Better smartphone cameras on the way

Camera innovations will matter more with the arrival of augmented reality on phones

IDG

IDG

Improvements to cameras, photos and video in smartphones are among the biggest lures for buyers, and several smartphone manufacturers at Mobile World Congress announced camera innovations designed to meet that demand.

Huawei announced the P10 and P10 Plus smartphones featuring dual rear cameras with high quality Leica lenses. LG announced the G6 with wide-angle cameras on both front and back, with one of the two 13-megapixel rear cameras providing a 135-degree angle. The G6 also has the capability for a smoother transition from optical to digital zoom.

huawei p10 Huawei

The Huawei P10 smartphone has dual rear cameras with Leica lenses.

Sony announced the Xperia XZ Premium with a 19-megapixel rear camera that allows a user to shoot super slow-motion video. The Motion Eye capability captures video at 960 frames a second and when played back at the normal 30 frames per second, the video is slowed by 32 times to show fast moving objects in high detail.

Of course, cameras and their related photo and video capabilities aren't the only features that matter to buyers, but they rank near the top in surveys of features that buyers look for in smartphones. Those features include battery life, price, processor speed and other variables, according to analysts.

"We tend to see design/brand and camera at the top of the list in our surveys," said Ryan Reith, an analyst at IDC.

Reith predicted both Samsung and Apple will hone in on design, brand and camera features when they announce new smartphones -- the Galaxy S8 from Samsung on March 29 and Apple's next iPhone in September.

Better cameras and related features seem to draw both enterprise and consumer buyers, Reith said. "Cameras in smartphones will become increasingly more important as more applications leverage augmented reality and even virtual reality to a lesser extent," he added.

The price is a top consideration for smartphone buyers in emerging markets like India or China, but in North America and Western Europe, "it is about brand, design, camera and size and screen," Reith said.

lg g6 camera2 Michael Simon

The Lg G6 smartphone has wide angle, front and rear-facing cameras.

But do buyers really care about high-quality Leica lenses or the Portrait mode camera capability in the iPhone 7 Plus? Many smartphone users never print out photos from their smartphones and show their videos and photos on the small screens of their smartphones or load them onto their Facebook pages where quality and high resolution aren't as important.

Raymond Wong, a reviewer for Mashable, laid out his concerns about smartphone cameras in a roundup of camera features. Smartphone makers are "throwing out tons of tech jargon to convince you into thinking the cameras in their phones are better than everyone else's. More megapixels! Phase detection! Larger micron pixels!....These specs, while important to some degree and to a certain niche group of camera geeks, don't mean much to the general smartphone user."

But Reith and others analysts argued that new camera innovations do matter to buyers, especially in a highly competitive smartphone market.

One reason that vendors have continued to focus on better cameras is simply that there is plenty of room for innovations in camera technology rather than in increased processor speeds, screen size and resolution, said Kevin Burden, an analyst at 451 Research.

"The camera still ranks as one of the most important and most-used features in smartphones in consumer surveys as it is also one of the few components in smartphones where innovations are actually recognized by consumers," Burden said. By comparison, it's difficult for an average smartphone user to notice increased speeds with the latest, faster processor.

Burden said better cameras will matter for some workers where a high-resolution, accurate image is important to the job function. Those jobs might include insurance adjusters, real estate agents, healthcare providers, tech workers in manufacturing plants and public safety officials.

"Better image quality is not necessarily critical in these roles, but imaging improvements will always matter," he said. "The current image quality in smartphones is fairly high."

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