What Really Makes a Good Cell Phone Camera?

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The great megapixel race may finally be slowing down in digital cameras, but it's picking up steam in cell phones.

In digital photography, the term "pixel" refers to the tiny dots that make up a photograph. The more pixels a photograph has, the higher its image resolution. A megapixel is equal to one million pixels.

Both Samsung's Pixon 12 and Sony Ericsson's Satio cell phones take 12-megapixel photos—meaning you can now buy cell phones with greater resolution than Canon's top-of-the-line point-and-shoot digital cameras.

If this sounds a little crazy, that's because it is, experts say. Few people need 12 megapixels, especially in a cell phone camera. The megapixel race has grown out of the megapixel myth, the false notion that a camera with higher resolution is always better. Manufacturers and retailers, eager to convince consumers that they need the latest camera and phone models, have pushed this faulty idea hard.

"By itself, the number of megapixels doesn't tell you anything about the quality of the image produced," said Steve Berardi, founder of PhotoNaturalist.net. "Sure, it will tell you how big the image is, but bigger doesn't always mean better quality."

For the average shutterbug, five or six megapixels is probably plenty of resolution. Beyond this level, various other camera characteristics, such as the size of the image sensor and optics quality, are more important than raw megapixels.

Canon acknowledged this in digital cameras when it released the latest entry in its Powershot series in 2009. The company's PowerShot G11 has only a 10-megapixel image sensor, which is nearly 5 megapixels less than the previous model, the PowerShot G10. Despite the lower megapixel count, many photographers say the G11 takes cleaner and less grainy images compared to the G10.

The megapixel myth holds even less water for cell phones than it does for stand-alone digital cameras like the G11. Most folks, after all, aren't making big prints out of their cell-phone photos or enlarging small sections—activities for which ultra-high resolution comes in handy.

As with the early days of digital cameras, the quality of cell phone photos is improving. But higher megapixel counts are likely not the main reason why, Berardi told TechNewsDaily.

"It's probably because they're using better [image] sensors, or just larger ones."

Mike Evans, editor of the cell-phone review and discussion site MobileMentalism.com, said that even though cell phone manufacturers keep ratcheting up the megapixels, they are also emphasizing other important camera features, such as autofocus, image stabilization for less blurry photos, a xenon or dual LED flash, and good optics.

"In particular, the Sony Ericsson Satio and Samsung Pixon 12 are camera phones with great camera-related features other than megapixels," Evans said.

Mike Wall
Space.com Senior Writer
Michael was a science writer for the Idaho National Laboratory and has been an intern at Wired.com, The Salinas Californian newspaper, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. He has also worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.