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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  • Ammaross - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    "It has the fastest and best of nearly every component inside and out."

    Except the CPU is the same as in the iPad2, and by far not the "best" by any stretch of the imagination. Hey, what's the problem though? I have this nice shiny new tower, loads of RAM, bluray, SSD, and terabytes of hard drive space. Oh, don't mind that Pentium D processor, it's "good enough," or you must be using it wrong.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    What's better that's shipping today? Higher clocked A9s, or quad core ones like the T3? Either would mean less battery life, worse thermal issues, or higher costs. Krait isn't in a shipping product yet. Tegra 3's additional cores still have dubious benefit. These operating systems don't have true multitasking, you basically have one thing running at a time plus some background services like music, and even on desktops after YEARS few applications scale well past four cores outside of the professional space. The next iPad will be out before quad core on tablets becomes useful, that I assure you of. Reply
  • zorxd - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I'd gladly trade GPU power for CPU power.
    That GPU is power hungry too, probably more than two extra A9 cores, and the benefit is even more dubious unless you are a hardcore tablet gamer.
    Reply
  • TheJian - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    LOL, the problem is you'll have to buy that new ipad to take advantage because YOURS doesn't have those cores now. Once apps become available that utilize these cores (trust me their coming, anyone making an app today knows they'll have at least quad cpu and gpu in their phones their programming for next year, heck end of this year), the tegra 3 won't need to be thrown away to multitask. Google just has to put out the next rev of android and these tegra3's etc should become even better (I say etc because everyone else has quad coming at 28nm).

    The writing is on the wall for single/dual. The quad race on phones/tables is moving FAR faster than it did on PC's. After win8 these things will start playing a lot more nicely with our current desktops. Imagine an Intel x86 based quad (hopefully) with someone else's graphics running the same stuff as your desktop without making you cringe over the performance hit.

    I'm not quite sure how you get to Tegra3 costing more, having higher thermals (umm, ipad 3 is hot, not tegra3). The die is less than 1/2 the size of A5x. Seems they could easily slap double the gpus and come out about even with QUAD cpu too. IF NV double the gpus what would the die size be? 162mm or smaller I'd say. They should have went 1920x1200 which would have made it faster than ipad 2 no matter what game etc you ran. Unfortunately the retina screen makes it slower (which is why apple isn't pushing TEGRA ZONE quality graphics in their games for the most part...Just blade?). They could have made this comparison a no brainer if they would have went 1920x1200. I'm still waiting to see how long these last running HOT for a lot of people. I'm not a fan of roasted nuts :) Too bad they didn't put it off for 3 months and die shrink it to at least 32nm or even 40nm would have helped the heat issue, upclock the cpu a bit to make up for 2 core etc. More options to even things out. Translation everything at xmas or later will be better...Just wait if you can no matter what you want. I'm salivating over a galaxy S2 but it's just not quite powerful enough until the shrinks for s3 etc.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I didn't say the Tegra 3 is more expensive or has higher thermals; I said the A5X, with higher clocked cores or more cores would be, and we all know Apple likes comfortable margins. Would I like a quad core A5X? Sure. Would I pay more for it? Nope. Would I switch for reduced battery life and an even hotter chip than what Apple already made? Nope. With the retina display, the choice to put more focus on the GPU made sense, with Android tablets resolution maybe Tegra 3 makes more sense, so you can stop attacking straw man arguments I never made. There are still only a handful of apps that won't run on the first iPad and that's two years old, "only" two cores won't hold you back for a while, plus iOS devs have less variation of specs to deal with so I'm sure compatibility with this iPad will be assured for at least two or three years. If I was buying one today, which I am not, I wouldn't be worried about that.

    Heck, even the 3GS runs most apps still and gets iOS updates.
    Reply
  • pickica - Monday, April 02, 2012 - link

    The New Ipad 2 is probably gonna have a dual A15, which means dual cores will stay. Reply
  • Peter_St - Monday, April 02, 2012 - link

    The problem here is that most people have no idea what they are talking about. It was just few years ago that we all used Dual Core CPUs on our Desktop Computers and we ran way more CPU load intensive applications, and now all of a sudden some marketing bonzo from HTC and Samsung is telling me that I need Quasd Core CPU for Tablets and mobile devices, and 2+ GB of RAM,
    If you really need that hardware to run your mobile OS, then I would recommend you to fire all your OS developers, get a new crew, and start from scratch...
    Reply
  • BSMonitor - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    If you were to run the same applications a tablet is designed to, then yes, your Pentium D would actually be overkill. Reply
  • PeteH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    The point is made in the article is that it would be impossible provide the quad GPUs (necessary to handle that display) AND quad CPUs. Given you can only do one or the other, quad GPUs is the right choice. Reply
  • zorxd - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    was it also the right choice to NOT upgrade the GPU when going from the iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4? Reply

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