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Why smartphone companies are going out of their way for a better camera

Sahil Mohan Gupta
Sahil Mohan GuptaMay 18, 2016 | 08:48

Why smartphone companies are going out of their way for a better camera

The camera is arguably the most important and defining factor when you purchase a smartphone. When you look at the premium and high-end segment of the market, the most successful phones have been the ones with the best camera.

I had transitioned from an iPhone 6S Plus to a Galaxy S7 solely because of the latter's superior camera. Display, battery life and performance were all factors in my decision, but quality of the camera was the decisive factor. The fact that Samsung had managed to create a smartphone camera that clearly eclipsed the iPhone 6S meant that I had to change my phone. I am not the only one; most smartphone consumers would have done the same. And this is now becoming a pattern across devices and price segments.

The iPhone has been the king of smartphone photography for the last few years. The popularity of the iPhone exploded with the iPhone 4 which was the first iPhone with a great camera. If you chart the history of some of the most successful devices in the last 10-15 years, then often the camera has been a killer feature.

Be it the Nokia N95, which had probably the best camera of its generation, or the iPhone 4, which didn't only have a great camera, but was one of the simplest ones to use.

iphone-6s-plus_051716100559.jpg
iPhone 6S Plus. 

Apple’s lead continued till 2015 with the iPhone 6S, but things started to change because Samsung’s new Galaxy smartphones are now better than the iPhone 6S in terms of image quality. That is one of the reasons for the slowdown in iPhone 6S sales. The camera on the iPhone 6S wasn’t a big improvement over the iPhone 6, while Samsung took a massive leap in the meantime. People who have money to spend on an expensive phone just want the best camera.

Apple, right now, doesn’t have it. Samsung does. That’s why its smartphone business is seemingly resurgent. HTC and Sony also find themselves in a hot soup because their phones don’t come with the best cameras.

The budget smartphone isn’t a twiddly little toy. It is actually a very powerful computer in its own right. Most Android smartphones deliver decent levels of performance. It is things like display, battery life and camera that differentiate the good from the bad. Xiaomi on its Redmi Note 3 focused on battery life, but as Motorola, on Tuesday (May 17), proved with the new Moto G4, the camera is a crucial element and it has packed an impressive camera in the phone.

Motorola’s Moto G line has been at the forefront of what a budget smartphone should be. However, reviewers like me have been complaining that its cameras have been quite terrible. This sure changes with the Moto G4, which is evidence that Motorola understands how important a feature it is. When the Moto G4 competes with phones like the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, it will have a good camera as an ace up its sleeve, and coupled with a solid hardware and Motorola’s brand legacy, it should be quite an attraction for the average consumer.

Even in the premium mid-range segment which is flooded by Chinese brands like Xiaomi, OnePlus, Meizu, Qiku, Lenovo and Oppo, there is a big focus on the camera. Xiaomi, in its presentation of the Mi 5, drove home the fact that the phone had a 16-megapixel camera with deep trench isolation and a optical stabilisation that was better than the one on the iPhone 6S.

Qiku is a company which is one of the first to use two cameras on the back - one RGB sensor and one monochrome sensor to take better photos. Chinese smartphone giant Huawei’s new P9 smartphone also adopts a similar technique but with the help of the iconic camera brand Leica, it gives you, as most reviewers put it, one of the best camera phones around. And these are phones which will be a good deal cheaper than celebrated phones like the iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy.

A focus on selfies is also evident. Smartphone makers are coming out of the rat race for the highest number of megapixels, and instead focusing on meaningful improvements that will result in better images. Apple and Samsung have added unique flash systems to their phones. Samsung is also dabbling in the possibility of having a wide lens that captures more. Xiaomi had added an UltraPixel camera - something that was seen as the tent-pole feature of the rear camera of HTC’s flagship phone a couple of years ago, and the likes of Motorola, Huawei and OnePlus have just put gigantic sensors on the front of the phone.

Overall, the focus is slowly moving away from gimmicky camera features, but plain and simple image quality. The camera has always been an important element of the smartphone experience, but now people don’t buy into software-based gimmicks. They want a solution that will just allow them to post better-looking photos on their Instagram or Facebook feeds. The phones which allow people to do just that will be the ones that win. And thankfully, smartphone makers are starting to understand this and implement it on their phones.

While saying so, it is also important to remember that the camera is just one feature of a phone. If the image quality is great but the overall phone is not, then the consumers won't be interested in any great measure. Microsoft’s ill-fated Lumia smartphone business is a great example, given that most of the phones under the Lumia brand had come with the awesome cameras that Microsoft had inherited after acquiring Nokia’s smartphone business.

So, yes, the camera is very important and could be a tie-breaker of sorts in the final purchase decision, but that only holds true if the overall package is strong enough.

Last updated: May 18, 2016 | 08:48
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