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March 29, 2011

Why are cameras in mobile computers not any better?

When I founded the original Digital Camera Magazine in 1997, almost no one thought that digital photography would ever seriously challenge film. At best, digital cameras were thought to become novelties or peripherals for computers. Yet, just a decade later, digital imaging had surpassed film and, in one of the quickest major technology upheavals, quickly made film irrelevant. As a result, digital cameras, which initially had carried a steep price premium, became more and more affordable. Today you can get a very good and incredibly compact 14-megapixel camera for less than US$100. In essence, digital imaging technology has become commoditized.

Which makes one wonder wonder why cameras integrated into mobile computing equipment aren't any better.

It's sad but true: cameras built into mobile computers are simply not very good. Some are getting better, but virtually none are within a lightyear of even the most basic dedicated digital camera. And, worse for those why rely on top quality tools for the job, cameras in consumer products such as smartphones and media tablets are generally much better than what is used in vertical market equipment. That is hard to explain.

Why is it important to have a good camera in a mobile computer? Because mobile computers are expensive tools for important jobs. Image capture is quickly becoming a must-have feature in the field. Field workers must document all sorts of things out there, like accidents, conditions, extraordinary events, repair status, etc., etc. And those images must be good enough to be of value.

As is, most cameras integrated into mobile computers cannot do that. The cameras are low res (hardly ever more than 3-megapixel), slow (often unacceptably slow), basic (few come close to the features even the cheapest dedicated camera has), and thus simply cannot do the job they're supposed to do. There are probably all sorts of explanations as to why that is, but I just can't buy them. If a cheap, tiny consumer camera can take award-winning pictures, the guts of such a camera can and should easily fit into a much larger mobile computer. Why this isn't happening is beyond me, but it just isn't.

This stunning lack of cross-fertilization between two major technologies actually goes both ways. Cameras have progressed immeasurably over the past decade, yet to this day, digital cameras come with the same tiny 30MB or so of internal memory they always have. You can buy a generic MP3 player with 8, 16, 32 or even 64GB of storage for a few bucks, but even the most advanced consumer digicams have essentially no internal storage. Which is always a REAL pain when your card gets full or you forget to put one in. And let's not even talk about compatibility. In the camera world, every company has their own standard and almost nothing is ever compatible.

That really needs to change. Customers who pay $2,000 or more for a rugged mobile computer should be able to take superb pictures with it, and shoot HD video, just as you can with a little $100 camera. There is simply no excuse, none, to put sluggish, insufficient imaging technology into expensive computer equipment. It cannot be a cost issue either; missing ONE important shot because a field computer's camera is so unwieldy and incapable can cost more than the entire device.

So let's get with it, mobile computing and camera industries! Camera guys: You need some real storage in your product, and no, going from 30 to 100MB won't do. And give some thought about compatibility. Computer guys: Do demand and insist that the camera guts inside your wonderfully competent mobile computing gear is not an embarrassment. It should work at least as well as that brand name $79 camera you can pick up at Walmart. And that includes good video and a real flash!

So there.

Posted by conradb212 at March 29, 2011 06:21 PM