Camera Phones Get the Picture

Mobile phones have gotten smaller in size and bigger in function for years. But the Next Big Thing--built-in-cameras--may also usher in some changes to wireless networks.

A recent survey of mobile phone users finds that of all the new features available, the one they covet most is a camera. And accompanying that function are new things to do with it--such as photo caller ID and a bevy of related blog and photo sites. For example, Funtigo invites people to send each other their mug shots.

Better Networks

What's more, the increasing bandwidth demand of digital images may hasten adoption of phones that use faster network services, and prompt expansion of those more sophisticated networks. Cell phone service providers are pushing next-generation General Packet Radio Service and Code Division Multiple Access networks, but progress has been slow in coming.

Photo e-mail attachments don't need much bandwidth today, although current camera phones are just the first step in the march toward multimegapixel resolutions, streaming video, and videoconferencing on phones, says Alex Slawsby, a handheld devices analyst with IDC. He suspects that camera phones might push carriers to finally build out 3G networks and make them worthy of the name broadband.

Camera phones first appeared in the United States about a year ago. IDC sees camera phones helping to drive sales of 3G handsets past 48 million units worldwide next year, a 140 percent increase over this year.

"After years of 3G promises, the pieces--the handsets, the features and applications, the bandwidth, and the networks--are starting to come together to make next-generation wireless a reality," Slawsby says.

As proof, the faster networks are already in wide use in Asia, hand-in-hand with the popularity of digital camera phones, Slawsby notes. IDC predicts that 100 million camera phones will be sold next year, perhaps blessing network providers with margins no longer found in plain-old telephone service.

Join the Pack

A camera may not seem like a phone feature you just can't live without. But in a recent survey of 1300 mobile phone users conducted by the Zelos Group, users were asked to disclose their wish lists. Digital camera features edged out walkie-talkie services (such as Nextel's Direct Connect) to capture the top spot on most lists.

Camera phones may appeal to the gadget lover in all of us. They're one of those high-tech conveniences--like instant messaging or TiVo--that we didn't think we needed until we tried them.

It turns out camera phones aren't just fun, they're easy to use. I sampled some of the current models and found larger viewable color displays than on the average digital camera--and their photographic features don't seem to add to the phones' overall size.

The cameras I tried operated flawlessly, even in the hands of one who intentionally doesn't read instructions. I just grabbed, clicked, and e-mailed admittedly crude self-portraits to myself. This kind of "just-plain-works" technology could give camera phones broad appeal.

Cameras are available at all price points and in just about any design of phone or PDA. Camera functionality doesn't seem to add much to price--at least, not in and of itself. The feature is usually bundled with other options, so the individual price contributions are hard to isolate.

What to Say Cheese With

The second generation of camera phones is now on the market, and their features and specifications are in no way standard. Like stand-alone digital cameras, screen resolutions, lens choices, and image quality are works in progress; a camera phone would not satisfy the professional photographer at this point. Their necessarily small sizes and consumer-oriented wide-angle lenses deliver snapshot quality that's similar to disposable cameras you can buy at a drug store. Still, you might be surprised by what they have to offer.

For example, the Samsung SPH-A600 is a diminutive clamshell that takes 640-by-480 VGA-quality images with three resolution options. It has a 4X digital zoom and even a built-in flash. Its 65,000-color TFT viewfinder swivels 180 degrees to let you take a self-portrait (with the help of a built-in timer) or easily show others your photos.

The camera phone is distributed by Sprint PCS. At $349, the 4.2-ounce SPH-A600 is more expensive than many other models. But it can snap three continuous frames at a time, and it stores more than 100 images that you can customize with graphics. You can also attach pictures to text messages.

Entry-Level Devices

At the other end of the spectrum, the similar SCP-8100 from Sanyo is another Sprint PCS clamshell. It costs only $99 after a $130 Sprint discount. This 3.9-ounce dual-band phone has a 1.8-inch, 65,000-color TFT display, 352-by-288-pixel camera resolution, and a 1-inch color display when the phone is folded shut.

The camera offers a timer and the ability to view four thumbnails at a time. In addition, you can add artsy frames or ten-second voice captions to photos. You also can send images to your PC over an optional USB cable.

Similarly small and inexpensive, but in the popular bar form factor, are Sony Ericsson's T610 and T616. These versions of the same phone are differentiated by carrier only: The T610 is offered by T-Mobile and the T616 by AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless. Although once priced as high as $249, the device is now only $100.

Both tri-band models are among the smallest and most trouble-free camera phones available for GSM/GPRS networks. The TFT display supports 128 by 160 pixels and 65,000 colors and the bundled QuickShare application lets you send pictures to your PC wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Cutting Edge

Nokia, always on the cutting edge of mobile phone design, has done it again with its tri-band GSM/GPRS 3650. This bar-shaped phone has a love-it-or-hate it circular keypad/navigation wheel that takes some getting used to.

The VGA digital camera offers several automatic exposure and resolution settings, and can store an incredible 1000 images on a 16MB MultiMediaCard wedged alongside the battery in the same compartment. The cutting-edge 3650 also can act as a camcorder, storing 11 seconds of MPEG-4 video on the MMC. A smartphone running the Symbian OS, the 3650 is being offered by AT&T Wireless for $150. The 3650 is Bluetooth- and IR-enabled to let you wirelessly transfer data files.

Finally, the LG VX6000 clamshell made by LG Mobile Phones and sold by Verizon Wireless for $150 (after a $50 rebate) has an unusual feature: Instead of a swivel lens, the camera uses a built-in mirror for self-portraits, and it offers a timer for hands-free photography.

The VX6000's camera has three resolution settings up to VGA (low, medium, and high), a 4X digital zoom, a multishot feature, and the ability to add sound or text captions to photos. It also has a contrast adjustment for different lighting situations. The phone offers a 499-contact database.

Room to Grow

Camera functions aren't just spreading to cell phones; they're showing up in a growing number of PDAs, too. You can also add camera functions to standard mobile phones and PDAs with add-on devices. For example, Palm's new Camera Card plugs into its Tungsten handhelds, announced in September. The Camera Card will deliver 1.3 megapixels and resolutions of up to 1280-by-1024 resolution for only $100.

Not all the bugs have been shaken out yet. For example, cell phone shutterbugs will encounter varying levels of difficulty sending photos for simultaneous display on phones that don't use the same cellular network. But you can send images attached to an e-mail message to other users, or to one of the many photographic Web sites, or even to your own PC. It's just a matter of time before cross-network incompatibilities are worked out.

"Handheld photography is really just in its infancy," Slawsby says. "There's a lot of upside."

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