Camera phones get the picture

Mobile phones have gotten smaller in size and bigger in function for years. But the Next Big Thing — built-in-cameras — may also usher in some changes to wireless networks.

A recent survey of mobile phone users found that of all the new features available, the one they covet most is a camera. And accompanying that function are new things to do with it — such as photo caller ID and a bevy of related web log (blog) and photo sites. For example, Funtigo invites people to send each other their mug shots.

What’s more, the increasing bandwidth demand of digital images may hasten adoption of phones that use faster network services, and prompt expansion of those more sophisticated networks. Mobile phone service providers are pushing next-generation General Packet Radio Service and Code Division Multiple Access networks, but progress has been slow in coming.

Photo email attachments don’t need much bandwidth today, although current camera phones are just the first step in the march toward multi-megapixel resolutions, streaming video, and videoconferencing on phones, a handheld devices analyst with IDC, Alex Slawsby, said.

Camera phones might push carriers to finally build out 3G networks and make them worthy of the name broadband, he said. They first appeared in the US about a year ago. IDC sees camera phones helping to drive sales of 3G handsets past 48 million units worldwide next year, a 140 per cent increase over this year.

“After years of 3G promises, the pieces — the handsets, the features and applications, the bandwidth, and the networks — are starting to come together to make next-generation wireless a reality,” Slawsby said.

As proof, the faster networks were already in wide use in Asia, hand-in-hand with the popularity of digital camera phones, Slawsby said.

IDC predicted that 100 million camera phones would be sold next year, perhaps blessing network providers with margins no longer found in plain-old telephone service.

Join the Pack

A camera may not seem like a phone feature you just can’t live without. But in a recent survey of 1300 mobile phone users conducted by the Zelos Group, users were asked to disclose their wish lists. Digital camera features edged out walkie-talkie services (such as Nextel’s Direct Connect) to capture the top spot on most lists.

Camera phones may appeal to the gadget lover in all of us. They’re one of those high-tech conveniences — such as instant messaging or TiVo — that we didn’t think we needed until we tried them.

It turns out camera phones aren’t just fun, they’re easy to use. I sampled some of the current models and found larger viewable color displays than on the average digital camera — and their photographic features don’t seem to add to the phones’ overall size.

The cameras I tried operated flawlessly, even in the hands of one who intentionally doesn’t read instructions. I just grabbed, clicked, and emailed admittedly crude self-portraits to myself. This kind of “just-plain-works” technology could give camera phones broad appeal.

Cameras are available at all price points and in just about any design of phone or PDA.

What to Say Cheese With

The second generation of camera phones is now on the market, and their features and specifications are in no way standard. Like stand alone digital cameras, screen resolutions, lens choices, and image quality are works in progress; a camera phone would not satisfy the professional photographer at this point. Their necessarily small sizes and consumer-oriented wide-angle lenses deliver snapshot quality that’s similar to disposable cameras you can buy at a drug store. Still, you might be surprised by what they have to offer.

For example, the Samsung SPH-A600 is a diminutive clamshell that takes 640 x 480 VGA-quality images with three resolution options. It has a 4X digital zoom and even a built-in flash. Its 65,000-colour TFT viewfinder swivels 180 degrees to let you take a self-portrait (with the help of a built-in timer) or easily show others your photos.

The camera phone is distributed by Sprint PCS. At $US349, the SPH-A600 is more expensive than many other models. But it can snap three continuous frames at a time, and it stores more than 100 images that you can customise with graphics.

Entry-Level Devices

At the other end of the spectrum, the similar SCP-8100 from Sanyo is another Sprint PCS clamshell. It costs only $US99 after a $US130 Sprint discount. This dual-band phone has a 4.5cm, 65,000-colour TFT display, 352 x 288-pixel camera resolution, and a 2.5cm colour display when the phone is folded shut.

The camera offers a timer and the ability to view four thumbnails at a time. In addition, you can add artsy frames or 10-second voice captions to photos. You also can send images to your PC over an optional USB cable.

Similarly small and inexpensive, but in the popular bar form factor, are Sony Ericsson’s T610 and T616. These versions of the same phone are differentiated by carrier only: The T610 is offered by T-Mobile and the T616 by AT&T and Cingular. Although once priced as high as $US249, the device is now only $US100.

Both tri-band models are among the smallest and most trouble-free camera phones available for GSM/GPRS networks. The TFT display supports 128 x 160 pixels and 65,000 colours. The bundled QuickShare application lets you send pictures to your PC wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Cutting Edge

Nokia has done it again with its tri-band GSM/GPRS 3650. This bar-shaped phone has a circular keypad/navigation wheel.

The VGA digital camera offers several automatic exposure and resolution settings, and can store an incredible 1000 images on a 16MB MultiMediaCard wedged alongside the battery in the same compartment. The cutting-edge 3650 can also act as a camcorder, storing 11 seconds of MPEG-4 video on the MMC. A smartphone running the Symbian OS, the 3650 is being offered by AT&T Wireless for $US150. The 3650 is Bluetooth- and IR-enabled to let you wirelessly transfer data files.

Finally, the LG VX6000 clamshell made by LG Mobile Phones and sold by Verizon for $US150 (after a $US50 rebate) has an unusual feature: Instead of a swivel lens, the camera uses a built-in mirror for self-portraits.

The VX6000’s camera has three resolution settings up to VGA (low, medium, and high), a 4X digital zoom, a multishot feature, and the ability to add sound or text captions to photos.

Room to Grow

Camera functions aren’t just spreading to mobile phones; they’re showing up in a growing number of PDAs, too. You can also add camera functions to standard mobile phones and PDAs with add-on devices. For example, Palm’s new Camera Card plugs into its Tungsten handhelds, announced in September.

“Handheld photography is really just in its infancy,” Slawsby said. “There’s a lot of upside.”

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