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Summary:

They say the best camera you own is the one you have on you right now. So, unless you habitually carry a high-end DSLR on your person everywhere you go, your best camera is likely your iPhone. And that’s not exactly something to brag about, given […]

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They say the best camera you own is the one you have on you right now. So, unless you habitually carry a high-end DSLR on your person everywhere you go, your best camera is likely your iPhone. And that’s not exactly something to brag about, given how disappointing the iPhone camera can be.

That might be changing. According to AppleInsider, Apple is in the market for an LED flash manufacturer:

Apple in recent months has moved to procure significant quantities of LED camera flash components that could help the iPhone maker’s next-generation mobile handsets produce superior image and video captures in low-light situations.

People familiar with Apple’s initiative claim the electronics maker is seeking allotments of LED camera flash components in the tens of millions for delivery during the 2010 calendar year, meaning future iPhones — and possibly the iPod touch — are the most likely recipients of those parts, due to their sales volume. Those same people say that Philips’ Lumileds Lighting sector is believed to be the front-runner for Apple’s business and may have already secured the design win.

It’s all good news, of course, but I won’t hold my breath. It took two years for Apple to upgrade the iPhone camera in any significant manner, and even now with the 3GS 3.2 megaxpixels and video recording, the camera is still a colossal waste of time.

The 3GS might be the fastest iPhone yet, but the camera app is still painfully slow. If you’re taking an impulse shot with your iPhone (let’s say your cat is doing something unbelievably hilarious and you really must capture it right now, this second) the chances are you’re going to miss the moment. The virtual iris takes an age to ‘open’ as the camera app (and all its auto-stabilizing algorithms) are loaded into memory. And then there’s the issue with light; unless your cat is doing its unbelievably hilarious thing in the garden, and it’s a blazingly-bright sunny day, and it’s not moving around very much, you’re unlikely to get a good photo. Frankly, the iPhone makes for a lousy point-and-shoot camera.

“But I didn’t buy my iPhone to take pictures,” you might say, “That’s what I have a real camera for!” And that’s true… except for those times when you don’t have your ‘real’ camera on you. And it is those moments — when your iPhone takes just long-enough to be roused to readiness that your cat loses interest and wanders off — that you curse Steve Jobs and all who work for him.

I’ve always found this paradoxical; for a company that prides itself on not making crappy products, that strives to guarantee a rewarding user experience time after time, it has given us consistently rubbish camera functionality in what is, without a doubt, one of its highest profile products.

Turning Point

I’m hopeful that, if true, this rumor marks a turning point, and that Apple is focusing (pun intended) on the camera hardware and really aiming (sorry!) to do something worthwhile with the camera on the next iPhone. The expected upgrade would be a five megapixel sensor with a super-bright LED flash. Other mobile handsets (such as the Motorola Droid and the Nexus One) already offer these specs, while Nokia and Sony Ericsson have been producing decent camera-phones for some years now. But what if Apple was to surprise us and really upgrade the camera with something far more compelling; how about a real glass optical assembly — not a cheap blob of resin atop a CCD? Or what about greatly-updated, super-responsive camera software that puts even dedicated point-and-shoot cameras to shame?

Of course, a significantly improved camera means larger hardware, and Apple is never going to tolerate a noticeable increase in the iPhone’s dimensions. After all, rightly or wrongly, the perceived benchmark for consumer electronics progress is about getting things smaller, thinner and lighter.

A Difficult Place

AppleInsider adds:

[Rumors indicate Apple] has placed orders with OmniVision, its current supplier of CMOS image sensors, for as many as 45 million 5-megapixel parts for the next-generation of the handset due by late spring. The company is also likely to leverage the iPhone’s ambient light sensor, in addition to providing a software switch, to ensure that the LED flash won’t interfere in photos where it isn’t needed. […] And since the same LED flash can also be operated as a continuous light source, it would be suitable for proving light to enhance iPhone video recordings as well — not to mention closing the book on the numerous, dinky iPhone flashlight apps proliferating the App Store.

Apple is now in a difficult place with the iPhone. The company is committed to its traditional vision of producing products that are functional and beautiful, and it simply won’t compromise on style; if an improved camera means a bigger iPhone, it just won’t improve the camera until the technology fits its desired form factor. But, in the meantime, that leaves customers frustrated that their super-expensive ‘smart’ phones aren’t nearly as smart as the competition.

  1. Most reviewers, and me based on my photos, I’d say the iPhone 3GS is the best mobile camera available. I’ve seen sample shots taken with the Nexus One, Palm Per and Droid and the iPhone is the best.

    3rd party apps make the iPhone even better as I have about 12 of them installed on my iPhone right now.

    LED flash generally overexposes the image because it doesn’t adjust or compensate for actual lighting like even cheap point and shoot cameras do. It’s on or off or at least that’s what i’ve seen on Blackberry and HTC LED Flash models.

    My point is, Apple would have to do a great job for me to ever use an LED flash because the iPhone camera is great in everything but pitch darkness (think dance clubs).

    I don’t think LED flash is the answer for anyone outside of casual photo takers. Professionals will all agree that ISO and Exposure time APIs in OS 4.0 would be better put to use by third party developers than an LED flash would.

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  2. Don’t understand how you can say the iPhone 3GS camera is “a colossal waste of time”. Sure, it’s not as good as a DSLR or a quality point-and-shoot or even as good as some other camera phones, but it takes decent pictures and video on the spot (the best camera is the one you have and all that).

    And I don’t find it slow at all. Two quick hits on my HOME button (you can set this up in SETTINGS) and the iPhone camera is up and running in about 2 seconds. There are also free apps which lets you quickly snap 3 pics in a row.

    There’s lots of room for improvement and I’m sure the next gen iPhone will not only have a flash, but lots of other innovations.

    People love shooting pics on their iPhone. I believe it’s the most used camera on Flickr and some of the shots are outstanding.

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  3. Just one more whiny post from TAB… I’m beginning to think these guys’ goal is to spout off enough link-bait that they make Dvorak look well balanced.

    At any rate, the 3GS’s camera app isn’t really that much different from the competitors that Liam is whining about, according to most it takes better pictures, and the 3GS is far from ‘super expensive’ in this field.

    All of the current crop of smartphones take several seconds to load up the camera app and get ready to shoot, it’s just the way it is right now.

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  4. Here I was so glad I captured all those fleeting family moments because I always had a video camera in my pocket, and now I learn it was all a waste of time.

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  5. Even without illumination, I just wish they’d have the volume buttons remap as shutter buttons when the camera is active.

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  6. I don’t think any camera on any phone I’ve had let me point-and-shoot like a real camera. It doesn’t help that because taking pics isn’t its primary function, you have to open it up the function first. That’s just the nature of it though. I’m content with it being a phone first and doing everything else second.

    The fact that it doesn’t have a flash DEFINITELY bites though. It actually doesn’t make much sense. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I I have an inkling that it was intentionally left off the phone because Apple knew it would sell regardless. This would allow for much more incremental upgrades to their heart’s content. As with any company they are likely working, to some degree, on the 5th, 6th and maybe even 7th editions of the phone along with the impending 4th.

    Who knows, maybe #7 will have jet rockets.

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  7. pity, you have no clue about what you are talking about. The iPhone camera, as basic and average as it is, is frequently rated the best phone camera by those in the know.

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  8. What would be cool is to make the apple logo on the back as a small screen. Move the camera to the front, the screen becomes the flash (varying the brightness with the ambient light sensor) and the apple logo becomes the viewfinder. Solves all the issues and you can video conference with the same cam if you want.

    That would be fun!! I wonder if Apple is hiring?

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  9. What a shame that none of the commenters criticizing Liam seem to actually have read the post. I agree completely about the slowness of the camera app. If I wanted to take a picture of something on the phone I had before my iPhone, which was a W810i, I could do it in a second and with a single click, and I got quality which was not markedly different—not to mention that that was four years ago. Granted I still have a 3G and not a 3GS, but Apple does seem to be behind the times with its mobile camera, or at least not “ahead” of the times, which is something we’ve come to expect from it. The current trend does seem to be that when the market is already saturated with X megapixel cameras, and X+ megapixel cameras are starting to appear, Apple’s new iPhone will have an X megapixel, not an X+ megapixel, sensor. By the sounds of it, this will not change with the next iPhone: a 5 mpx camera with an LED flash in the summer of 2010 is hardly thinking differently at all.

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  10. I agree 100% with this article. If Apple wants to include a camera in the phone, then make it a decent one. Then again, all the webcams in their products suck big time. I use a logitech one with awesome quality. Not sure what’s up with Apple and cameras, be it the point-and-shoot kind or webcams. Gives us quality!

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  11. All in all, the iPhone is the breakthrough smartphone of it’s time. Granted the camera app is slower than we’d like, the flash would be great in low light conditions and it would be great to have a 5 MP sensor (or better), but the iPhone is so much more than a phone with a camera. Not enough credit is given to Apple for pushing the envelope, despite their high profit margin and preparatory nature. I’m thankful for the nail apple put in the same old flip-phone and the sorry so-call smart phone that dominated prior to it’s arrival.

    Now at least there is some real innovation going on. BTW, CMOS sensors and LED flash is expensive, and Steve’s got a family to feed.

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  12. “Proprietary nature”

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  13. Camera on the iPhone? How about Apple catch up and put one on
    the iTouch as well … plus an internal microphone for video recording
    and voice messages?

    Come on Apple even though the iTouch was released as a “new” upgrade in Fall 2009 … we all know the camera was supposed to go in, but there were manufacturing issues that prevented that. So since the iTouch 2G, there really haven’t been any TRUE hardware upgrades to the iTouc for almost two years now!

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