The Camera, It's Much Improved

by Vivek Gowri

iOS 5.1 brought with it a number of bugfixes along with a few minor changes to the core entertainment applications (Music, Photos, Videos), but the only real UI change it brought was the redesigned camera application for the iPad. It fixes our biggest complaint with the original—the shutter button’s location in the middle of the settings bar at the bottom of the screen—and ends up being a big improvement from a usability standpoint. The shutter now resides in a floating circular button on the right side of the display, right where your right thumb falls when holding the iPad with two hands. It’s a more intuitive location for the shutter, so taking a picture is a far more natural feeling exercise than it was before. Other than that, the app looks pretty similar—the settings bar now has the still/video slider, front/rear camera switch, an options button, and the link to the photo gallery. 

In terms of camera options, there’s only one. You can either have the rule of thirds grid overlay visible or hidden....and that’s it. There’s no other settings for you to change. No exposure, white balance, ISO, shutter speed, or anything else that isn’t the shutter button. Unfortunately, even the HDR mode from the 4 and 4S is nowhere to be found on the iPad. You literally just point and shoot. That’s all there is for you to do.

In our review of the iPad 2, we summed up the cameras with just one word, mediocre. Looking back, I realize now that the word mediocre is a pretty charitable way to describe the iPad 2’s camera situation. Both sensors were borrowed from the iPod touch, and while the VGA front facing camera was acceptable, the rear facing 720p camera was legitimately bad by the standards of a $499 device.

The new iPad fixes that rear camera problem in a big way, with the five element f/2.4 lens and optics borrowed from the iPhone 4S paired with the Omnivision OV5650 CMOS image sensor from the iPhone 4. A quick refresher on specs: 5 megapixels, backside illuminated, 1080p video at 60fps. If you ignore megapixel count, it’s a pretty competitive camera on paper. There’s a lot of recycled parts here, with bits and pieces from other iDevices frankensteined together to come up with a new imaging system for the iPad, but parts-bin raids aren’t bad when the bins being raided from contain top-tier components. The result ends up being pretty good—as a camera, the new iPad is light years ahead of its predecessor in basically every way. 

In practice, it’s nothing short of stellar. Image quality is comparable to most high end smartphones, though not quite good enough to be on par with the bleeding edge cameraphones (4S, Nokia N8/N9, HTC Amaze 4G, Galaxy S 2, etc). Interestingly enough, the preview image looks to be running below 30 fps, appearing a little bit choppy at times. This is likely due to the high resolution of the preview and upscaling it to a very high display resolution, but it doesn’t particularly affect image capture. I measured shot to shot time at exactly one second (I had a range between 0.98 and 1.04 seconds, averaged out to 1.0 when factoring in reaction time). That’s about double what Apple claimed for the 4S, and a bit longer than the iPad 2. Granted, the iPad 2’s camera was very quick in part because the amount of processing it takes to capture a 960x720 image is almost zero, with about 13.8% as many pixels as each 2592x1936 image captured by the new iPad. 

The focal length is 4.28mm, a bit longer than the iPad 2’s 3.85mm. The difference is actually noticeable; when taking pictures of nearby subjects, you’re sometimes surprised by how magnified the subject appears. However, the camera is good for landscapes, as you can see from the sample gallery. I took the iPad with me on a weekend trip to Victoria, B.C. and used it as my primary camera on the trip. Now, while I wouldn’t trade my SLR for an iPad anytime soon, I can’t deny that the results turned out pretty well. Colours were vibrant, white balance was accurate, and the clouds were nicely highlighted. It’s a quantum leap from the noisy, 0.7MP mess that was the iPad 2 camera. Mouse over the links below to see some comparisons between the cameras on the iPad 2, 3rd gen iPad and TF Prime.

Apple iPad 2 Apple iPad (3rd gen) ASUS TF Prime
original original original

Apple iPad 2 Apple iPad (3rd gen) ASUS TF Prime
original original original

The new sensor can record 1080p video, up from 720p. Video quality was probably the best aspect of the iPad 2 camera, and it's even better here. Output is recorded at 29.970 fps and encoded in h.264 Baseline with a bitrate of 21Mbps and single channel audio at 64kbps. The recorded video impresses, with crisp detailing and adequate audio quality from the single mic. 

The front facing camera keeps the Omnivision OV297AA sensor from the iPad 2, and as such, image and video quality remain unchanged. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it remains adequate for FaceTime and Skype, but it would have been nice to see an update to an HD-quality webcam up front.

With augmented reality apps, I’m starting to see the benefit of rear cameras on tablets. For example, the Yelp app, which takes location and compass data to display what restaurants are the direction the iPad is pointing, with a real-time street view of the search results. It’s not necessarily the most useful way to use the rear facing camera in an AR application, but overall it’s an idea that has potential. Apple also tells us that its business and education customers see usefulness in the iPad's rear facing camera as they can use it to quickly document something while using the iPad as a productivity tool. As a consumer, you’re going to get weird looks if you’re using the iPad to take pictures though, it’s a relatively comical sight. 

And that’s really the problem: from an ergonomic standpoint, smartphones are just so much easier and more comfortable to use as cameras. And because the imaging hardware is so similar, I’m not sure I see the real benefit of having a rear facing camera on a tablet except in very specific use cases. 

The iPad as a Personal Hotspot: Over 25 Hours of Continuous Use Handheld Image Editing: iPhoto for iOS
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  • antef - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Yes it's nice, no one will argue that. But I don't see it as the huge advancement the authors indicate. Using it in the store it seemed fine, but honestly just walking right up to it, I wasn't even sure if I was using the new or old iPad. I had to go over to the iPad 2 to recognize the difference. And even then, after being back at the new iPad for a couple minutes, I completely forgot about it. If you are looking for pixels, sure, you'll notice. If you're just using your device and thinking about other things, probably not so much. Reply
  • PeteH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Eh, I think it depends on what application you use the iPad for. Web browsing and Tweeting? You're probably right, you wouldn't notice the difference in displays. But if you use it to view images I could see it being a big deal. Reply
  • zorxd - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I am pretty sure extra resolution is more noticeable when reading text than when looking at images Reply
  • PeteH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I didn't mean "notice" as in you couldn't tell the difference, just that the difference wouldn't be something that you would constantly be aware of if you were simply web browsing.

    If you were reading an e-book? Absolutely, but if that's your only use case I'd get a Kindle and save the money.

    Regularly viewing quality images is something that can't be done on an e-ink reader, but for which the improved display would make a huge difference.
    Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    I would say this is a perfect example of why it's better to use "I"" statements than say "YOU won't notice, YOU won't care, there isn't that much difference" - those kinds of statements. "I didn't notice much of a difference, it wasn't a big change in MY experience. . .)

    Displays can very very personal in experience, and things that bug the heck out of me may not be a problem to someone else. For example, a pixel pitch of around .270mm is just too big for me, in a monitor, and it bugs me. Always.

    Frame rates are a good example of something I'm not consciously aware of all the time, but I can sure tell the difference on some level, and some displays are more effected than others. There are extra factors in LCD screens that can make the problem worse for some of us - others don't notice so much, or it's just not a problem for them.

    One thing I believe, is that as more people use really better screens, they'll understand more why some of us call for them every chance we get.

    ;)
    Reply
  • darkcrayon - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I can *immediately* notice the difference in web browsing, which is primarily focused on reading text... Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I found it a noticeable difference, just not neuron melting like some reviews led me to think. For 100 or more less I'd still be plenty happy with an iPad 2, especially given the CPU and battery life performance are about the same. Reply
  • MobiusStrip - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately the iPad 2's camera is a disgrace. It should've had the iPhone 4 camera, which was already out by that time. Reply
  • repoman27 - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    The iPad 2 was also thinner than the iPhone 4. Now that it is the same width, it has the same camera. It's not really Apple's style to add thickness to a device just to support one feature that isn't heavily used anyway (tablets are not a very good form factor for a camera.) Reply
  • zanon - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Human vision varies significantly from person to person, as do use patterns for machines. Someone who is more near sighted or simply has better vision in general, and/or uses their system at a closer distance, may see a truly dramatic change. To take my personal example, I have excellent color vision and am also near sighted, and tend to hold my devices relatively close (or use glasses at my machine). I can see the pixels on the iPhone 4 screens (326 ppi) if I focus a bit, and for the older screens (or old iPads) they're massively pixelated to me (not that that made them useless). The High DPI screens are a night/day difference personally, making all types of reading in particular (be it on a terminal session, the web, PDF manuals, ebooks, or whatever) massively more functional (and everything else more beautiful).

    But that's just me, and is that awesome? No, it's kind of meh, I'd love it if I didn't need glasses to use my desktop without being hunched over the keyboard to drive. But understand that you'll see raves about the screen that are completely justified, just not for you. 20/20 vision puts the critical distance around 13" I think, but in the end everyone will need to take a look for themselves.
    Reply

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