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Palm Pre vs iPhone: smartphone camera showdown

CameraphoneI'm something of a grumpy old man when it comes to camera phones. For years, I've resisted them, complaining that I just didn't see the point. "Using a cameraphone dumbs down photography," I'd say, citing poor image quality and lack of control. But things are looking up.

I recently wrote a piece explaining how to get more from your cameraphone, swayed by friends insisting that phones with cameras were incredibly popular. And there are mobile phones out there that can take decent pictures. Here we consider the best options on the market.

Set your expectations accordingly

For the past few weeks, I've been playing with the cameras in the Palm Pre and the Apple iPhone 3GS, and I can finally see why someone would want to use these devices.

Cat pic with Nikon D200Don't get me wrong: even the best mobile phone cameras take horrifically bad photos compared to a good digital SLR or an advanced point and shoot. In a phone, you usually don't get any control over aperture or shutter speed. There's no ISO adjustment. And the image quality suffers from noise and colour issues you'd never find in a quality camera.

Cat pic with Apple iPhoneCompare, for example, a photo of my cat taken with a Nikon D200 (above) and another with my iPhone (right). The photo from my Nikon digital SLR has rich detail, excellent colour, and it's sharp enough to cut yourself on. The grainy, slightly blurred iPhone snapshot on the right speaks for itself. And this is the best of a half-dozen attempts.

The fun factor

Sure, the photos aren't great. But camera phones are so much fun! I've fallen in love with an iPhone app called Pano, for example, that lets you take a series of photos and stitch them together into a panoramic shot right in the phone. It works amazingly well, and it even has a guide that helps you line up successive photos.

This iPhone app will never replace taking high-quality panoramic photos with a digital camera and stitching the panorama together on your PC with a program such as Windows Live Photo Gallery, but I'm almost giddy with delight when I make a complete panorama using nothing more than my mobile phone. The immediacy is amazing.

Speaking of fun, the iPhone uses a touch-based focusing system - just touch the part of the screen where you want the lens to focus. It's simply delightful.

The convenience factor

And then there's the sheer convenience of having a camera built into your phone. I've had a camera in older phones, like my Samsung Blackjack, for several years, but the resolution was just too low to be useful. Both the Palm Pre and iPhone have 3Mp cameras, though, and that's enough to capture photos and see real detail.

Photography news, reviews and tutorials

Not long ago, I wrote about six unusual uses for your camera. I recently had a real-world application when I came home to find the pump in my 90-gallon fishtank had died. I snapped some photos of the dead pump with the Palm Pre - thank goodness the phone includes a tiny flash - and used it to get the right replacement at the shop that evening. The cameraphone's 3Mp resolution and its multi-touch screen meant I could zoom in and show the assistant small details with a simple two-fingered pinch gesture, right on the phone's display.

As for the iPhone, though it has no flash, it captures video as well as still images - and includes the ability to upload directly to YouTube. It's so immediate and convenient that I've uploaded a few short videos to YouTube myself - something I'm not ordinarily accustomed to doing. Apparently I'm not alone. I recently saw a story that reported a dramatic increase in mobile uploads to YouTube as a result of the iPhone 3GS.

So I'm feeling a lot more optimistic about mobile phone cameras these days. I still worry that cameraphones will replace dedicated cameras, and we'll come to accept grainy, blurry photos as acceptable in the same way that teenagers listen to low-quality MP3s instead of higher-quality LPs and CDs - but maybe that's just the curmudgeon in me.

See also:

Apple iPhone 3GS review

Palm Pre review

Nikon D200 review

All digital camera reviews

All mobile phone reviews

Photography news, reviews and tutorials

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