HTC Titan. Think that’s big? It is, but mobile displays are going to continue to get larger. The Samsung Galaxy Note, which was recently released in Europe, has a 5.3″ screen.  As screens get 6″ or larger, the line between smartphones and tablets will begin to blur and these devices may no longer fit into your pocket. Is it worth it? If you spent lots of time browsing the Web, playing games or working with business documents the answer could be yes.

Screen Size

Pixels (H x W)

Screen Density

Apple iPhone 4S

3.5”

960×640

326 PPI

HTC EVO 3D

4.3”

960×540

256 PPI

HTC Rezound

4.3”

1280×720

342 PPI

HTC Titan

4.7”

800×480

199 PPI

Motorola Atrix

4.0”

960×540

275 PPI

Motorola Droid 2

3.7”

854×480

264 PPI

Motorola Razr

4.3”

960×540

256 PPI

Samsung Galaxy S II

4.3” or 4.52”

800×480

217 PPI

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

4.65”

1280×720

316 PPI

Samsung Galaxy Note

5.3”

1280×800

285 PPI

Chart 1: A comparison of popular smartphone displays

Quality Matters Too!

The HTC Rezound has the highest resolution display available today.

Screen width and height is another popular measurement. Today the best smartphones have 1280×720 pixel displays. The Samsung Galaxy Note has an even larger 1280×800 display. Although the total number of pixels is important, it’s not the best indicator of screen quality. The density of pixels is what really matters.  The higher the pixel density, the more detail a screen can display. Although most people think the iPhone 4S has the highest pixel density, they are wrong. The HTC Rezound has a display with a higher pixel density than the iPhone 4S (342 vs. 326 ppi). Even better screens are on the way. Earlier in the year, Toshiba announced a 4-inch screen with a 367 PPI resolution. Pixel densities are likely to hit at least 386 in 2012.

It’s worth mentioning there is some debate over the ideal pixel density. Steve Jobs once said a device with a pixel density of 300 exceeds the limits of the human retina. However, some photographic experts say that number is too low. They believe the ultimate pixel density is 477 PPI. At that point, it’s said the pixels become invisible to an unaided human eye.

What About Tablets?

Screen resolution is one area where tablets can improve. The best tablets have screen densities below 200 while some smartphones have pixel densities higher than 300. Apple is known for their great displays. How does the iPad 2 compare to Android tablets? Let’s see: The iPad 2 has a 9.7″ screen with 1024×768 pixels. The Motorola Xoom has a 10.1″ screen with 1280×800 pixels. Which is better? The Motorola wins on all three categories: screen size, total number of pixels and screen density (with a pixel density of 160 PPI vs. 132 PPI). If you refer to the chart below, you’ll see there are five other Android tablets with even higher screen densities than the Motorola Xoom. Will we see higher resolution tablet screens next year? Definitely! The Lenovo LePad S2007 will have a 216 PPI display and tablets with 2560×1600 screens will be available some time in 2012. These tablets will have a screen density of at least 300 dpi.

Screen Size

Pixels (W x H)

Screen Density

Amazon Kindle Fire

7.0″

1024×600

169 PPI

Apple iPad 2

9.7″

1024×768

132 PPI

Asus Transformer

10.1″

1280×800

160 PPI

Asus Transformer Prime

10.1″

1280×800

149 PPI

B&N Nook Tablet

7.0″

1024×600

169 PPI

Motorola Droid XYBOARD 8.2

8.2″

1280×800

184 PPI

Motorola Xoom

10.1″

1280×800

160 PPI

OGT Eros Tablet

7.0″

N/A

188 PPI

Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0

7.0″

1024×600

171 PPI

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

10.1″

1280×800

149 PPI

Chart 2: A comparison of popular tablet displays

That’s Not All

Of course pixel density isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to screen quality. The color accuracy, color vibrancy, brightness, contrast ratio, black level and viewing angle are important as well. The durability also matters. Gorilla Glass screens are more damage resistant than regular displays. Gorilla Glass 2 screens are on the way, so watch for those.

Well, that wraps up my review of mobile screen technology. In my next post, I’ll write about the heart of every mobile device: Its processor.

Thanks for stopping by.

– Rick

Copyright 2011 Rick Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged.

The Ultimate Mobile Device (Updated Feb.)


Since this article was first written, an updated version has been posted here. Check it out. A lot has changed.

Although there are lots of great mobile devices available today, there is no one single device that is best at everything. It is possible to say which phone (or tablet) has the best display, processor and so on. After reading this article, you should be better prepared to purchase the ultimate mobile device based on your needs.

Best Mobile Display

Since the screen is the main interface to your mobile device, it’s very important. Although the size and total number of pixels matters, it’s the pixel density which determines the amount of detail you’ll see. More info.

The Galaxy Note is the the only smartphone with a 5.3" display

  • First place: The HTC Rezound has a 4.3” screen with 1280×720 pixels and a higher pixel density than the iPhone 4S (342 ppi vs. 326 ppi). The Windows Phone Lumia 900 is the most readable under bright light. More info.
  • Runner-up: The Samsung Galaxy Note has the largest screen you’ll find on a smartphone today. It’s an amazing 5.3” and has a record setting 1280×800 pixels. The reason it doesn’t come in first is because its pixel density is lower than the HTC Rezound. When it comes to tablets, the Samsung Galaxy series have some of the best displays available today, and pixel densities which are almost 30% higher than the iPad 2.
  • What to look for: A tablet with a 2560×1600 pixel screen will be available in 2012. Smartphones will get screens with pixel densities near 400 ppi as well. Also expect to see displays with polarized filters, that make screens more visible in direct sunlight.

Best Mobile Processor

The processor in your mobile device determines how fast your apps will run. Today’s best mobile devices have multi-core processors, which allow your device to do several things at once without slowing down. More info.

The Asus Transformer Prime was the first quad-core powered mobile device

  • First place: The ASUS Transformer Prime has an NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core processor which out performs every mobile device on the market today in most benchmarks.
  • Runner-up: The HTC Rezound, LG Nitro HD and Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket all have 1.5GHz dual-core processors. The HTC Jetstream tablet also has a 1.5GHz dual-core processor.
  • What to look for: Quite a few quad-core smartphones will be announced in Q1. Dual-core CPUs in smartphones will hit speeds of 1.8 GHz in 2012. Tablet processors will hit speeds of 2GHz in 2012, and could go as high as 2.5GHz.

Fastest Data Speeds

4G LTE devices are at least 5-10x faster than 3G devices

Data speeds have a significant impact on the perceived speed of your mobile device. Verizon claims 4G LTE speeds that are at least twice as fast as AT&T’s 4G HSPA+ phones and up to 12 times faster than 3G speeds. More info.

  • First place: LTE phones like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S II HD LTE win because they work on LTE networks and support both 2.5GHz and 5.0GHz Wi-Fi.
  • Runner-up: The HTC Rezound, Motorola Droid RAZR, Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, HTC  Jetstream and all other mobile devices which support LTE or WiMAX.
  • What to look for: Expect Apple’s iPhone to finally get LTE support in 2012.

Best Camera

Today’s best mobile devices have 8 megapixel rear cameras which are capable of taking surprisingly good-looking photos. Most have LED flashes and front-facing cameras for video conferencing.

The HTC Titan II will be the first phone with a 16MP camera

  • First place: Too close to call. The 12MP Nokia N8 wins on specs with its Carl Zeiss optics and a xenon flash, but it’s on a Symbian phone which is more than a year old. When it comes to smartphones with 8MP cameras, the iPhone 4S, HTC Amaze, HTC Sensation, HTC Titan, Samsung Galaxy S II and T-Mobile MyTouch Slide all take photos which rival some point-and-shoot cameras. The Samsung Galaxy 10.1V tablet comes in first because of its 8MP camera. Unfortunately, this model is only available in Europe.
  • Runner-up: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus has a stellar light sensor and almost no shutter lag when taking photos in rapid succession. The BlackBerry PlayBook and HTC Flyer also deserve recognition because they have 3-MP front-facing cameras.
  • What to look for: The HTC Titan II will be released in March with the first 16-megapixel camera! Fujitsu is also releasing a 13.1MP camera capable of ISO 25,600. Expect to see a camera with a xenon flash and optical zoom later this year as well. Future tablets will also be capable of 1440p video playback.

Most Internal Storage

The Archos 70 has 250GB of storage

Today most mobile devices have only 16 or 32 MB of internal storage. Unfortunately that is not enough storage for a large media library.

  • First place: The Archos 70 tablet has an internal 250GB hard drive.
  • Runner-up:  The Apple iPhone 4S, Nokia N8 and Nokia N9 are all available with 64GB of internal storage.
  • What to look for:  Expect to see more tablets which have lightning-fast solid-state drives like the Asus Eee Slate.

Most Powerful Battery

Today’s fastest mobile devices require more power than ever. Especially those with high processor speeds and power-hungry LTE radios. That’s why we’re seeing mobile devices with more powerful batteries.

The HTC Jetstream has a 7300 mAh battery

  • First place: The HTC Jetstream has a 7300 mAh battery, which is the most powerful battery available in a stock mobile device today.
  • Runner-up:  Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (7000 mAh). The Droid RAZR Maxx has the most powerful battery in a smartphone today. At 3300mAh, this phone has a talk time of 21.5 hours and a standby time of approx. 15.8 days.
  • What to look for in the near future:  Expect to see even more powerful batteries in mobile devices, and the ability to add a second battery to some tablets.

Thinnest Case

Today’s best mobile devices are incredibly thin and light.

The Droid Razr is the World's Thinnest LTE Smartphone

  • First place: The 6.68mm Huawei Ascend P1S is technically now the world’s thinnest smartphone. It’s effectively tied with the Fujitsu Arrows F-07D which comes in at 6.7mm. Too bad neither phone is available in the U.S. and both don’t support LTE. The 7.1mm Motorola Droid RAZR is the thinnest LTE smartphone. The 7.0mm OGT Eros is supposed to be the world’s thinnest tablet but it has yet to be released.
  • Runner-up:  The 8.3 mm ASUS Transformer Prime is the thinnest tablet available in the U.S today.
  • What to look for in future cases:  Expect to see more mobile devices which can be submerged in water. Fujitsu’s new quad-core phone can be submerged 1.5 meters for up to 30 minutes.

The Final Word

It’s a given that technology will always get better over time, but we’ve seen unprecedented improvements in mobile devices over the past year. Today’s best smartphones blow away some of those which were released earlier. If you’re eligible for an upgrade, you should consider some of the devices covered in this article. As you can see, there isn’t a single mobile device that is best at everything. You should pick your next smartphone or tablet based on the things which matter most to you.

Update: Since this article was last updated, a chart listing the best smartphones was published here.

Copyright 2011-2012 Rick Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged.