Reinventing the wheel?→
A Matter Of Taste
Most the news this week has been coming from The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
With the gap between your smartphone and your laptop ever diminishing it is no surprise that the MWC has become almost as big a technology event as E3 in Vegas and SXSW in Austin. However, unlike those events where every year you seem to see more and more companies, and more and more start-ups, bringing innovative tech, the MWC seems to have fewer and fewer companies and the floor is generally owned by those we already know, with innovations from smaller firms pretty much restricted to phone cases and chargers. With the absence of Apple, it really leaves Android, Sony, Nokia and Samsung. Unfortunately the differences between the hardware manufacturers products are becoming less and less distinguishable: a thin, keyboardless, buttonless, touchscreen slate. The important bit is now what OS its running. And thats mostly Android with a few Windows phones thrown in. This means there seems to be little ‘WOW” from anything presented there, its all about getting the stats bigger: faster, sharper, more pixels.
So what did get most people talking? Well, the attention grabber was Nokia’s 808 PureView which packs a 41 megapixel camera! 41 megapixels! To give you some idea of reference, the compact camera you take on holiday probably has somewhere between 8 – 12 MP. If you have an SLR then you might be looking at anywhere between 12 – 20 MP. So, like, wow! This smartphone must be twice as good as those SLR’s right? Well, for those who aren’t into their camera tech allow me to give you a quick explanation (although this will be a bit of a geek-out so if you’re not that interested feel free so skip a paragraph).
Theoretically the more pixels you have the sharper your image and the larger you can display that image, whether thats printing it out as a poster, viewing it on your 27″ iMac or displaying it on your 42″ HD TV. So how, you ask, have Nokia, a phone maker, gotten ahead of the game compared to Canon, Nokia and Sony? Well, the number of megapixels is only 1/3 of the story. You see what actually translates into a sharper, better quality image is not just the numbers of MPs but the physical size and quality of the sensor that turns those pixels into an image. The most important stat is the number of pixels per sq cm. This is because pixels suffer what is known as bleed – the light that hits one pixel can bleed into the pixels around it, meaning that rather than your image being composed of 12million, 18 million or 41 million perfect little dots of captured light you might be actual talking 1/8th or even 1/24th of that. And the more pixels you pack closer together the worse the bleed gets. The current leading Canon SLR, the 1D, has a 8.64 sq cm sensor with 18 MP, giving it approx 2.01 MP per sq cm. Around this figure is what current technology uses, with no bleed, to create perfect pictures you can expand to billboard sizes. Now, the Nokia fits 41 MP onto a sensor 0.8 sq cm (although admittedly that is huge for a smartphone) which gives you 51MP per sq cm. Now if that bleeds only a little (and it will vary depending on light) then you are talking about your 41MP image actually only being 5MP. That is REALLY good for a phone, don’t get me wrong, but the same result could be achieved with fewer megapixels. And that 5MP is optimistic, in reality it wouldn’t surprise me if the real image was closer to 2MP (FYI, this has nothing to do with the image size or file size).
The proof, they say, is in the pudding and without a doubt the Nokia does produce very good, sharp images. So, will every smartphone hardware manufacturer now be in a desperate arms race to make 100 megapixel, 200 megapixel or 1000 megapixel phone? No. No they won’t. Mainly because the amount of processing power vs the image quality is inefficient and unnecessary. Apple, when they launched the iPhone 4 said they didn’t want to go from a 3MP but that it was becoming the norm for smartphones and would be seen as a ‘con’ rather than a ‘pro’ for anyone comparing products. I imagine for the next few years we will see the smartphone market with camera’s of comparable MP size to those of the compact camera market (and a compact will still take better pic’s because of its sensor size).
“But Phil”, I hear you cry, “that camera geekery is unknown and uncared for by the general public. Surely they will flock to this phone as if it gave out free money!”. Well they would if it didn’t run on the Symbian OS. With iOS, Android and, to a lesser extent Windows leading the way in smartphone firmware Symbian is looking very old and dated. It can’t update, adapt and change as fast as the others. It now accounts for less than 12% of the smartphone OS’s and that is mostly from emerging-market sales of early Nokia smartphone. And that 12% is shrinking rapidly. Last year Nokia itself had its famous “standing on a burning platform” memo from Stephen Elop which prompted them to jump to a Windows partnership. I believe this was just a stunt to grab some headlines and make a few much needed sales when (if?) it goes on sale this year.
A better taste?
If you read this blog regularly (if not, why not?!) you may remember me discussing a project last year called Raspberry Pi – a project to get a very cheap programmable computer into schools. Well they had their official launch this week and it has become massive! They have sold out of all stock and the PR has been huge (most read story on the BBC news website the other day with 1.2million views!). These £22 ($35) devices hope to be the start in a tech savvy revolution for schools, ensuring that in a few years the UK is not left behind as our workforce can use Facebook but have no idea how it works.
Have a great week!