phone cameras

Every recent high-end phone launch has focused, sorry about that, on the camera. Likewise, every phone promotion or marketing campaign pushes cameras to the fore.

Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 in Auckland last month. The company invited journalists to an open plan restaurant. There, Samsung invited journalists to photograph the chef preparing food.

The menu included a dish with a viscous pour-on sauce. This was a clever way of highlighting the S9’s very slow motion video function. The results were impressive.

Samsung hired a video professional to take slow motion footage of bees entering a hive. Shown on a giant TV screen, the pictures were crystal clear and, at times, had stunning clarity.

When phone makers show journalists new devices, they devote at least half the time to cameras.

Apple and Huawei have the same emphasis on photography.

Phone makers with smaller budgets push camera features to the top of their press releases.

Camera talk

During technical presentations company insiders talk at great length about phone features. At least a third of allotted time is camera talk. You can come away with the impression that’s all they want to talk about.

Every phone maker mentioned so far and some others will tell you they have the best phone camera. In a limited sense most of them are right, although it depends on your terms of reference. No phone costing, say, $800 or more has a bad camera.

In the last year or so, every phone maker used the word ‘bokeh’ at least once in their launch presentation. It would not be hard to make a cliché bingo card for phone launch attendees.

If this sounds like ‘me too’ marketing, well, it can be at times. Every phone maker thinks a fashion parade is an original idea.

There are important difference. Each company’s best camera excels at something else. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 does well in low light and can do very slow motion video. Huawei’s Mate 10 is best for black and white photography.

Most phone makers can point at unique camera hardware features. They can all point at unique software.

The quality of still and moving pictures from high end phones is remarkable. If you know what you’re doing — we’ll come back to that — you can take wonderful images. This is even more impressive when you consider how small the lenses are. Phone lenses are prone to finger smudges and camera shake is a given.

A point of difference

So why do phone makers put so much emphasis on cameras? An obvious reason is cameras differentiate what are otherwise me-too products.

Telephony and connectivity are much the same on all phones including cheap ones. Screen resolution is higher than the human eye can perceive. Few high-end phones struggle with processing power. These days they all look alike.

While there is a huge and obvious software difference between Apple’s iPhone range and Android handsets, you couldn’t say the same for Android models. Phone makers add their own software skins to stock Android. In almost every case this detracts value, at least from the customer’s perspective.

This leaves cameras and camera software as a playground for creativity and innovation. Which, in turn, brings us to the second reason phone makers place so much emphasis on photography.

Phone hardware designs and specifications have stabilised. With the move to remove bezels, that is the borders around screens, there’s little left to tinker with. Samsung struggles deciding where to put its fingerprint scanner. Otherwise, physical phone design has reached a cul-de-sac, at least for now.

The Galaxy S9 looks so much like the S8. Samsung had to come up with a new case colour for people wanting to show off their new phone.

Room for improvement

Over the last few years phone makers found room for improvement in their camera hardware and software. It’s likely this will soon reach another dead end. The laws of physics mean there’s only so much you can do with a tiny lens and sensor array.

The last big innovation was the move to dual lens cameras. This hasn’t played out yet. Meanwhile, at least one phone maker, Huawei, is talking of a triple lens camera.

There’s a danger this could become like the disposable razor business. There, for a time, adding an extra blade gave the appearance of innovation to an otherwise evolved product. It could be like tail fins on 1950s American cars. In effect we’re talking innovation for the sake of having an innovation talking point.

Another danger is that customers are loosing interest in phone cameras. Or, more likely, customer interest in phone cameras is not in alignment with phone maker hype.

Take, again, the Samsung Galaxy S9 slow-motion video feature. As mentioned early, the results are impressive, but how many Galaxy S9 buyers will use it?

Or, more to the point, how many will continue to use it beyond playing around with it when they first get their phone?

You can ask the same question about many of the camera innovations phone makers promote. Is the beauty mode, which attempts to make people look better, anything more than passing fad. How many phone owners have taken more than a handful of bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds?

Are people buying cameras or phones?

Slow-motion video is nice-to-have, but it’s unlikely more than one phone buyer in 20 will use it often. Similar reasoning goes for all fancy high-end phone camera features.

The flip side of this logic is worth considering. High-end phones with fancy camera features sell at a considerable premium. You may pay NZ$500 extra to get that super camera in your hands. If you only use it a dozen or so times, that feature has cost you $40 a shot.

Skeptical readers might see the industry’s obsession with camera phones as a way of forcing up handset prices. It also repairs margins in a business where only Apple and Samsung make decent money.

Of course, you can use phone cameras for serious work. If you need to take pictures in your job, the extra cost can be a smart investment.

Yet, in general you can’t take pictures of the quality you’d get from a SLR or any decent camera with a much bigger lens and sensor array. Phone cameras are handy, we carry them with us all the time. And the quality is so good that at times it is hard to tell if an iPhone or a Canon took the shot.

Hard to use

One phone camera drawback is they are hard to use in a hurry. Sure, all the phone makers tell us how easy their products are to use. Even so, the software can be confusing.

Phone camera interfaces are often tiny and you need to hunt around to find controls. Almost everyone uses the default mode for every shot. What’s more, stabbing at controls on a phone screen is not the best way to steady your hand to take pictures. Adjusting and using a digital SLR is easy in comparison.

There is still some room for improvement with phone cameras. Among other things Huawei’s third lens could do the trick. There is scope for yet more innovation in the software and, yes, a better user interface.

No doubt other improvements are in the works. At best we may see one or two more cycles. In the meantime some phone makers are switching their marketing attention to what they call AI or artificial intelligence.

It’s questionable whether this is real AI in the sense that the software learns things from use. There’s also a big question over whether phone buyers give a toss for this approach. We’ll see.

End of the golden age

Phone makers face a far bigger problem than competition with each other. It appears phone sales have faltered and now may be about to end the same kind of fall that has plagued the PC sector.

People are hanging on to phone longer. Research companies like IDC and Gartner put this down to consumers not being so enchanted with new feature that they feel a need to upgrade.

Given the marketing emphasis phone makers put on cameras, that can be evidence they are out of sync with what customers want. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be a way of taking better photographs or videos.

macbook pro keyboard

Marco Arment has a number of suggestions for Apple in Fixing the MacBook Pro. Arment’s post runs down a list of the things that are wrong with the 2016 MacBook Pros and offers suggestions for putting them right. It covers four areas, but the main one and the problem that bothers me personally is the new MacBook Pro keyboard.

Arment writes:

Butterfly key switches are a design failure that should be abandoned. They’ve been controversial, fatally unreliable, and expensive to repair since their introduction on the first 12” MacBook in early 2015. Their flaws were evident immediately, yet Apple brought them to the entire MacBook Pro lineup in late 2016.

The decision to use the butterfly key switch keyboard looked odd at the time. One reason people thought earlier MacBook Pro models were among the best-ever laptops was the solid keyboards. They were great. Dropping the earlier design looked and felt like a mistake at the time. Yet, as Arment points out, things only got worse when it emerged they were unreliable and required an expensive, fix.

He says:

After three significant revisions, Apple’s butterfly key switches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever. At best, they’re a compromise acceptable only on the ultra-thin 12” MacBook, and only if nothing else fits. They have no place in Apple’s mainstream or pro computers.

Maybe not. But here’s the strangest thing. I have a 12.9 inch iPad Pro with the Apple Smart Keyboard. It is great to type on. Yet it uses the same basic butterfly key switch.

I’m a touch typist and hammer keyboards because I learnt to type on manual typewriters. The Smart Keyboard may not be perfect, no portable keyboard is, but it is a far better experience than typing on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro.

When I wrote about the MacBook Pro keyboard before, I found it acceptable, but clearly preferred the keyboard on the Air.

Few options beyond MacBook Pro

My ageing MacBook Air is coming up for replacement. After looking at the MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards and deciding they are not for me, I’m thinking about the options for my next portable computer. At this stage the shortlist is go with the iPad Pro and get a desktop iMac for home, buy a new MacBook Air or wait until there’s a refurbished older Retina MacBook Pro in the local Apple Store.

While buying a refurbished machine is good for the planet, it doesn’t seem right. A new MacBook Air would be a productive choice. Yet I prefer Retina displays. The MacBook Air specification is old-fashioned by late 2017 standards.

Which means the most likely choice will be the iPad Pro and iMac. That’s remarkable as it means for the first time in years there isn’t a MacBook model that meets my needs. All because Apple doesn’t offer one with a decent keyboard.

Back to Arment:

The MacBook Pro must return to scissor key switches. If Apple only changes one thing about the next MacBook Pro, it should be this.

It needs to do this soon to get my business. I’m probably not alone. And yet it’s unlikely Apple will move because it seems the new MacBook Pros have been selling better than expected. If the market has spoken, whatever it said was not: “fix the MacBook Pro keyboard”.

Mobile phone handsetPeople are paying more for phones. After years of falling prices, market research firm GfK reports the average price of a phone climbed seven percent in the last year. The number of phones sold worldwide climbed three percent during the year. Sales fell in North America and Western Europe.

GfK works with actual sales data rather than the shipments preferred by some analysts. This means the information is a more accurate reflection of consumer behaviour.

The clear pattern is that phone makers have switched focus towards more expensive premium smartphone models. Apple, Samsung and, most of all, Huawei all moved their customers upmarket. GfK says the premium features have become more important to customers.

What phone buyers want

They now look for: “water and dust protection, battery power and memory, high-resolution sound, camera and video capabilities, bezel-less design and even biometric sensors”.

Rising handset prices run counter to conventional technology hardware wisdom. The usual pattern is for prices to fall over time as manufacturers improve processes and wring out economies of scale. This is accelerated by new market entrants undercutting existing players.

The phone market has been running on a different track ever since Apple introduced the first iPhone a decade ago. For most of that time Apple has made almost all the industry’s profit despite having only a minority market share.

Aggressive phone prices

To a degree Apple’s rivals bought market share with aggressive discounting. That made sense to them during the growth years as people around the world bought their first smartphones.

It meant the phone business went through the usual economic cycle much faster than earlier technology waves. While it was always a competitive business, there were far few players than in, say, personal computer hardware.

There have been casualties along the way. Blackberry, Nokia and HTC were all roadkill on the route to today’s market.

Chasing margins

Now the phone makers, especially the Android phone makers, have turned their focus to margins and profitability. Hence the price rises. Apple pushed the bar higher again with its iPhone X which costs more than NZ$2000. Huawei has an even pricier phone.

Huawei is knocking on the door of Apple and Samsung. It aims to be the first Chinese company to be a global technology quality brand.

There’s still a way to go. The company’s products are excellent quality and contain as much innovation as brands like Samsung. Unlike Samsung, Huawei is on the whole more inclined to invest in engineering than in marketing budgets. That said, the company uses Scarlett Johansson in its advertising to great effect.

Huawei also teams with prestige brands. Its high-end phones use Leica camera lenses and its most expensive models have blingy Porsche designs.

Despite the company’s engineering prowess, Huawei has yet to master the art of looking after a customer after the sale. The biggest complaint you hear is that phone software is rarely, if ever, updated. That may be an issue that only concerns a certain market segment. Ironically, it is the market segment most likely to be drawn to advanced engineering.

Artificial intelligence

Huawei’s latest phone, the Mate 10, includes the kind of artificial intelligence features found in Apple and Samsung models. It’s ability to translate written languages feels almost like magic, or perhaps something from science fiction. In a similar vein, the phones take screenshots when you knock on the display with your knuckle.

For now, the sector’s move upmarket has created opportunities for mid-tier phone makers like Oppo. It’s another Chinese brand. Oppo sells an Android phone with about 90 percent of premium phone functionality for about 50 percent of the price.

Although Huawei would love to be seen as a serious rival to Apple, in truth the two address two quite different audiences. Few Apple iPhone owners would jump ship for a Mate 10. That’s not the case with Samsung customer, the two brands both use the same basic Android software and switching is relatively painless.

ipad-pro-12-9-inch second generation Smart Keyboard
Apple’s Smart Keyboard cover gives the second generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro basic protection from knocks and scratches.

Apple made the large screen 12.9-inch iPad Pro to travel. It may not be as portable as the 9.7 or 10.5-inch iPads, but the bigger display makes up for that. It is fast becoming my first choice travelling computer1.

The 12.9-inch screen on the second generation iPad Pro is tough. Even so, there is no point taking chances. What is the best way to keep it from damage?

Apple’s NZ$269 Smart Keyboard Cover is the obvious first option. It is light; only 340g. The 12.9-inch iPad is 723g. Together they weigh a shade over a kilogram. That’s a little more than the MacBook which weighs in at 920g.

Smart Keyboard cover

The Smart Keyboard Cover turns the iPad Pro into an effective laptop replacement. I’ve found it is good to type on. Not perfect, but good. One advantage is that it is as wide as normal laptop keyboard.

It is more comfortable for touch typing than the Surface Pro 4 keyboard. It compares with many modern laptop keyboards. This isn’t so true of the 9.7 or 10.5 inch Smart Keyboard Cover. I find the keys are almost too close together for comfort.

The larger keyboard is one reason why I prefer the larger iPad Pro.

In practice I’ve found the Smart Keyboard Cover provides enough protection around the house. It also works if I put the combination in my briefcase to travel to a meeting or work in a client’s office. The only downside is that it doesn’t accommodate the Apple Pencil.

More protection for 12.9-inch iPad Pro

You can walk about town with no more protection than the Smart Keyboard Cover. I have an Apple-made first generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro Silicon case. It’s helpful guarding against knocks and drops. This is also an Apple-made leather shell for the first generation model. Neither of these are still available on Apple’s New Zealand site. There are third-party shells.

The Leather Sleeve protects the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in style.
The Leather Sleeve protects the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in style.

Apple’s new protective case is the NZ$269 Leather Sleeve. As the name says it slips over the computer. There’s enough room inside to accommodate the Smart KeyBoard Cover as well. Apple has added a space to take the Pencil.

Leather Sleeve showing the Apple Pencil slot
Leather Sleeve showing the Apple Pencil slot

Although it is expansive, in practice it works better than the Silicon shell case. It is lighter and takes up less room. I’ve found it works great on airplanes, if you’re a regular flyer I recommend you invest in one. I also use the Leather Sleeve when I’m ducking out for a quick meeting in my car and don’t need to carry anything else.

Snugg Leather Sleeve

If the price of the Apple Leather Sleeve is too much, Snugg has a solid alternative. I first reviewed and used the Snugg MacBook Air 13 Wallet Case with my MacBook Air. It is ideal for protecting my 12.9-inch iPad Pro. After all, 12.9 inches is not a long way from 13 inches, so it fits well.

Snugg MacBook Air Leather case
Snugg MacBook Air Leather wallet case works well with the larger iPad Pro

You don’t get the dinky Apple Pencil holder, although there is more than enough space in the Snugg case to take that. I’ve come away from meetings and conferences with papers in my Snugg case alongside the iPad Pro.

One other thing, the Snugg case is chunkier, or if you like, more rugged. It can take more punishment than the Apple Leather Sleeve. There are plenty of colour options, including a soft pink if you feel the rugged look is not for you.

I’ve left the best thing about the Snugg to last. At US$25 plus postage, it works out at around a quarter of the price. The problem is that Snugg product is out of stock, although you can still find some on sale online. Snugg makes tablet cases, but I prefer the Wallet case.


  1. I’m thinking of from switching from a MacBook plus 9.7-inch iPad to a desktop iMac plus a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. ↩︎

~650,000 machines still ship every day, but that’s the lowest total since 2007

Source: PC sales still slumping, but more slowly than feared • The Register

Simon Sharwood writes:

Both analyst firms suggest that rising component prices have led to rising PC prices which has led to falling enthusiasm from buyers, especially consumers. DRAM, LCD panels and solid state disks prices all share some of the blame for the rise, as all are in short supply.

This is nonsense: not Sharwood’s reporting, what the analysts say. They are clutching at straws. Rising PC prices are not the issue, prices have only ticked up a smidgen. That is not enough to affect sales if there is an underlying demand.

The demand is not there. Customers have little appetite or need to start buying PCs again in large numbers. Not today.

Two points stand out from the latest PC sales figures.

First, HP moved ahead of Lenovo. Sharwood quotes a Gartner analyst talking about Lenovo pulling back to focus on margins.

That’s a plausible explanation, but I think there’s more to it.

HP has been on a roll since the business split from HP Enterprise. Hardware quality is better than in the past and the designs are more interesting. While it would overdoing it to use a word like excitement, HP has momentum. Some good products too.

Second, Apple has moved to fourth place. Apple’s year-on-year sales are flat, in a falling market that means the company’s market share has climbed. It’s not much of a climb, about 0.3 percent, but that’s enough to move Apple past slumping Asus.