When I travel, I take at least two cameras, both a high-end digital SLR model, and the one in my phone—the latter mostly because I need my phone and can’t claw its comparably poor aperture from the frame. In a tight, impromptu spot, I’ll use the camera-phone, but if I want pictures I plan to keep, it’s the SLR camera, all the way.
The iPhone 4S’s 8-megapixel camera could “magically” turn those two into one, at least for some of you. Not all of you, and certainly not those of you who actually need SLR-caliber cameras or lavish 200-megapixel $45,000 reality replicators, but then Apple’s not targeting the high end, just as most dedicated point-and-shoot cameras don’t.
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No surprise, Apple says all sorts of lovely things about the iPhone 4S’s camera on its website. It’s the “you-can’t-believe-it’s-on-a-phone” camera. It “just might be the best camera ever on a mobile phone.” It “just might be the only camera you’ll ever need.” Apple marketing apparently loves adverb twofers (“just might”).
What you get, camera-wise: an 8-megapixel camera (Apple: “60 percent more pixels than the camera on the iPhone 4”), a larger f/2.4 aperture to let in more light and a higher full-well capacity (the largest charge a pixel can hold before saturation, aka how much light it’ll handle before “blooming”), an improved lens that uses “five precision elements to shape incoming light” (Apple claims this makes the image sharper) and an infrared filter that supposedly makes colors “more accurate and uniform.”
The iPhone 4S’s camera also has a new illumination sensor Apple says “is engineered with increased sensitivity and a shorter exposure time to achieve the same scene brightness,” and all that’s processed by the new, zippier dual-core A5 chip, which Apple claims is “just as good as the ones found in DSLR cameras,” eliminating shutter lag and reducing the amount of time you have to wait between snaps. All that, and it’ll capture 1920 x 1080 (1080p) high-definition video, too.
Contrast with Nikon’s Coolpix P300, currently Consumer Reports’ highest ranked point-and-shoot. It goes for between $275 and $330, has a maximum aperture of f1.8-4.9 (it has a 4.2x zoom lens, something the iPhone 4S lacks), a 12.2-megapixel effective camera resolution and it, too, can capture 1080p video. Stack that against the iPhone 4S, and so long as you don’t need a zoom lens and 8-megapixel resolution’s sufficient (it’s certainly a welcome step up from the iPhone 4’s 5-megapixel camera, and do you really need more than 3264 x 2448 resolution for point-and-shoot stuff anyway?), Cupertino’s latest and greatest looks like a serious contender.
I won’t know until I’ve tried one whether all the Apple ballyhoo translates to pictures sharp and smart enough for a photo album, but on paper, and considered in the context of “what I have to carry, special purpose” versus “what I’m carrying with me anyway that’s also a full blown micro-computer with Internet access,” it may finally be enough for the mainstream to leave dedicated point-and-shoots behind—or forego buying one outright—for good.
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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.