With the next iPhone revision theoretically only months away, attention is turning again to what we can expect in the form of updates. Obviously, we’re all looking forward to the fourth generation iPhone sporting an octocore A4 processor, 3D OLED HD screen and, naturally, Flux Capacitor. But the question on my lips is — what will Apple do with the camera? Because, let’s face it — something needs to be done.
Both the original iPhone and iPhone 3G sport a fixed-focus two megapixel camera. The iPhone 3GS offers a beefy 3.2 megapixel camera with auto focus, auto white balance and video recording. Even so, the camera in the 3GS is nothing to write home about.
As the saying goes, your best camera is the one you have on you, right now. Your Canon DSLR might have cost a small fortune and produce stunning photos, but it’s pretty much useless if it’s not within reach when you need it. When I leave my house it’s not always practical (or appropriate) to take my pro-kit with me (especially in London where everyone with a camera is considered a terrorist these days).
My iPhone is always where I happen to be. That means most of the time, day or night, my iPhone is the best camera I have. And that’s a pretty galling thought, given how limited it is.
And, I might as well mention now, before the inevitable backlash from fanboys defending Apple from even the tiniest criticism; it’s not an unforgivable crime to point out the iPhone’s failings, and that little camera has always been something of a disappointment.
Bigger Picture, More Noise
The obvious prediction I could make for the next iPhone is an upgrade to a five megapixel image sensor. Those sensors are cheap, they’re proven technology and they could fit into the existing iPhone form. But even if that happened, the results wouldn’t be much better than we get with the 3GS. Sure, they’d be bigger pictures, but they’d just contain more noise than ever before. Y’see, the problem is light; there’s just not enough of it, unless you’re standing outside on a bright sunny day.
In moderately low-light (indoors in your home, for instance) most cellphone cameras would struggle without a powerful flash. Significantly larger, more sensitive image sensors fare better without a flash, but due to their size (and the need for absolute rock-solid stillness when shooting) they tend not to find their way into cellphones.
Some might argue at this point (somebody almost always does) that I’m expecting too much. “If you want to take better photos,” goes the argument, “just use a real camera instead.”
Y’know, three years ago I was so impressed with everything else Apple had accomplished with the iPhone I’d have been inclined to agree. Today, however, my response is a Mosspuppet-inspired “Shut up!” You see, there is simply no reason Apple can’t vastly improve the camera in this device.
Three Steps to Camera Nerdvana
You just knew I had a list of suggestions, right?
One easy way to greatly improve the camera’s quality is to use an actual optical lens made from precision-ground glass rather than the current arrangement — a tiny blob of resin atop an image sensor. Just this one change alone would produce far higher-quality images. It would also increase the iPhone’s manufacturing cost, not to mention its waistline — can you see Steve Jobs approving that?
Most cellphone camera software is appalling. Even well-regarded megapixel handsets are often hobbled with fiddly, lackluster camera software (Nokia, anyone?) By comparison, the iPhone’s Camera app is light-years ahead of other manufacturers. And yet, it’s still really tricky hitting that button if you find you must use only one hand. Plus, a more sophisticated camera will demand more sophisticated configuration & shooting options which the current software simply doesn’t offer.
Ever noticed that awkward lag when launching the Camera app and waiting for the iris to open? Or the lag when you hit the ‘shutter release’? The delay is simply the time needed for the app to load into memory, for the auto-focus and white balance to do their thing and for images to be processed, geo-tagged and stored. It all makes sense, but boy could it use a speed-bump. Increasing the iPhone’s horsepower will help enormously, and if the iPad’s A4 processor proves anything, it’s that Apple knows how to make custom silicon that delivers impressive results while remaining power-efficient. We can only hope the next iPhone gets something like an A4…
As it stands, I get a little anxious when I have only my iPhone’s camera to rely on — it makes me feel like I have to settle for second-best those times when I can’t take my beloved Canon DSLR. But it doesn’t have to be this way. And now that Apple has perfected so much else that was once considered ‘wrong’ with the iPhone, it’s about time it focused (ahem) a little more on the camera.
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