Point-and-Shoot Cameras Still Beat Cameraphones — For Now

Over the past few days I’ve had fun taking photos with a couple of neat new cameras…that happen to be phones. They’re the iPhone 4 and Verizon’s upcoming Droid X, and their cameras are the best in any phones I’ve ever used. So much so that they left me pondering the future of point-and-shoot cameras that aren’t phones.

Phones have already killed traditional PDAs dead. The best ones also render media players such as an iPod largely superfluous, and the days of standalone GPS handhelds are clearly numbered. Are we nearing the moment when a meaningful number of people will skip buying a separate camera in favor of snapping photos with a phone?

Some thoughts on that in a moment–but first, my impressions of the photographic capabilities of these two handsets. When I had plenty of natural light, I liked most of the photos from both phones quite a bit…although even the nicest portraits I took looked slightly out of focus and lacking in detail. In murkier environments, the iPhone performed better than the Droid X, although the LED flashes on both phones aren’t very useful. (They only made a noticeable difference when there was very little available light, and even then tended to produce unflattering, fuzzy portraits.)

I haven’t shot mass quantities of 720p video with either camera yet, but so far, the iPhone 4's results are more pleasing. (The video I’ve shot with the Droid is usually noisier, especially in dim settings.)

The Droid X has a dedicated hardware shutter button; the iPhone 4 has an on-screen one. I assumed I’d prefer the Droid’s approach, but the button isn’t quite responsive enough–it’s possible to think you’ve pressed the shutter and be wrong. The iPhone let me take pictures at a faster clip, although it feels zippier than the Droid in part because it uses an animated on-screen shutter animation to distract you while it gets ready to let you take another photo. The Droid displays an honest-but-inelegant PROCESSING message after each shot, reminding you that it’s not as snappy as you’d like.

On the other hand, composing pictures with the Droid X’s Jumbotron of a display (4.3?) was easier and more entertaining than the iPhone’s relatively diminutive 3.5? screen. Count me in as a fan of big-screen phones. I also like the way the Droid uses its GPS to indicate onscreen where a photo’s being taken. (The iPhone 4 captures geotag information, but doesn’t use it until you upload photos to a computer.)

Bottom line: I’m impressed with both phones’ camera capabilities–given that they’re phones and not cameras–but the iPhone 4 took better shots than the Droid X overall.

My impressions aren’t definitive, and the Droid X I’ve been using doesn’t have the final software. But they’re generally consistent with more methodical findings by my pals at Macworld and PCWorld. They’re also still more evidence that cameraphones’ megapixel ratings don’t have much to do with image quality: The Droid’s extra megapixels theoretically give it a major edge over the iPhone, but you couldn’t tell it from my pictures. (Note that I’ve mostly used the Droid X in a six-megapixel mode rather than the full-resolution 8MP one–the 6MP setting is the default, and I like the 16:9 aspect ratio.)

Here are a few shots I’ve taken, none of which I cropped or otherwise tampered with, except to reduce them in size (click on them to see the full-resolution versions).

First the iPhone 4 (top row) then the Droid X (bottom row):

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