By Adam Doud | July 3, 2013 7:00 AM
It’s rally day. The Blackhawks just won the Stanley Cup. I’m downtown. They’re downtown. Everyone is downtown. I’m rocking my Lumia 920, a.k.a. the best smartphone camera in the universe and I’m snap-snap-snapping away. The thing is, I’m not exactly at the front of the crowd. So if I want to be able to see more than just tiny little globs in my photos, I need to zoom in. And so I zoom. And then I get sad. And then I check my battery, and I get sadder.
Smartphone camera technology is really good today. Compared to smartphone cameras over the past decade, they’re downright miraculous. But there are some sticking points on which it seems like OEMs are throwing in the towel as if to say, “That’s as good as it’s ever going to get.” One issue I frequently have trouble with is the camera flash of a smartphone. I know Michael Fisher shares this same opinion in that we both turn off the flash on our Lumias because the Lumia does so well in low light. But we’ll save that conversation for another time.
Right now, at issue is smartphone bulk versus smartphone experience. Some OEMs argue that smartphone bulk in and of itself detracts from the experience itself. If it’s too bulky, or too heavy, people won’t like it. That may be true to a certain extent, but it really depends on what that extra bulk is going toward. In my opinion, battery life and a superior camera experience are two areas which will significantly add bulk, but at the same time, would be more than worth the cost.
The battery life versus bulk issue has been addressed time and again. How much is too much? How many grams and millimeters can an OEM add to a phone before it becomes “unusable”? But no one has really come out with a smartphone that can withstand more than a day of heavy usage on a single charge (except possibly the Droid RAZR Maxx). Indeed, more common is the smartphone that looks for the nearest charger after only a few hours of usage. Being downtown and using your phone as a primary camera can be a very draining experience on a battery.
But the first OEM that can hold up a phone and boast of 36 hours of heavy usage will have captured the unicorn of battery sippers. Occasionally, I’ll catch lightning in a bottle and, after forgetting to charge my Lumia overnight, I’ll make it half of the next day before plugging in. But those are extremely rare occurrences. Those are most definitely the exception, not the rule.
Another worthwhile endeavor to adding bulk is the concept of optical zoom. Recently, Taylor Martin educated us all on digital vs optical zoom. The gist of it was, you can either have a stupid thick phone, such as the Samsung Galaxy Zoom, or you can have a stupid huge sensor such as the Nokia 808 PureView (and hopefully the Nokia EOS). Both of those add a decent amount of bulk to a phone, and in the Zoom’s case cause a certain downgrade in specifications. It seems OEMs are unwilling to make this sacrifice in order bring a superb camera experience to a smartphone. Which is fine, until you find yourself in a sea of people 600 feet away from guys wearing hockey jerseys at a podium holding up the most beautiful trophy on earth.
I kept looking at my Lumia 920, already a hulking beast of hardware by today’s standards, and cursing its lack of optical zoom that would allow me to accurately see the scars on Andrew Shaw’s face. I wanted a Galaxy Zoom. Sorta.
Optical zoom = camera
Of course, the concept of the Galaxy Zoom is ridiculous. Let’s face it, it looks like a camera. But the overall philosophy of adding a camera with movable lenses and optical zoom to a smartphone is so very intriguing, I wish more OEMs had the you-know-whats to implement it. Digital zoom, even lossless digital zoom is just not good enough in my opinion. This is however have never seen the results of an 808 zoomed photo firsthand. Maybe it’s the best thing since sliced bread. I’ll reserve judgment until after July 11.
But optical zoom really is priceless in those situations where you can’t put your feet closer to the subject. Either your kid is playing sports, or you’re 600 feet away from a cursing Corey Crawford, or you’re taking photos of a gigantic silver ball across a lagoon at night. I personally would love to have a little extra junk in the trunk if it meant that I could just get closer.
The Galaxy Zoom isn’t quite there, but it’s a wonderful step forward from the Galaxy camera because it actually works as a phone. The original galaxy camera was an exercise in the ridiculous spawning equally ridiculous tests and videos (but seriously, Michael, it was awesome). But to develop a device like that and leave out the phone functionality completely missed the concept of having an Android powered camera. The Zoom is another step forward, but it still looks too much like a camera. This is a phone after all. And to market the Zoom as a phone will make people double-take especially since so many store have their cell phone displays and camera displays right next to each other.
Hope springs eternal
I’m glad Samsung recognizes the need for optical zoom to deliver a premium smartphone camera experience. I’m also glad they weren’t afraid to add a bit of extra bulk to the phone to do so. Their design choices aren’t all that great yet, but it keeps me hopeful for the next generation of the Zoom.
Overall, battery life and optical zoom are about the only features that justify a lot of added bulk. There is something to be said for a slim and light phone after all. But for those two things, I’d willingly tote around a brick attached to my belt. The weight and thickness concerns are of no consequence to me if those features can be brought to the table. I think Samsung recognizes that and will hopefully develop a more phone-like design for their 3rd generation android phone/camera hybrid. Hopefully they’ll release it before the 2014 Blackhawks Stanley Cup parade.