iPhone 4S has some nice camera upgrades

For some of us, the most compelling new feature of the iPhone 4S isn’t the debut of iOS 5 or the faster A5 processor. No, what I’m most excited about (and I know I’m not the only one) is the new, beefier camera. We’ve come a long way; ten years ago phone cameras were a joke, and now they’re the most popular camera on flickr.  The iPhone 4S’s camera upgrade shows us why.

First, the size: 8 megapixels. This is the most marketing-friendly upgrade, but in my opinion it’s the least important. Plenty of devices have high pixel counts, and the fact is you don’t need a high pixel count to take a quality photo. High pixel counts are really only necessary for very large photos with very large sensors, like DSLR-type cameras. Having a lot of pixels in a small space only helps the quality of shots that are blown up very large, which isn’t a common use of a phone snapshot. So what is important?

I think it may be the 4S’s claim to “73% more light” provided by the new sensor. Featuring “next-generation backside illumination”, this upgrade is similar to the one that made the iPhone 4 camera much better then the 3GS. In a nutshell, backside illumination flips the sensor over, so light can hit it without having to pass through the phone’s circuitry.  The improvement probably isn’t as glaring as the jump from 3GS to iPhone 4, but better performance is always a good thing.

Another big factor is speed: the 4S has faster picture-taking abilities. The new sensor is described as being “1/3rd faster,” which is vague, but we can approximate that the 4S’s electronics can retrieve the image data off the sensor 30% faster. The A5 processor also has a major focus on graphics enhancement that’s superior to the A4. The combination of a faster sensor and an expedited pipeline for that image data makes the iPhone 4S camera twice as fast as its competition, all the way from clicking the button to seeing the picture.

Another big get: Improved lens. The most important part of a camera is the lens (any photo enthusiast can tell you that). The lens of the iPhone 4 is very good for a phone: F/2.8 (limited to F/3) at about 30mm equivalent focal length. The new one is f/2.4, which is about half a stop better.  This doesn’t sound like a big difference, but the aperture scale counts for a lot when it comes to small cameras. This small difference represents a big increase in the total amount of light hitting the sensor, which helps overall picture quality.

Video capture has also seen an upgrade.  While other devices this size and smaller shoot in 1080p, 1080p resolution doesn’t mean automatic quality. Sometimes, smaller sensors can cause the video to over-emphasize the movement of the camera.  I’m hopeful that good software could make this camera very useful by aiding with proper framerates.  If the software modulating the video capture is as advanced as the rest of the phone, this 1080p may be a cut above the rest of the pack.  The improved real-time stabilization (a must-have feature for small cameras, since they tend to wiggle around a lot when shooting) may also make a big difference. The stabilization is the result of the faster A5 processor at work once again. It’s a smart change, too: designing the camera’s image processor around the hardware allows this kind of heavy graphical work without taxing the battery.

All of these changes add up to one big thing: this is probably the best camera phone on the market right now. Personally, I can’t wait to do some real-life tests to see the image quality and speed in person. These upgrades aren’t just superficial; this camera is definitely on my short list of good reasons to upgrade to the latest, greatest iPhone.