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Seven trends to help you predict future iPad and iPhone camera specs

WIth the announcement of the iPad3 iPadHD new iPad, the rumour mill was again in full swing. We’ve been putting together a Google Doc spreadsheet outlining the technical specs for all iOS device cameras back to the original iPhone, and there were a few things that stood out.

ios device camera history

1. Forward-facing cameras are crap

This isn’t an exaggeration. The VGA (640 x 480 pixels) images produced by ALL iOS forward facing cameras are the same resolution as a $4 webcam. Have a look at the graphic below to see the titanic resolution differences between all forward-facing cameras and their rear facing counterparts. VGA might be adequate for Facetime and Skype (we want Facetime HD), but what about when you want a picture of you and your girlfriend standing in front of the Eiffel Tower and you don’t feel like handing your 4S to a stranger? We really hope Apple steps up the game soon on this one, as it would also open up the door to some more interesting computer vision apps (watch this space on that one :) ).

iOS device camera resolution comparison

2. Apple is approaching the summit of megapixel mountain

Increasing the sensor size beyond 8MP will yield ever diminishing returns. The fact that the latest devices can capture 1080P video suggests there isn’t far to go. Point-and-shoot cameras have leveled out at 12MP. However Nokia did receive considerable media coverage at the Mobile World Congress last month with their megaspectacular 808 PureView sporting a 41MP sensor (more on this in a future post). Which brings us to…

3. Its not the size of your megapixels, its what you do with them

Megapixels are the camera market’s equivalent of horsepower and megahertz—a single metric that consumers and marketers latch to tenaciously, despite the fact that it fails to describe overall performance. So if the mobile megapixel race has run its course, how will Apple differentiate its cameras from the competitors?

The answer is in other new camera technologies such as “Backside Illumination” and increasing the number and quality of the camera lenses. These phrases have crept into the Apple keynotes and devices specs of late and we’ll be hearing a lot more of them.

4. Presented in widescreen

The camera sensor in the iPad 2 and iPod touch 4G is rated at 0.9MP, but if we look at the resulting snaps taken by the device, they are only a measly 0.7MP? What gives? The particular sensor used has a 16:9 aspect ratio as opposed to the usual 4:3 found in other iOS devices. So your photo is cropped and those extra pixels dumped. We’re not exactly sure why this is the case, but this is the smallest possible sensor that supports 720p video capture. 

5. The future’s dim

Shooting photos and videos in low-light is one area where large advances will be made. An increase in sensor size means bigger pixels and thus more light captured for better low light performance, and better lenses mean sharper images. 

Apple bucked the trend of reducing sensor size and pixel size with the iPhone 4, when they kept the same pixel size while increasing the sensor size. This improved the devices low-light image capturing ability considerably. Although pixel size was reduced in the iPhone 4S, the addition of extra lens elements, backside illumination and real-time HDR improved its low-light image quality. 

So what does the future hold? Gains could be made if Apple are willing to take a hit in production cost and change from the current plastic lenses to glass ones such as the Carl Zeiss lenses used by Nokia. Other improvements from supplier Omnivision that reduce pixel cross-talk and increase “quantum efficiency” (convert pixels into electrons) can increase sharpness they also have technology for dim-lighting where groups of four pixels are used as one, increasing the amount of light captured.

6. Flash….. aaahahhhahhhh… savior of the universe

Its unlikely that Apple would make the change from LED to xenon for their iPhone flash due to cost, but by improving brightness and the color temperature of their LED to make it look more like daylight would improve the resulting images.

7. The iPad and iPod touch are the poor children of the iOS family

Ok this isn’t as accurate now that the new iPad has been announced with it’s 5MP iSight cam, but the iPad2 and iPod touch 4G are equipped with woeful 0.9MP camera sensors, well below par when compared to their iPhone brethren. The iPad and iPod touch will always play second fiddle to the iPhone when it comes to camera technology.

You may argue that most iPad owners will have an iPhone close at hand when they want to snap a picture, but this definitely isn’t the case for iPod touch owners. While the new iPad is definitely an improvement, it’s still a generation behind the 4S.

Our predictions

iPhone5: 10MP rear-facing sensor with a few buzz-word technologies thrown in. A  bump in the forward facing camera (please!) to 2MP, in line with current high-end Android devices.

iPad (4th Gen): Current 4S spec sensors. Maybe even stay the same, although this would be a departure.

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