The ABCs of camera phone technology

How good is the camera that comes with your new smartphone? We explain the technology and what you should look for.

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Image formats. Camera phones typically shoot JPG and nothing but, with compression levels and image post-processing fixed at the factory. Standalone cameras -- DSLRs in particular -- can shoot images in the uncompressed RAW image format, which are direct copies of whatever comes from the image sensor (and which are usually preferred by serious photographers).

Network connectivity and geotagging. One clear advantage that phone cameras have is network connectivity: Any pictures taken can be automatically uploaded to the service of your choice, with geolocation data automatically embedded in the picture courtesy of the phone's GPS. The Eye-Fi SD card solves some of these problems for standalone cameras. Add the card to a camera, and photos taken from that camera can be automatically uploaded via Wi-Fi to the computer or online service of your choice.

Video. Mobile phones have been able to shoot video for some time, albeit primitively. The first mobile phones able to shoot full HD 1080p video, like Apple's iPhone 4S, are now on the market, which in theory puts them on a par with standalone cameras that can do the same. That said, image quality is still limited by the optics and the video compression in the device.

Separation of functions. Some people just prefer to have their phone and their camera as separate devices. If one is lost or damaged, it can be replaced independently of the other, and each can also be upgraded independently of the other.

The future of camera phones

There's little reason to doubt that camera phones will continue to pack in the megapixels, but be on the lookout for other technological improvements that will matter at least as much, if not more, than sensor sizes.

Polaroid

The Polaroid SC1630 is more of a camera with an Android interface than an Android phone with a camera included.

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First: form and function. Phones such as the Polaroid SC1630 are attempts to create a new form factor and functionality niche. Currently planned to have no cellular access, the SC1630 won't be a true phone at all, but a 16-megapixel device with 3X optical zoom that offers Wi-Fi connectivity and a touchscreen interface that you can load up with Android apps.

The SC1630 is due to ship later in 2012. Future models in the same vein could serve as a replacement not only for point-and-shoot cameras, but for mini-tablet-style devices as well.

We can also look forward to new optical technologies, which will make the limits of the form factor less constraining. Consider liquid lens technology, which uses voltages to change the shapes (and thus the focal behavior) of electrosensitive fluids inside a capsule. According to manufacturer Optilux, liquid lenses also use less power and focus faster than conventional voice-coil focusing technology (the technology used to drive the focusing system for a camera lens). Optilux has plans on the table to introduce the technology into cellphones sometime next year.

Lens tech
Liquid-lens technology uses electrosensitive liquids instead of solid optics. Image courtesy of Optilux.

The technical limitations against pro-level features, like 1080p video or RAW-format imaging (currently available in DSLRs), are also vanishing. What remains to be seen is if there's enough of a market within the camera-phone user base for those functions -- in other words, whether they'll be a selling point for high-end camera phones, or whether pros will just continue to opt for standalone devices.

The future of the camera phone, in short, lies in making it that much more like the cameras we still buy separately -- and to give us that much less of an incentive to buy a separate camera. Pros won't give up their DSLRs anytime soon, but there's a fair chance your next point-and-shoot will be a phone. That is, if it isn't one already.

Check out our slideshow Camera phones: A look back and forward.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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