Although smartphone cameras have made some huge leaps over the last few years, they remain handicapped by a lack of optical zoom. The perennial advantage for dedicated digicams may not last long, however, as phone makers look to cram optical zoom lenses into smartphones.
This week, Russian site Hi-Tech.Mail.Ru reported that Samsung is readying a “Galaxy S4 Zoom” phone, with a 10x optical zoom lens. Previously, the same site had accurately reported on the Galaxy Core low-end handset, and now a listing for the Zoom has appeared on the Bluetooth SIG’s website. Sammobile has reported that this will be a camera-focused spinoff from Samsung’s popular Galaxy S series, coinciding with the launch of mini and rugged variants.
Optical zoom describes a lens that physically extends outward from the body of the camera, much like a telescope. Digital zoom, by comparison, is basically just a cropped and enlarged image. Virtually every phone on the market offers digital zoom, but using this feature is no different than enlarging and cropping the photo in post-production.
If the rumor about the Galaxy Zoom is true — and it’s looking pretty likely at this point — it won’t be the only effort to duplicate, or at least approximate, the optical zoom experience on a smartphone. At Mobile World Congress in February, Huawei said to expect phones with optical zoom lenses within a year. “This is a feature for the compact camera, but we want to design this on our smartphones,” Kevin Ho, president of Huawei’s handset division, told Trusted Reviews.
Nokia, meanwhile, has come up with a way to make digital zoom mimic the benefits of optical zoom. The company’s 808 PureView phone has a 41-megapixel camera, but it automatically crops images down to about 5 megapixels. Because the camera is gathering so much data, it can zoom and crop without causing a noticeable hit to image quality. Nokia is widely expected to offer the technology in a Windows Phone later this year. (The company’s existing Lumia 920 carries the PureView label, but doesn’t have the huge megapixel count.)
As for true optical zoom, it’ll probably be relegated to a few niche phones, at least until the feature stops requiring a much thicker phone.
But the bottom line is that smartphone cameras are still evolving at a rapid pace, even as improvements in smartphone processing power and screen resolution are becoming less noticeable. Between optical zoom and general enhancements to picture quality (as with the HTC One’s “Ultrapixel” camera), the future of smartphone photography is looking quite bright — and a lot clearer.
(Image above is of an attachable lens case for the Galaxy S3, which you can buy right now if you simply can’t wait for built-in optical zoom.)