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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  • seanleeforever - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    Correction: YOU won't buy it doesn't mean the rest of us won't buy it.

    PS3/XBOX came out in 2005, or about 7 years now. i have no issues buying the latest game and still play.

    what phone or pad did you have 7 years ago? oh, you have nothing... heck, the phones/pads you bought 3 years ago probably wont' be able to run today's game.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Tegra Zone enhancements, the article mentions that. Reply
  • PeteH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    What mechanism is being used to upscale legacy (1024x768) apps? Pixel doubling? Bi-cubic? Bi-linear? Something else? Reply
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    At the most basic level, pixel doubling. However, text that is rendered through iOS gets a free resolution boost so long as the app was compiled with the latest version of xcode. It's pretty common on the iPad 3 to see apps where the interface elements are low-res, but all the text is high-res. And in apps that are predominantly text (like an SSH client, for example), that's all that really matters. Who cares if the triangle picture on a button isn't high res?

    For stuff like games, that stuff is just pixel doubled.
    Reply
  • PeteH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I'm not saying you're wrong, but how do you know games (for example) utilize pixel doubling? Reply
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I know because I can look at a game that doesn't support the new screen (such as Plants vs Zombies HD) on my iPad 3 and see that it's using pixel doubling? It does the same for iPhone apps when you use the 2x zoom option. One thing I have not tried is an old 320x480 iPhone app. I'm curious, since that would require 4x zoom.

    Newer games may choose to render at a lower resolution and then upscale using some sort of filter (perhaps even on the GPU), but at that point they are specifically targeting the new display. An older game that is completely oblivious to the newer display is scaled by the OS using pixel doubling without any interaction from the game.
    Reply
  • Steelbom - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    Actually, when using iPhone apps, the iPad uses the 640x960 version rather than the 320x480 version, if available. Reply
  • mosu - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    A person in his 50's doesn't care about 300dpi res because he only sees 200dpi, so retina display is just for kids? I really don't get why Apple did not use a standard res panel like 1920x 1200 if they wanted a greater quality image.It means they're stuck with a single form factor? Reply
  • PeteH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    It's much easier to stick with a single aspect ratio, especially for the developers. Your app looks the same on every device (albeit sharper on higher DPI displays), no need to tweak things for multiple aspect ratios. Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    Umm, where do you get this idea?

    Generalized statements about vision limitations in humans are usually taken out of context, at best.

    ;)
    Reply

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