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These days most portable devices have at least one camera, and some have two.

These miniature cameras vary greatly in terms of their quality and capabilities.

 
 
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A Buying Guide to iPad and other Tablet Devices :  Part 5

Tablet/iPad Cameras, Video and Sound - Recording and Playing Back

Apple released a good quality camera and also miniature LED flash on its new iPhone 4.  But its first generation iPad has no camera at all - a disappointing omission.

 

 

It has become almost expected that any type of portable computing device will include a camera, and these days it is increasingly expected that the camera will be capable of video as well as still photography.  Feature inflation/expectation continues, with miniature flashes and second cameras becoming increasingly de rigeur too.

While the camera specifications, as narrowly cited in terms of Megapixels, might imply they are almost as good as regular digital cameras/camcorders, that is absolutely not the case.

If you feel you may benefit from an included camera, you need to carefully scrutinize different devices and their camera/video capabilities.

Camera(s), Audio and Video

Everyone was surprised when the iPad was announced as not containing any sort of camera.  These days regular cell phones almost always have one camera, and increasingly they have two, and it seemed amazing that a device with a lovely large display, better able to display pictures well, was not equipped with some sort of camera.

It appears this might have been due to equipment shortages and Apple's desire to get some type of iPad to market as quickly as possible, and seems close to 100% certain that the next generation of iPads (expected perhaps in Q2 of 2011) will have at least one camera in them.

Most other tablet devices have at least one camera in them.

Note that all these miniature cameras will never be as good as regular cameras, even if the number of Megapixels they can capture an image at seem comparable.  They are doomed to mediocrity by having a miniature lens (although, paradoxically, the smaller the lens, the less optical distortion that is introduced, which is why/how 'pinhole' cameras work) and a similarly tiny sensor chip.

Most of the camera units in phones and now in tablets too are fixed focus and fixed focal length, and while they take pictures vastly better than a few years ago (if you'd like a laugh, have a look at this page of sample pictures I took with a Nokia 3650 in 2003, or these sample pictures from a Motorola V600 taken in 2004) they are still visibly inferior to those from regular sub-compact digital cameras.

Why two cameras

Typically and historically, devices would have a camera on the side opposite to the side with the screen, allowing the screen to be used as a viewfinder.

With the growth of available bandwidth making video-conferencing practical, even on a small portable device, we have started to see devices with two cameras.  A moderately good quality one on the back of the device for regular photo/video use, and a low resolution on on the front for video conferencing.

Video camera issues

If you have a low quality camera for video conferencing, you'll probably have to accept whatever quality it offers.

But the capabilities of the rear-facing higher quality camera may be of more relevance.  We're far from convinced that a tablet is well suited for taking video footage, at least until such time as it has image stabilization and zoom capabilities, but as a way of at least quickly grabbing very short clips, a tablet - like a cell phone - should at least have the advantage of being close to omnipresent and easy to quickly pull out and start filming with.

You need to understand what resolution the camera will film video in, and how many frames per second it will film.  Ideally it should handle at least 480x640 at 30 frames per second, and any higher resolution than that becomes successively better, while any slower frame rate becomes increasingly unacceptable.

Some cameras claim capabilities more like 320x240 ('QVGA') at 15 frames per second.  This is too small and too slow by today's more demanding standards.

A clever enhancement being added to some phones are miniature flash units - LEDs rather than traditional strobe type flashes, which give out a bit of light that helps to illuminate close-by subjects.  They are useless beyond maybe 10' and of limited use closer than that, but they are better than nothing, and are a feature to look for on tablets too.  With more room and more battery, it is reasonable to expect more powerful LED flash capabilities appearing on tablets.

Sound

Although tablets generally do not have traditional voice/cell phone capabilities (although with VoIP capabilities in Google Voice and Skype and Wi-Fi connections, the line between regular cell-phone calling and VoIP/Wi-Fi calling becomes very blurred), they should be able to record sound - both to add to video, for video-conferencing, and as a simple audio recorder.

Ideally there would be a microphone in each direction for each video recorder function, and also some type of noise cancelling technology to filter out background noise, which might require another microphone.

There should also be the ability to plug a headset into the unit so as to both listen to sound/music played back and to record sound through an external microphone.

Bluetooth capabilities, both for regular Bluetooth headsets the same as with cell phones, and for A2DP type communication to audio playback devices, would also both be very helpful and positive.

If the tablet could record sound in stereo that would be, well, twice as good as if it can only record in mono.

The unit should also have one or two built in speakers to allow for 'emergency' playback of sound.  These built in speakers will probably be very small, very poor quality, and not capable of playing very loudly, but they will still be much better than nothing and are an essential feature to insist on.

The unit should be capable of playing MP3 type sound recordings, and hopefully also AAC and WMA encoded sound.  AAC and WMA are both better than MP3 (ie higher audio quality in a lower bit rate/file size), but MP3 is still the most globally found standard for sound recording.

Video Playback

The unit should be able to play video back on its built in screen, of course.

These days it seems the ability to play back high definition 720p video is becoming expected, but as discussed above, we don't recommend you record your video in 720p high definition format to start with (we have been using 576x720 as a compromise for no particular reason on our iPads), and so don't see this as a necessity, but there's certainly no harm in the unit having more rather than less capability here.

Most tablets also have an external video feed that could be connected to a larger high resolution external monitor.  Again, the higher the resolution the better, perhaps, but if you're not recording and storing video in high definition on your tablet, who really cares if the connection is capable of transferring over higher quality video than you have.

HDMI

Note that high definition playback requires a HDMI type output plug.  Regular video outputs and S-video and even three component video outputs won't support the new HD video playback.

Part of a multi part Buyers Guide to iPad/tablet devices.  Please visit the other parts of this series - links at the top right.
 

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Originally published 30 Sep 2010, last update 28 Nov 2012

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
iPad and Tablet Buying Guide 1 - Basic Issues
2 - Screen Issues
3 - Operating System & Applications
4 - Battery Life and Extensions
5 - Audio & video - recording, storing and replaying
6 - GPS and other LBS type sensors
7 - Data Connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G
8 - Online and offline memory/storage, CPU
9 - Everything else
Bonus :  Excel Spreadsheet
 
 
 

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