Like a lot of people, I carry around a digital camera almost full time -- the one built into my cellphone. But that doesn't mean I take many photos with this thing; most of the images it generates look terrible, like a copy of a real photo that's faded in the sun.
Camera phone manufacturers have been trying to close that gap, however. They've gradually bumped up the resolution of these devices to three megapixels -- the same as the entry-level cameras of a year or two ago.
That level of resolution should let you do a lot more with a camera phone picture. Instead of using it as a background image on your phone's screen, you could make it the wallpaper on your computer. Or, instead of sending it to a friend's cellphone, you could print it out and frame it.
But even the high-end camera phones of today don't quite realize this potential, as a trial of three of them showed.
All of these 2006 models -- Nokia's N93, Samsung's SCH-a990 and Sony Ericsson's K790a -- feature 3.2 megapixels, a built-in flash and basic editing software. The Nokia, the largest and thickest of this bunch, also includes an optical zoom lens.
The phones are as bulky as many digital cameras, but none was quite fit to take on a camera's job. They delivered good results with straightforward outdoor shots, but complications such as poor lighting or fast-moving subjects could trip them up. All three suffered shutter lag, taking a second or more to record an image after I'd pressed the button.
Poor color or exposure adjustments made snow in the Rockies look beige in some photos taken with the Samsung and the Sony Ericsson. In some shots, the Nokia tinted the sky over the Washington Nationals' new ballpark slightly purple.
The Samsung's photos looked worst of all, thanks to its iffy focus and jitter sensitivity. The Nokia's photos often appeared too grainy.
The complex, swiveling flip-open screens on the Nokia and the Samsung led me to twist my hand around until I figured out how to align lens and subject. The Samsung's screen also washed out too easily in direct sunlight.
The Sony Ericsson, meanwhile, posed a different challenge in everyday use: After a week of reliable operation, it started randomly locking up, forcing me to remove its battery to reboot it.
You can do basic editing work right on each phone -- rotate an image, apply various visual effects or paste on clip-art stamps, icons or your own text. Sony's editing tools (which included a red-eye remover) were the most comprehensive; Samsung's were the least useful.
As with other camera phones, these allow you to send a photo to a friend via SMS or e-mail. They also offer some form of Web sharing: The Nokia can post pictures to Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing site, the Sony Ericsson connects to Google's Blogger, and the Samsung uploads to Verizon's "Pix Place" site. You can also exhibit your photos by plugging in each phone to a TV with its included cables.