Think about it. Do you really want a 720p camera in your phone?

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Amazon becoming Apple becoming…

iphone720p
There’s some buzz right now about the iPhone 3G S and other phones being capable of 720p recording, or perhaps even 1080p if they use the newest sensors. Wow! The future is here! 720p video built right into your phone! But here’s the thing: would you rather have HD video recording implemented very badly, as it must be with the limitations of mobile phones, or would you rather not have it at all and have space for more battery or RAM? Because there’s no way that video is going to be watchable, except as a low-bandwidth stream, and if that’s your idea of 720p… I feel sorry for you.

Look, I’m excited about the prospect too, but consider that today’s compact camcorders like the Webbie, Zx1, and MinoHD produce only passable video, and it’s the only thing they do. The lens, sensor, and encoder are all going to be absolutely bargain bin. Everything that compromises them is going to be worse on a mobile phone.

Due to space limitations, you’re going to have a crappy lens. No one expects any kind of serious glass on a mobile, but the reason no one really cares is because the images and video are bad to begin with and low resolution to boot. The more resolution you get, the more you’re going to see distortion, scratches, and so on. These add-on lenses, as much as they may affect viewing angle and such, aren’t going to be high quality enough to let in a serious amount of light (goodbye low-light video) and they don’t change what the sensor (with a garbage lens in front of it) is capable of. Speaking of which:

The sensors used may be state of the art, but they’re also tiny. That means that the photosensitive wells are going to be small, crowded, and over-amplified to make up for the lack of light. This means you’re going to see lots of noise, bad color and smearing of details. A slow electronic shutter will mean weird, wobbly motion. Exposure will be spotty and low light performance will be murder.

Lastly, the encoder and the space required are just not going to be enough. You don’t get good video quality and small file size, period — it’s still just not an option right now. Highly compressed video looks like crap out of the gate, and it looks even worse after you’ve edited and exported it. They’ll overcompensate for lack of keyframes and motion tracking by oversharpening. Don’t want to compress it too much? Oops! You’ve only got a maximum of 32GB of space and you probably want some room for, I don’t know, TV shows and music and stuff.

Someday we’ll have it, but right now the limitations on the technology are just too much. Trust me, if they enabled it right now on your 3GS, you’d switch back to 640×480. It’ll look just as good and you won’t feel the need to burn it onto a Blu-ray disc to display in HD.

Update:
I’ve re-posted this article to relate to current goings-on. No lens or kit is going to make this device capable of producing anything more than passing video. That said, if “passing” is what you want, that’s great! But if you want to produce a nice video for your grandkids (as I would), the iPhone is the wrong platform for it. Instead of spending $50 or more on a bunch of loose doodads you’re never going to have with you, and which is essentially making the best of something never meant to take video in the first place, buy a decent camcorder with a real lens and sensor that won’t take what you’re looking at and automatically convert it into what’s merely acceptable. You’ll thank yourself later.

That said, if your goal is a simply a revolution in media sourcing, then yes, you’ll be happy. The iPhone will provide an unprecedented level of video noise, much as Twitter provides an unprecedented level of everything noise. Both will be superseded by superior services, and while I accept that some value the utility of both in the meantime, I find them both woefully inadequate and hardly worth serious consideration, considering the iPhone’s “unique” functionality is duplicated in the G1 among other devices. Seriously, if someone recorded the JFK assassination on their mobile, do you think posterity would copy down the model of phone for the history books?

If all you care about is the capability of mobile phones to shoot video, then great! We’re already there. I’ve been able to upload video straight from my phone to YouTube for ages. But if you’re looking to replace a dedicated video device, even a budget one costing under a couple bills, you’re barking up the wrong tree. There will be a reckoning years from now when many people look back and wish they had chosen fidelity over convenience, but it’s difficult to convince them of that now.

I see it now: one day, there will be a feature film released, shot entirely on iPhone. The script will have been crowdsourced via Twitter and the director will take his cues entirely from comments. When that movie is released, I will move to the moon.

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