Q&A: A Video Professional's Take on the iPhone 4 and iOS 4

Q&A: A Video Professional's Take on the iPhone 4 and iOS 4

Summary: Want to know how good the iPhone 4's new photo and video capabilities are? Ask your professional videographer-slash-photojournalist friend. I did.


Chris Walton is a video producer in Bainbridge Island, Wash. with his own company, Visual Story Productions. I worked with Chris when we were both at the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong, where Chris was the longtime photo editor as well as the reviewer for all photo/video/printing gear. Chris is an Apple fan of deep credibility - he bought his first Mac in 1995, he cherishes his iPhone 3Gs 16GB and he still has his original Newton MessagePad 2100 that he tried to gallantly convince me back in the late 1990s was better than my Palm V. And he remains my go-to guy for all photo/video questions.

So which is bigger news - the improvements to the iPhone 4's rear-facing camera, or its all-new front-facing camera?

The 5 megapixel, flash-enabled rear camera is definitely the bigger news. People love the iPhone in part because it is perceived as the ultimate in convergence. Every new function means one less thing you have to carry in your bag. I have cameras ranging from medium format, to Leica M bodies to several digital SLRS and tens of thousands of dollars worth of lenses...but I am surprised at how often I take family photos with my iPhone. It's always with me and I can upload to Facebook or email straight from the camera. It's like having a wire service in your pocket.

I do the same thing with video, so high-def will be a big addition for a lot of people. Frankly, the video is not going to beat a good camera if you want to watch footage on a large plasma screen TV. But the point is that you will have the footage because your phone is always handy and it is going to have much more acceptable quality than the current iPhone. Perhaps more importantly, because it is 720p it is going to look much better on YouTube, which strongly favors HD footage.

I saw some pictures online taken by the iPhone 4's rear camera. How would you rate them? Are they at all deceptive, since they all appear to be taken under bright light?

I do think the subjects and circumstances were carefully chosen so your results may vary as the expression goes. Still, I think most people will find the iPhone's images to be of good quality and of a printable resolution. Again, I think that the more important point is that you will always have a camera with you. Having one that now produces higher resolution images is a definitely a bonus, but not a revolution.

During his keynote, Jobs emphasized that while the iPhone 4's rear camera would increase to 5 megapixels from the iPhone 3GS's 3 megapixels, the pixels would stay the same size (175 microns). Is that a big deal?

I think so. By saying the iPhone's imaging sensor chip has more pixels of the same size, he's strongly implying that the chip grew proportionally, too. Sensor size is vital for low-light picture quality. The bigger the sensor, the more light it can potentially capture. This is why a 5 megapixel cameraphone, with its tiny imaging chip, takes worse photos at twilight than a 5 megapixel point-and-shoot. Similarly, a point-and-shoot's sensor is smaller than a digital SLR's, meaning its low-light images will always be much worse, even if the point-and-shoot is rated at more megapixels than the SLR.

So how much of a boost will this provide to low-light performance?

It's not going to be great. As I noted earlier, all cameraphones still have relatively tiny sensor chips. In my experience with the 3GS, once light drops below a certain level, you don't see much of anything. Having said that, I was surprised at just how low that level was. I was able to shoot photos of my son and his grandmother watching the Olympics when both were lit only by the TV. The photos were very grainy but they went straight out to all the relatives who loved them. That's really what counts in the end.

The iPhone 4's rear camera will also shoot 720p high-def video at 30 frames per second. Does that mean I can dump my Flip cam or Sony Handycam?

You can most likely fling your Flip but you might want to hang on to the camcorder. I have yet to see sample footage from the new iPhone and I have to say that I don't think it is going to be stellar. Having said that, I have seen a lot of footage from sub-$1,000 camcorders and frankly it's rubbish.

It's really just a matter of what an individual finds acceptable. Where the iPhone really stands out is again with that compete-workflow-in-your-hand thing. You can shoot, edit and send to the web all without having to physically connect the iPhone to anything. In my experience it is that camera-to-computer step that intimidates most people and I have spoken to quite a few with digital video cameras that have never managed to get the footage out of the camera.

What did you think of the iPhone 4's new front cam and the FaceTime video cam app? I tend to that it's a cool demo but ultimately a bit of a niche app.

I would agree with that. I had a Motorola phone some years ago with a front-facing camera and my wife had a similar 3G model. We tried the video chat, said "that's sort of neat," and never used it again. I think some people will use it in a pinch if the software works with other chat services like Skype or iChat. Apple has said that FaceTime will be an open protocol, so let's hope that happens. But as of now it's strictly iPhone to iPhone and that is not very useful.

What about the new Retina Display and its 960x640 resolution? I think this lets you replace a laptop with an iPhone 4 for projector-based presentations. But on a day-to-day basis, wouldn't you trade 60% more tiny pixels for the HTC EVO's 25% bigger screen (4.3-inch vs 3.5-inch), especially if you have aging eyes?

This is always a push-pull problem. I remember back when I bought my much-loved Newton 2100 I used to get guff from people all the time. It had a word processor, a spreadsheet, a web browser, e-mail, a modem and a keyboard. I wrote most my stories on it but most people couldn't get past the size. It did more than a Palm - in fact there was absolutely no comparison between the two. But people couldn't wrap their heads around the idea of carrying something that was bigger than an organizer but not quite a notebook. The question really is "How big is too big for most people?" I know that for at least some people the HTC is too big. I would say that a higher resolution screen is the better choice.

But ex-ZDNet blogger George Ou argues that Jobs' WWDC demo exaggerated the visual improvements from the Retina Display.

I think he has a point. Apple has taken a little poetic license with its claims. I think what Apple was trying to say is that with the iPhone 3GS, you'll see the pixels and jaggies, but with the iPhone 4, you won't. I believe Apple was trying to show the real optical effect rather than necessarily abide by actual pixel counts.

So I appreciate what this fella is saying, but at the same time I am not sure how else Apple could go about illustrating their point. I haven't seen the new iPhone display in person. When I do, if I can still see pixels, well then I will be more than happy to say this fella got it right. But until then I am willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt.

Jobs said the iPhone's IPS display is superior to the OLED displays used in the latest Android phones. Do you buy that?

Yes, and they have charts and graphs to prove it. In all seriousness, OLED is the next big thing but from what I have read there are some teething problems. There are some color balance and image quality issues and apparently HTC hasn't helped that much by using 16-bit color data. I think it is probably more accurate to say that "for now" the iPhone display is better than OLED, but in six months or a year this might not be the case.

Do you think iPhone 4 beats the latest Android phones in the meaningful specs?

Dude! It's from Apple! Are there any other meaningful specs? Kidding aside, on the specs that Apple is pushing, yes and no. The still camera resolution is better on the HTC and multi-tasking is arguably a tie. The screen is higher resolution on the iPhone and the video capabilities are much better. The closest video-wise is the Evo 4G but it shoots at only 20 frames per second. Your TV runs at 30 (29.97 to be exact) and at just 20, the HTC video will appear to flicker. It really comes down to what is 'meaningful' and I think that is really an individual thing.

Last question: how great will being able to edit video directly on your iPhone or iPad with iMovie?

Awesome! Steven Spielberg has talked about making movies with his father's 8mm camera when he was growing up. How many kids had access to even a cheap movie camera, along with money for film and processing in 1958? What will film be like thirty years from now when we have an entire generation that has grown up with the ability to make a movie at their fingertips?

Topics: ÜberTech, Apple, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility, Smartphones

Eric Lai

About Eric Lai

I have tracked technology for more than 15 years, as an award-winning journalist and now as in-house thought leader on the mobile enterprise for SAP. Follow me here at ÜberMobile as well as my even less-filtered musings on Twitter @ericylai

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