The Megapixel War's New Frontier: Cameraphones

There's a rumor going around about an upcoming cellphone from Samsung, due to be unveiled at Mobile World Congress, that possesses a 12-megapixel camera. Let's all give Samsung a round of applause for opening the megapixel war's newest battlefront: cameraphones.

We all remember the bad old days when digital cameras were new and manufacturers touted an ever-expanding sensor megapixel count, trying to out-do competitors and themselves with each successive device. "More megapixels equals better" was roughly the battle cry shouted at the consumer, who, at that time, was just getting to know the technology. Undoubtedly people fell victim, and spent more cash than they'd been planning to for a camera with a sensor that could record more pixels.

And now it looks like the same thing is happening with cellphones. Three or four years ago, we were all happy with 2-megapixel cameras embedded into our phones—it was enough to get a pretty good picture, record a VGA-resolution movie, basically capture moments you'd otherwise never photograph because you take your cellphone to more places than your camera. But then the megapixel count began to creep higher.

There was the 5-megapixel LG KG920 and Sony Ericsson K850. Then Grundig's X5000 upped the stakes with 6 megapixels. Samsung's SCH-V770 pushed the figure to 7. Some kind of barrier was then broken and over the last year or so there was a flurry of 8-megapixel devices: the Sony Ericsson C905, the LG KC780 and KC910, the Samsung SPH-V8200—which was reportedly the first—and many others.

And that's crazy. How many consumers print out their images bigger than a standard letter-sized piece of paper? Not many, I'll bet, and you need only around a 6- to 7-megapixel image for that task—anything higher adds detail you'll simply never see. For the standard 6 x 4-inch photo, about 5-megapixels will do. And that's just printing them out: To show photos on the HDTVs now gracing everyone's home you need a maximum of 2.1-megapixels, and the average digital photoframe will do VGA resolution—that's 640 x 480, or only 0.3-megapixels.

And now 12-megapixel phones are on the way, and history says they'll probably cost more than the 8-megapixel ones. Samsung should do the consumer a favor, declare a truce, and spend all that R&D money improving the optics, autofocus and flash on the poor-performing models we already have, and let the consumer buy a cellphone that takes great photos, irrespective of how many pixels it has.

[Unwiredview via Engadget]

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  • Kit Eaton

    @James: :-) A good consensus. The issue with CMOS and CCD sensors is that currently tech just doesn't have the dynamic sensitivity range of good old wet chemistry film--even with high-end pro cameras. I occasionally miss that when shooting in high-contrast situations, where you lose both detail in the shadows and in the high-brightness areas. Of course there're the joys of HDR imaging to explore as a result...

  • James Shewmaker

    @Kit - We are in agreement on the poor quality both of the processing and optic hardware. We both agree that the average mobile customer is not very camera savvy. We both agree that the manufacturers need to refocus their R&D priorities - but I still contend that a 10-12 megapixel camera-phone is not crazy. However, if they go any higher without improving the camera and the chip, I will join your chorus.

    My pet peeve about point and click digitals is the tendency to blow out the brights to Hex #FFFFFF. With Film, unless a bright point is caused either by a light source or a "into the lens" directed reflection of light you get some color/hue info with RGB 255 you get nothing.

  • Kit Eaton

    @James. Agreed... but I think it's more of a question of the scale of use: very few people take the time to do more than a cursory crop of a photo. And with the numbers of megapixels we're talking about, and the size of the average photo print-out, the lost pixels aren't really much of an issue.

    Plus my final point is what really should be directed at cameraphone makers: improving the camera tech from poor meniscus lenses and miniscule apertures. One problem it's going to be tricky to overcome is that by cramming more pixels onto the tiny slice of CMOS chip that'll fit in a cameraphone you're not necessarily improving image quality--that action itself compromises many aspects of the resulting image.

  • James Shewmaker

    I disagree quite strenuously with some of the assumptions which are made by Kit Eaton in this article.

    Before I get to my disagreements, permit me to state that I agree with Kit Eaton that the number of pixels which a digital camera is capable of producing does NOT provide a highly reliable benchmark for making assumptions regarding the quality of the picture that the camera produces.

    However, Mr. Eaton assumes that the photo will be printed "as is." The proliferation of extremely low-end and free graphic editor applications allows even the most amateur of photo takers to crop a photo. Many amateurs desire as much leeway as possible for improper framing of their source shot.

    Secondly, for those who are less amateur, there are more sophisticated methods of correcting such things as color casts which benefit highly from having as much information about the surrounding area as possible. Even if I am only planning to use a 2400 by 2400 cropping for an 8 x 8 print, I frequently use neutrals outside of the final crop as reference points for correction work.

    James Shewmaker
    Qwerty Electronic and Internet Publishing