Quality of Cameras in Phones

The discussion in the comments on my post about a mobile phone for Sysadmin use [1] turned to the issue of picture quality. This is an issue for a sysadmin as photographing the screen of a crashed computer while being a rare occurrence can be an important part of solving a computer problem.

Lon recommended a review of phone cameras by the Norwegian site Amobil [2]. This review only included devices that had already passed earlier review, so even the HTC Desire HD (which came last on the Amobil tests) still has a better camera than most phones on the market. It’s a pity that no English-language site seems to have done such a review.

The Amobil article (when translated) says: “In the mobile industry is faced with the need for much extra processing for the images to look good, because there is no room for large optics and large image sensors that receive sufficient amount of light”.

IMHO that’s overstating the case. I have yet to see a camera-phone that couldn’t be redesigned in a trivial way to give a better camera functionality. It appears that the limiting factor is the thickness of phone which limits the maximum focal length and therefore the maximum area (I presume it’s safe to assume that Fresnel lenses are not viable for cameras). My LG U990 Viewty is 14.8mm thick, I would be happy with something a bit thicker if it gave a better picture, 30mm wouldn’t be a problem (my first few mobile phones were thicker than that and had no camera). Maybe a design could have the camera stick out such that the main body of the phone was 15mm thick while the camera part was 30mm. Also having the camera in a central part of the phone (underneath the touch-screen) probably loses at least 1mm of focal length. It seems that the amount of light captured will be the square of the focal length, so an ideal (IMHO) camera design could have twice the depth of a Viewty, 4* the light captured, and therefore have an 8MP camera with a better response in adverse light than the Viewty (which is pretty good for a phone but crap for a camera).

I noted in the comments that it’s a pity that camera-phones don’t support storing pictures in RAW format, Paul pointed out that the Nokia N900 supports RAW pictures. I’m glad to learn that at least one phone-camera manufacturer is doing the sane thing, now we just need to have RAW pictures as a check-list item on reviews to force others to do the same. I wonder whether a modified version of the Android OS could support RAW format…

Amobil published an article about some joint ventures between camera and phone companies [3]. Apparently LG are working on a phone with 3* Optical Zoom that uses Pentax optics, while the Olympus camera company is considering the purchase of a phone company with the apparent aim of producing a killer camera-phone.

I wonder whether I should delay the purchase of my next phone for a few months to take advantage of some of these developments. If nothing else I expect some significant improvements in the screen resolution of phones in the near future. The maximum screen resolution that is common at the moment is 800*480 (WVGA), but the iPhone 4 supports 960*640 resolution which is 60% more pixels and I expect other manufacturers to release phones to compete with it in the near future.

3 comments to Quality of Cameras in Phones

  • Aigarius

    Well, there is the Nokia N8 which they designed with the great camera functionality in mind.

  • hardy

    Interesting. I’ve actually been very impressed with the quality of pictures taken by my N900, considering it is such a small device. I just took a picture of this blog-post on my laptop’s 1440×900 screen and the fonts are easily readable, even if not that smooth. I estimate the font size to be 7.2 pt on a 14″ screen.

  • etbe

    Aigarius: The N8 does have a great camera, they won the comparison in the Amobil article I cited. It’s unfortunate that the N8 only has a 360*640 display compared to 480*800 in the Desire HD, 480*850 in several other phones, and 960*640 in the iPhone 4. That means either 67%, 77%, or 167% more pixels respectively.

    If you want to take good pictures and look at them on the go (which will be a common use of a camera phone) then a good display is nice. If you want to do sysadmin work on your phone and have a ssh session (or even multiple sessions) in display then it’s even more important to have a high resolution. But I agree that the N8 is a really great phone for some users. But the N9 (or whatever) will be a lot better.

    Hardy: I can take a picture of the 1680*1050 display in my Thinkpad with my LG U990 Viewty and the screen is all readable including an Xterm with a monospace 8 point font. The Viewty had one of the best cameras available in a phone when I bought it. But it is technically possible to do a lot better.