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Making the case for a more selfie-friendly smartphone

By Molly Wood
New York Times
CIR MACHINE LEARNING 2
PETER KRAMER - NBC/NEW YORK TIMES
Hoda Kotb, Kathie Lee Gifford and Sarah Hyland take a selfie on NBC News’ “Today” show. Despite the ever-growing importance of the selfie to the average smartphone user, few manufacturers have considered using higher-resolution forward-facing cameras, perhaps in the belief that the phone's thinness remains paramount.

“Selfie” was Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2013. And selfies are powerful business; #me is the third-most-common tag on Instagram, appended to more than 184 million photos, according to the app’s Web viewer, Webstagram. (Nos. 1 and 2 are #love and #instagood.)

So why haven’t mobile phone makers gotten the memo and made great forward-facing cameras? Selfies taken on most major smartphones are almost uniformly of poor quality. They’re unfocused, pixelated, dark, blown-out, backlit, grainy and worst of all, distorted (I swear, I have a normal size nose!). Even the Instagram filter called “1977” can’t hide the fact that most selfies look as if they were taken in the 1970s.

Any movement toward improving the front-facing camera seems to have stalled, while head-scratching options such as curved screens have grabbed the headlines. This is a miss for phone manufacturers. Debate the value, the silliness or the narcissism of the trend all you want, but even President Barack Obama and Pope Francis were caught in selfies in 2013. Such historic images deserve better cameras.

The main problem is the size of our phones. Making better phone cameras means making bigger sensors and bigger optics, and that leads to thicker phones, which manufacturers prefer to avoid. Cost is also a factor, but design concerns take precedence.

“It’s purely a prioritization issue,” said Kyle Wiens of iFixit.com, a website devoted to dissecting the internal parts of consumer electronics. Manufacturers could absolutely include better front-facing cameras on phones, he said. “It would be trivial for anybody to do; it would just mean a bigger phone.”

It’s a thin thing

Thinness rules in smartphone design, thanks in part to Apple’s long obsession with increasingly slender devices. (It’s also the argument against bigger batteries, another painfully lagging element of phone design.) But bigger phones are becoming the rage, and if smartphones continue to swell to the size of small tablets, we may find ourselves with more space after all.

For now, though, the smartphone landscape is littered with mediocre selfie-cams.

The front-facing camera on most major phones in the United States maxes out at just over 2 megapixels – a measure of the resolution of the photo. The more megapixels, generally, the better the image.

Megapixels aren’t the only measure of a camera’s quality, though. The size of the camera sensor also plays a large role because it determines how much light can be captured in each shot. And most forward-facing phone cameras have relatively small sensors. A low-resolution image combined with a small image sensor is a recipe for a low-quality photo, especially if you’re indoors or at a bar or party, where selfies like to proliferate.

Only Apple and, depending on whom you ask, HTC, have highlighted the front-facing camera as a major feature. But Apple refers to the camera as a FaceTime camera and primarily promotes its ability to deliver high-quality video conferencing, and less on delivering quality photos.

Comparing the top tier

I compared four of the top smartphones in the U.S. market to see which has the best front-facing camera: the iPhone 5S, the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Nokia Lumia 1020 and the HTC One.

The iPhone 5S has just a 1.2-megapixel camera on the front. In general, iPhone cameras are known for having relatively low megapixels but good sensor and optics technology. The iPhone’s rear camera, for example, is one of the best smartphone cameras available, and is easily capable of replacing a snapshot camera entirely.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 has an even better camera – arguably the best phone camera in the world, with an astounding 41 megapixels, two lenses, optical zoom, a xenon flash and manual camera controls through its Pro Camera app. But the front-facing camera is just 1.2 megapixels, as well.

The Galaxy S4 bumps up to 2 megapixels, with a rear camera of 13, while the HTC One goes all the way to 2.1 megapixels. Its rear camera is just 4, with an emphasis on sensor technology instead of resolution.

In my testing, the HTC One produced the best selfies. They were consistently in focus and had rich, true colors, and the camera performed better in low light than the competition. The Nokia Lumia 1020 was a close second, despite its lower resolution, but indoor shots were worse than outdoor shots. The Samsung Galaxy S4 suffers from focus issues, so its selfies were inconsistent, and any bright lights in the background resulted in badly blown-out images.

The iPhone 5S was the surprising disappointment of the bunch. Its focus was inconsistent, colors tended to appear washed out, and its lens produced the most distortion of the bunch (Once again: My nose does not look like that in real life).

Yet none of the selfies I took could reasonably be considered “good” photos, so I’m still hopeful for better front-facing cameras in the future. If size continues to be less of an issue with phone design, the front-facing camera is an opportunity to differentiate. A camera-forward manufacturer such as Nokia or a second-tier phone-maker such as Sony, HTC or Motorola could introduce a powerful new “selfie cam” that appeals to millennials and exploits social sharing in a way that’s far more effective than an awkward, software-first “Facebook phone” like the HTC First.

High-caliber front-facing cameras do exist in phones from other countries, or from lesser-known brands. For example, the iBerry Auxus Nuclea N2, available in India, features an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. And phones such as the Micromax Canvas Turbo A250, the iBall Andi 4.7G Cobalt and the Huawei Ascend P6 – also available in India – all have at least 5-megapixel front cameras.

At the end of the month, a spate of new phones will be introduced in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress, an annual mobile device trade show. There will be a crush of announcements about screen size and resolution, processor power (octa-cores!), fingerprint scanners, custom Android flavors, powerful rear-facing cameras and that increasing focus on bent, bendable or at least slightly curved screens. But we are not, at least in an early reading, likely to see major improvements in front-facing phone cameras.

Mobile World Congress may not lay claim to the selfie generation in 2014, but supercomputer processors and curved screens aren’t sexy selling points for smartphones in a now-saturated market. (Can anyone explain what I need a curved screen for? It can’t be for talking on the phone – who talks on the phone anymore?) Phone makers would do well to look around at what people are actually doing with their phones, and design accordingly. We demand better selfies!

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