Three Phone Makers Point to Advances In Camera Cellphones

Cameras were introduced on cellphones in 2000, but for years the photo quality was so poor, the devices were little more than toys.

That’s changing as handset manufacturers add cameras that take pictures equal in quality to those taken by average digital cameras. In the U.S., some camera phones are built with two-megapixel image sensors, similar to those in moderately priced digital cameras. In Asia and Europe, five- to eight-megapixel phones are available for higher quality photos.

There are dozens of camera phones on the U.S. market by manufacturers such as Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, LG Electronics and Motorola. To gauge the U.S. cellphone picture-taking experience, I tested three of the models with the most advanced two-megapixel cameras: Sony Ericsson’s W800 Walkman, Nokia’s N90 and Samsung’s SCH-a970.

Sony Ericsson's W800

Sony Ericsson’s W800

The quality of the photos was surprisingly good, especially with the W800 and N90. When I downloaded pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline to my computer, I couldn’t tell the difference between them and pictures I took with my Canon PowerShot S70, a 7.1-megapixel digital camera. I even opted to take the W800 rather than my PowerShot when I went on a walk this past Sunday. I felt the photos would be just as good, and I’d have to carry only one device.

The photos taken with Samsung’s SCH-a970 were decent but didn’t stack up to those on the other phones. The shots appeared less detailed and not as crisp on the phone screen.

These camera phones, of course, don’t offer the ease of use that digital cameras do when it comes to transferring photos to computers. All three of the phones I tested required an upload process that had more steps and was less intuitive than with my PowerShot. I found myself occasionally running out of patience.

The W800, which retails at $399, is the size of an iPod mini, and actually feels like a camera when held sideways, with the screen becoming the viewfinder. Of the three cellphones I tested, it was the easiest to activate as a camera. You just turn on the phone, open the shutter and you’re ready to take pictures.

For photographers who want more than a snapshot, the W800’s features include “panorama,” which combines three shots to make one wide, narrow picture, and “burst,” which takes four pictures in rapid sequence with one push of a button. Another option, “frames,” lets you choose cartoon backgrounds for your pictures or put a subject’s head on a cartoon body.

Like the N90 and a970, the W800 also can change the style of the pictures to, say, sepia or black and white.

Many of the new camera phones, like the W800, have a tiny joystick for selecting options on various menus. It’s a good idea, but it isn’t well placed on the W800. Surrounded by other buttons, you need a certain level of dexterity to operate it. Consumers with fat fingers, beware!

I preferred the joystick on the Nokia N90. It’s more prominent, and is located on the side away from other buttons. The phone, which also costs $399 with a T-Mobile contract, had various swivel features. Without even opening the phone, you can swing out the lens and hold the device like a camera; or open the camera, swivel the screen and hold it like a camcorder.

The N90 also has a cool feature on its self-timer. When it’s activated, the camera takes six pictures in rapid sequence. If it’s a group photo, chances are there will be at least one shot in which everyone has their eyes open.

The biggest drawback to the N90 is that it’s bulkier than the W800. That gives it a bigger screen for taking and viewing pictures, but it’s more of a hassle to carry. I also was put off by the number of steps required to do simple things like sending a picture or finding a saved photo.

Samsung’s a970, available through Verizon Wireless for $299 with a two-year agreement, also has the swivel feature, but the design isn’t as clever as on the N90. The a970 lens points left when you hold the phone open, so you have to adjust it just to shoot what you’re facing.

I also found that the a970 took longer to perform certain operations. For example, saving a picture took no more than five seconds on the W800 and N90. On the a970, the same operation took about 10 seconds, while a “processing” notice appeared on the screen. It also took longer to send pictures.

But the a970 had a few features that stood out from the others. Its video menus are all in one place and easy to use. Also, after the a970 saves a picture, an easy-to-use screen pops up for sending it to friends, family members or contacts. You can even type up to 10 phone numbers and send a copy to everyone simultaneously with the push of a send key.

Camera phones are steadily improving, but my guess is that most consumers use them as backup cameras. They prefer digital cameras for big events, such as weddings and vacations.

But even that may change. Later this year, a number of manufacturers, including Nokia and Sony Ericsson, plan a U.S. release of camera-equipped phones in the three-megapixel range.

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