Smartphone Camera Quality Conundrum

3/31/2014 Stephen Colbert 0 Comments


Last year, HTC took a bold (and controversial) step out of the camera specs arms race with the launch of the HTC One family and accompanying UltraPixel camera branding.  The move asserted that image quality is not exclusively tied to resolution (in the same way that the Blue Ray copy Green Lantern with Ryan Renolds is not a better movie than the DVD).

The assertion has grounding.  If most pictures are being downsized for Instagram or Snapchat, then it doesn't make sense for a camera to prioritize mega-pixels anyway.

So, HTC releases their new flagship, the HTC One (M8) and it is vastly improved across the board, except for the camera.  There were definitely changes to the camera, but not anything that directly effects image quality.  The statement they are making by maintaining that course is that image quality is reaching a plateau and image functionality (after effects, sharability, etc) is more important.  I would agree with that.

This is an area where many in the tech media might lose perspective due to the nature of the industry.  First of all, I recognize that a camera such as the HTC One (M8) is insufficient for many people.  Some people legitimately need more than a 4MP "UltraPixel" camera and unfortunately, those people would fall outside of the HTC One's target demographic.

Lets look back at some other camera phones for some perspective, though.  Go read some reviews for cameras for phones like the iPhone 4s, the Samsung Galaxy SII, or the HTC EVO.  They all had overwhelmingly good reviews for the camera.  It may sound laughable to compare reviews for 2-3+ old devices to a brand new device, but like I said.  Perspective.

The bar has been raised, but if a camera like the one found on the iPhone 4S was sufficient at the time, then is it now insufficient, or merely not the best?

This also calls into question what a user is trying to replace with their mobile phone.  In the olden days, many people would need a PDA, a cell phone, and a separate camera in order to cover a portion of the functionality a modern smartphone provides.  Phones have grown to completely swallow the PDA market and some of the point-and shoot-camera market, but still can't replace a good DSLR.

It is quite easy to find a better quality camera than the best smartphone camera.  This is done by getting a shooter that isn't built into a phone using a physically tiny sensor.  Professional photography isn't being challenged by smartphone cameras (at least in a serious way) just yet.

It's sort of a paradox for camera quality to be a make or break feature of a smartphone.  If you absolutely must have the best image capturing device, then you are fooling yourself by carrying a smartphone.  If image quality is so important as to make other features and qualities of a device moot, then wouldn't you be best served by carrying a real camera?

So that brings us back to the question.  What do you need from a smartphone camera?  You can't beat a DSLR or high end point-and-shoot camera in terms of quality,  but can beat it with portability, functionality, and connectivity.

If what you need is high quality images, you shouldn't be seeking answers in a smartphone camera in the first place.  If you want good pictures that can easily be edited with cool effects and shared with your friends and family?  The HTC One is perfectly capable of filling that need.

Oh, and by the way... You can still take beautiful pictures on a 4MP camera.


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