Rich Warren | Too much emphasis being placed on picture quality

Rich Warren | Too much emphasis being placed on picture quality

Most of us are not in the league of Larry Kanfer or Darrell Hoemann, let alone Ansel Adams or Annie Lebovitz, when it comes to shooting photos. Thus, our smartphones serve well in capturing the kids, dogs and occasional fender bender for the insurance company.

We appreciate a phone that can snap a decent, sharp image with accurate colors, but few, if any of us will open a gallery selling images captured on our phones, regardless of the ads you see from Apple.

Smartphone manufacturers lead us to believe their latest models compete with a $2,000 Nikon or Canon single-lens reflex camera (SLR). Every new phone claims more megapixels, improved low light sensitivity and more vibrant colors. Some include dual imaging devices to improve picture quality. A bicycle with a motor is not a Harley-Davidson. Yet most smartphone advertising and subsequent reviews emphasize the camera.

While a boon, better smartphone cameras add significantly to the cost of a phone. It would be more cost-effective for Nikon to endow one of its SLRs with calling capability than building an SLR wannabe camera into a smartphone.

I've been surveying the range of "premium" smartphones and realize that they all promote their cameras before any other function. Perhaps some of us would appreciate the other qualities of a Samsung Galaxy S9 or Apple X for $150 less because it came with a basic camera rather than one claiming to turn you into Larry Kanfer?

Don't misunderstand; the artistry of a photo lies in the eye and mind of the photographer, so a talented photographer can capture impressive shots with almost any camera. However, a serious "real" camera offers quality, flexibility and nuance not found on any phone. Admittedly, phones finally surpassed most point-and-shoot cameras that were popular a decade ago, but they never will surpass an SLR or similar dedicated camera (there are non-SLR cameras that take superb photos).

There's one literally very big reason beyond all the intricate and subtle features built into a dedicated camera why phones can't compete: the lens. In today's world, electronics manufacturers easily can build a good camera back. Just as with your phone, it's mostly chips, not optics. Those large, usually interchangeable lenses set real cameras apart from phone cameras. Dedicated camera companies also understand weight, balance and ergonomics of cameras. You don't need to compromise the design in order to make a phone call, send a text or browse the internet.

Back in the heyday of hi-fi, manufacturers declared wattage wars. If Sansui designed a receiver with 150 watts per channel, six months later, Pioneer would market a model with 200 watts per channel, so Technics would fire back with 250 watts per channel.

There were various ways of rating distortion, so that they could goose the wattage rating while keeping the higher distortion level in the fine print. As we now know, with the exception of a very few models of loudspeakers and depending upon room size, 100 watts per channel splendidly serves nearly all of us. Most people easily could enjoy high-quality reproduction with only 50 watts per channel.

Similarly, smartphone makers embarked on a pixel war. Most people may never notice the difference between 10 megapixels and 20 megapixels. To complicate matters, not all pixels are created equal, since they can be in different shapes and configurations. Pixel count doesn't determine the final quality of the photo. Factors from the lens to the electronics count as much, if not more.

While my plea may be a cry in the wilderness, phone manufacturers should put more effort into better radio receivers, the part of the phone that makes phone calls and texts possible. When was the last time you saw an advertisement boasting about better reception and calling ability? Everyone appreciates a magnificent display, but what about the original reason for a cellular telephone?

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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