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Photo Flat
Even With Higher Resolution, Camera Phones Are Still a Letdown

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, March 22, 2007

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.

If you want to take a ton of photos, these phones allow extra storage on memory-card slots. But in one of the phone industry's more irksome quirks, they each use a separate format: miniSD for the Nokia, the smaller microSD for the Samsung and Memory Stick Micro on the Sony Ericsson. None of these tiny cards (good luck finding one if you drop it on an Oriental rug) can be popped into a standard memory-card reader without using a special adapter.

That's not a big problem with the Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones, which allow quick, easy transfers to a computer via a USB cable or Bluetooth wireless. On the Samsung, things are not so simple. In an inexcusable excess of control-freakery, Verizon blocks use of this phone's USB and Bluetooth connections to copy pictures to a computer.

Under Verizon's lockdown, you can get a hard copy of a photo with a Bluetooth printer (if you can find one), you can upload a horribly compressed version of a photo to Pix Place, or you can e-mail a lower-resolution copy to yourself (at extra cost). Otherwise, the Samsung amounts to a prison for your photos until you can extract them with a memory card.

The Samsung does come at a lower price than the other two models: $350 with a two-year contract. But this phone's arbitrary limitations -- and the militantly clueless corporate mind-set behind them -- make it an insult to the customer at almost any price.

The Nokia and Sony Ericsson aren't sold by nationwide carriers -- though they work on any GSM service, such as Cingular and T-Mobile -- making them much more expensive, at $700 for the former and $500 for the latter. A separate phone and camera would cost much less.

Another year or so of technological evolution could very well solve the cost problem of phones like these, along with many of the other day-to-day issues that can stop you from getting a good photo with them. But no engineering breakthrough can cure the way some wireless carriers seem to think they know what's best for their customers.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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