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iPhone 5 Camera Review: A Camera for All Reasons?

While there are aspects of the new iPhone 5 that have already created news headlines in a negative way – namely the new map system – clearly there is a demand for the new product given the number of people waiting outside stores to be among the first to experience the new product. And, of course, it’s more than simply a phone, and more than just a camera. But how does it stack up, and how does it compare to the iPhone 4’s camera?

Digital photo enthusiasts may scoff at utilizing a phone to take images, but its convenient size and portability mean that such a device is always going to be used for quick snaps when a regular camera isn’t convenient, or isn’t within reach. And let’s be honest, even the most serious photographer is still going to use a cell phone camera for certain occasions. Just remove from pocket, point, and click. And, at least 75% of the time, the results are going to be more than acceptable.

Around 10 years ago, an 8 MP camera was top of the range, and while other digital SLRs are now topping 30 MP (the new Nikon 800 springs to mind), the iPhone’s camera is certainly capable of creating images that are perfectly sharp, even if printed at 8” x 10”. And there’s plenty of imaging software that can boost the size, if larger sizes are required. And while digital cameras – both SLR and point-and-shoot, have come a long way, so have the cameras incorporated into cellular phones.

Appearance:

At first glance, the iPhone 5 itself looks nicer than the 4. It’s thinner, and also longer, which translates to bigger images and five rows of apps instead of 4. And after a few photos, it’s clear – in more ways than one – that it’s an improvement on its older sibling.

Previous iPhone screens embodied three separate layers – a touch recognition layer,  a Corning Gorilla® Glass® protective layer, and the LCD screen. Groups of touch sensors were incorporated to detect taps and swipes and give the iPhone its touch-screen function. The iPhone 5 removes the touch sensor layer, integrating the sensors into the LCD display, which is responsible for the sleeker body. And while it doesn’t affect its functionality one iota, it’s also available in two colors.

Subtle changes:

Other differences to the iPhone 4 are a smaller docking adaptor and, finally, new earphone buds that have a slightly different shape. The new docking and different size will, of course, mean an entirely new category of accessories available in your local stores and on eBay. And all of the app producers will be scrambling to make their older apps fit on the new screen size, although this should be a relatively easy transition for most. It may mean that if you have an iPhone 3, making the change may be essential at some point in the not too distant future.

Specifications:

Dimensions

123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm

Weight

112 g

Display

LED-backlit IPS TFT, 16 million colors, retina display, 800:1 contrast ratio (typical), 500 cd/m2 max brightness (typical), fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating on front

Display size

640 x 1136 pixels, 4.0 inches (326 ppi pixel density)

Battery

Li-Po 1440 mAh, 225 hours stand-by time, up to 10 hours video playback

Operating range

temperature: 32 to 95F (0° to 35° C) non-operating temperature: -4 to 113F (-20° to 45° C); relative humidity: 5% to 95% non-condensing, maximum operating altitude: 10,000 feet (3,000 m)

Speakers

Loudspeaker and 3.5mm jack

3.5mm jack

Yes

Memory

No card slot; Internal

16, 32 or 64 GB storage, 1 GB RAM

Bluetooth

v4.0 with A2DP

USB

v2.0

Primary camera

8 MP, 3264x2448 pixels, LED flash, autofocus, touch focus, simultaneous HD video and image recording, touch focus, image stabilization, geo-tagging, face detection, panorama, HDR (high dynamic range) mode, f/2.4 aperture, back-illuminated sensor (BSI)

Video/camcorder

1080p at 30fps, LED video light, video stabilization, geo-tagging, image stabilization

Secondary camera

1.2 MP, 720p@30fps

Operating system

iOS 6

Chip

Apple A6

CPU

Dual-core 1.2 GHz

GPU

PowerVR SGX 543MP3

Sensors

Proximity sensor, gyroscopic sensor, accelerometer, digital compass

Browser

Safari

- Active noise cancellation with dedicated dual mics

- Siri natural language commands and dictation

- iCloud cloud service

- Image editor

- Facebook and Twitter integration

- Audio/video player and editor

- TV-out

- Voice memo/command/dial

Price (North America)    $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB), $399 (64GB)

Camera resolution:

The iPhone 5 does not increase its predecessor’s 8 MP resolution, although taking pictures in lower light conditions, one of the problems with version 4, is certainly better, although still not perfect. For example, if there’s any significant movement in the subject, it’s still as frustrating as the previous version in that there’s the potential for significant motion blur. And images taken in the dark, while more acceptable, are still grainy – something else that can be addressed in software such as Photoshop, but only to a degree. Thanks to its software, the camera in iPhone 5 is able to grab a focus in tougher light conditions compared to the camera in iPhones that came before it, so there are at least some improvements in low light conditions.

Panorama added:

Also added, to catch up with other phones, is a panorama capacity, although this was already an option through downloaded apps such as 360. The panoramas produced through the new iOS6 are pretty impressive, however, and better than most of those apps. But anyone upgrading their operating system on their iPhone 4 will also get this capability. As long as the movement is relatively slow and smooth, the results are excellent.

To operate the panorama function, open the camera app and go to Options at the top of the screen, click Panorama, and then hold the camera vertically, and move from left to right. There is an ultra-ultra wide option, that almost goes 360º, or medium ultra-wide. Using image stabilization and removing artifacts from the picture, Panorama mode produces pictures at 28 MP.

Lenses and improved second camera:

The lens itself is now made of a different material, sapphire crystal, to improve durability, something that will prove popular if it works. Most users will hope they aren’t in a position to find out. The focusing is also improved, which makes a difference to low magnification macro shots, and the colors are definitely more vibrant than with previous iPhone cameras.

The HDR setting (high dynamic range) also brings some excellent results, especially for landscapes and cityscapes. In spite of specs the same as the iPhone 4, the images are less grainy, sharper, and feature more detail than previous versions of the phone.

On the iPhone 4, adding a second camera proved to be one of those “how did we live without it” technologies. The Internet is now full of photos of people and their extended arm, taking pictures of themselves and their family in every imaginable place and situation. The capacity to do this remains with the iPhone 5, however the clarity has been improved thanks to the 720p high definition.

Also, now you can use this front-facing camera for Apple's FaceTime video chat in HD. A new feature, Shared Photo Streams, gives you an option to share multiple photos with family members and friends with just a couple of taps. They will then receive a pop-up notifying them that your photos arrived on their phones. And there’s also facial recognition for up to 10 people at a time. We’re not sure what happens when an 11th person comes into view… 

More speed, better audio:

Another plus is that the camera app now opens up to 40% faster, which is a major bonus for that shot that you simply have to get, something that was a frustration with the previous phone. Also, while taking video, tapping the camera icon takes a still shot while still continuing to record the video, although there is a possible danger of camera shake by doing this. And if you do take videos with your iPhone, the image stabilization definitely is a help.

The “old” iPhone had only two microphones inside, whereas the updated version includes a third, which does make a difference if the audio component of your video is important. The second microphone used for noise canceling when making a call has been re-positioned next to the rear camera, which reduces the chance of poor sounding audio because of the potential for your hand covering the other microphone on the bottom of the phone. The improved audio also enhances the FaceTime video chat function.

Negatives:

The negatives? Well, there hasn’t been a great deal of improvement to the flash, zooming isn’t great, in spite of some apps that do a decent job, and low light still presents a problem or two. Also, the lens, while better, still isn’t as good as you’ll get with that digital camera, whether you’re using a point-and-click or an SLR.

Extended use:

The beauty of the iPhone’s camera is that there are so many forums, blogs and articles online to help the casual user, and a whole host of apps designed to improve the user’s photographs, create special effects, or do some basic editing. Once the images are taken off the phone and transferred to the computer, even more transformations are possible. And you can expect a flood of new apps for the phone, which is sure to include a whole host of new apps specifically designed to augment the phone.

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Summary:

Of course, consumers need to remember that the iPhone is actually, believe it or not, still a phone, and the improvements are spread out among the various functions of the device: to simply concentrate on the camera function would not have been palatable to the vast number of users for whom the camera is simply one aspect.

And let’s face it, no one is going to buy the iPhone simply for the camera, but it’s decent enough that there are going to be a lot of people selling their mid-range digital cameras as they no longer have a use for them. All in all, the iPhone 5 looks nicer, produces better results than previous phones, and viewing the resulting images on the larger and clearer screen is better.

The acid test is the comparison to the 4: it’s nicer looking, lighter, faster, does most things a little bit better. Using an iPhone 5 makes the iPhone 4 look almost archaic. If you have an earlier iPhone, do not test this phone unless you are going to buy it – you’ll simply never look at your old iPhone the same way again. Other phones have bigger screens, or slightly better cameras. However, all things considered, the iPhone 5 is still at the top of the tree because it’s the best overall phone there is.

It’s still not the best camera in a phone, and the improvements are relatively minor, however, there are still enough improvements to make those upgrading to the iPhone 5 happy, especially as other features of the phone itself are similarly upgraded. It’s unlikely anyone will upgrade to the iPhone 5 simply for the camera, but veteran users will definitely see, in general, better images with a few minor frustrations still thrown in. Well, there has to be something to aim for with the iPhone 6 camera, isn't it?

Checking out the blogs, comment pages and other websites, there’s clearly a divide in opinion. Some hate Apple, others love it, so obtaining accurate opinions based solely on the product are difficult given most people’s biases. Are there other phones out there with better attributes? Yes. Is the iPhone 5 better than all of its predecessors? Yes. Those in the Apple camp are going to love it. Those in the opposite camp are going to dislike it anyway, and compare it to other phones for one or two attributes only. And for them, none of the improvements are going to add up to liking the iPhone 5. Perhaps the only solution is to carry a whole plethora of hardware to satisfy every individual need. But that’s the point of the iPhone 5, it may not be the best in every category, but overall, this jack-of-all-trades is more than adequate to meet most people’s needs.

Photos copyright Apple Inc.