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back to article Is your cameraphone an oxymoron?

All cell-phone cameras are not created equal - even the three-megapixel cameras in the recently released iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre. And I've got the photos to prove it. Our recent review of the iPhone 3GS went into some detail about the quality of the camera in Apple's new smartphone. But I also wanted to see how it stacked up …

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Correction

"Third, using a flash is lunacy on a bright sunny day"

Unless your subject is backlit and you want to use fill-in flash of course. Whether or not a shitbox phone camera can do this effectively is a different matter.

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Duh!

"If you want to take real photos, get a real camera."

Likewise, if you want real voice connectivity, get a real phone.

I use a Nokia 5185 to make & receive calls, and a Hasselblad with a CF-39-MS back when I'm taking serious pictures.

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Pre is too sharp

There were several comments in the article about the Pre being sharper than the iPhone 3G and 3Gs. Sharper is not always better. In the Pre pictures, it looks like someone took a decent picture, then ran unsharp mask at 200% with a 2 pixel radius in Photoshop. I'm not saying the images were shopped - just that it looks like the camera software is applying a sharpening filter to it, which makes it look undesirable in my opinion.

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Jobs Horns

Curious...

Why do you choose to test a couple of iPhones and a Pre? None of them are well designed as a camera. Even an old Nokia N95/96 has a better lens and 5 mega pixels.

Current Sony, LG and Samsung models have 8 mp!

The fact the iPhone doesn't even have a flash (not even a pathetic LED one) shows that they're not really even vaguely serious, it's just a tick box for the feature list.

However it's nice to know the iPhone fanboiz can't yet claim to make my Nikon D300 redundant... I'm sure that'll come next week.

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Boffin

Same photograph

Hi Rik,

The sample files you provide as full resolution images, photo_iphone_3gs_overall_large.jpg and photos_3g3_overall_large.jpg seem to be the same file.

They are identical to the pixel level. Can you dig up the correct file for which ever is incorrectly named?

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sunny vs cloudy

"There, I took over 200 shots to discover how each performs under ideal conditions: a bright, sunny day."

Most photographers I know would consider "ideal conditions" to be a cloudy day, as then you don't get the harsh shadows that a bright sunny day would give.

How bout a comparision between bright and sunny and slightly cloudy?

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Anonymous Coward

Crap photos, but precious moments

Phone cameras are good enough, getting better, and very often the only devices that would be around to capture the ad-hoc moments in life that may otherwise go unrecorded. Folk that bemoan a few minor image aberrations produced by essentially disposable gadgets when you consider that 25 years ago we were happy with fuzzy 6x4 snaps that took 4 days to get processed seems a bit odd.

p.s. The camera doesn't matter: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/notcamera.htm

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Jobs Halo

TItle

Steves Reality Distortion Field included in the iPhone., it's a key selling point.

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Stop

Interesting

I find it odd that, up to now, we seem to have mobile phones with all manner of bolted-on 'accessories'; MP3 player, camera, etc. Surely it can't be that difficult to add a mobile phone to something more useful.

Personally, I'd like a *really* nice pocket camera (8-10Mp, proper camera features...) with a usable mobile phone built in that's not the size of an A6 sheet of paper.

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WTF?

Is that some Reality Distortion Field?

I always thought it was something that wouldn't show up in photos, like gravity and phlogiston

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Phone camera = FAIL!

Never really understood the point, other than taken drunken photos of your mates on a night out. I would never use a Phone Camera for holiday snaps or real photography. I dont care how many MP they put in, the sensor and lens is far more important!.

People who complain about their quality of Phone camera pic's are just idiots! Its for fun, not for serious pics!

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Jack-of-all-trades.....

As with anything, if you try to do too much, you may have to do it less well than if you specialise.

I have a trusty old canon DSLR, which still out performs any camera phone. This is due to the large lump of glass it uses to focus images, meaning more light and the option of depth-of-field effects. If it could make calls and surf t'internet while allowing me to GPS my way around Snowdon, then it would still be worse than the iPhone and Palm Pre, because it is massive and weighs a ton.

The iPhone should have got a flash, mainly because it would be used indoors a lot. The tap-to-focus is only as handy as the half-pressed shutter button on a DSLR so doesn't suddenly add functionality to the camera world, but does allow better composing on a phone. No zoom, but no need as it would only be digital, which i can do better in photoshop, and a frustrating lack of shutter/iso control mean it will never be that good.

I am curious as to the point of the article as i am pretty sure the Palm and iPhone would not be sold on the quality of their camera alone. I love that journo's seem to think they can point a finger at a manufacturer and tell them they are crap. I dont see you tinkering in your shed and bringing out a sleek and small multifunction device. Still, it is nice to see the comparisons, so thanks!

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But do people care ?

So phones take poor pictures. But then users don't care.

Users take poor pictures too. They don't really care about taking great pictures as long as their friends are in them and they can recognise them.

The ones that care a bit get a camera, the few that really care get a SLR and proper glass.

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and agaiand against camera phones reknown for their quality?

So wheres the comparison against whats available in Symbian world of cameraphones? N95, newer 8Meg samsungs, Xenon equipped N82?

and what was the point of using a (older)DSLR to compare to? how many 'ordinary' people use them? not many, put it up against say a 100 quid panasonic compact and see what the difference is there. Surely the whole point of the camera on mobiles is for those 'snapshots' you would miss by the time you got your DSLR out, chose what lens you need etc.

I bought a Sanyo 750 when it was one of the first 1.3M pixel phones. The reason? We'd just had a baby. I have so many shots that I simply wouldn't have if i'd only used my proper cameras. it was rubbish compared to whats available now but they are still useable pictures that our daughter now 4 loves looking at.

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N2

@ Jake

Couldnt agree more,

for a compact camera, I find the images from my phone perfectly acceptable & whereas I have my Nikon for more serious use.

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A fairer test...

... would have been to compare the camera-phones with a digital compact, which is more the market that they're trying to compete with. We're a long way off anything the size of a mobile phone competing with a DSLR!

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Other cameraphones

How about comparing it with some of the higher megapixel cameraphones out there like the Samsung Pixon or one of the 8 megapixel cybershots?

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Jobs Halo

More info

I'm with Sarah--the Pre photos have obviously been digitally sharpened in-camera (phone). I'd prefer to do the sharpening myself later, thanks.

I would be interested in other characteristics, specifically the angle the camera can capture and the low-light performance. My 2G iPhone has a very narrow angle... probably around 40mm equiv. It makes composing shots difficult. But the low light performance is quite good, for such a small lens and sensor.

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@ jake

Thanks for repeating the moral of the story, which the author kindly pointed out themselves in plain English.

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Pint

motion blur

yer first shot on the 3g shown motion blur at the top. As far as I can see this is the only real difference between 3g and 3g3... and causes by motion, not the software.

I agree with Sarah, the pre looks terrible - massively over sharpened and far to high contrast - its just stripped the detail right out. However, for most folk viewing the pics on the phone + resizing for web, etc they will probably look better for it to the average joe.

Jake mate: you remind me of hifi shop salesman from the 80s - anything other than a 10k system 'is shit'.. I'm a firm believer that you should buy only what you need and can tell the difference with personally, etc (e.g. for me 192Kb mp3 sounds like 256kb mp3).... I spend more on things I care about more (my macbook pro, my M roadster) and less about things I care about less (my 2nd hand lumix FZ30, my washing machine)... however my washing machine washes clothes just fine, and my lumix takes as good enough pictures to make my limited skill the limiting factor rather than the camera...

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Its a shame...

that this is just an iphone review...its a good article! but it would have been nice to have seen a phone that claims to be a good camera something like a sony cybershot phone (k850?) and a real camera of phone size.. your generic point and shoot say a canon ixus..

comparing a phone to an SLR is a little silly, as everyone knows that a $1000 camera is better than a $300 one... but is a $300 one better than a specific camera phone? That remains unanswered. as does 'is there a difference between a camera phone and a phone with a camerra'???

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WTF?

DSLR

What on earth were you using Shutter-priority for?

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Backlight

The backlighting issue is nothing to do with the camera. No camera can balance a very dark foreground and very light background - it's one or the other. This has to be done in post-processing by adjusting the levels. The cameraphones cannot expose for a small foreground properly unless they have spot metering.

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I'm with Sarah

Plus of course... A sharp background when taking portrait type pictures is not what you want, and really takes away from the shot.

I use the iPhone for quick snaps (have to say it's one of the best cameras in a phone that I've used) and my DSLR for taking photos... You can't expect a camera phone to deliver a real picture with the built in limitations on lense construction / size and sensor surface area - really the size of the pixels on the high mega pixel machines is actually something that you have to work against for making decent quality photos.

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WTF?

Not what a camera phone is for

Camera phones are for two things:

1) Taking pictures of your car after an accident

2) Taking pictures of your arse to save wear and tear on a photocopier

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Anonymous Coward

The wavy gravy effect ...

... occurs because the camera was moving when performing the exposure. You'll see this effect with pretty much any mobile phone camera if you move your phone enough while taking the shot (and it can also be used to great effect for some trippy scenes if you want to).

Hold it stock still and you won't have this problem.

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Paris Hilton

@Sarah Baucom

I agree; Soft focus covers a multitude of sins.

Just which dark-haired colleague was photographed in the store cupboard in an "unhygenic" position with the boss, for example!

Paris? You can figure it out...

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Alert

Non-story

Shock investigative revelation! Cameraphone doesn't take pictures which are as good as an SLR!

No shit.

The great thing about cameraphones is that suddenly the whole world has a camera with them, all the time. Not just for when they go out to take photographs.

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Happy

Fluidity.

I quite like the thought of random wobbliness to my photos it would add a surrealist touch to my world.

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Dead Vulture

Greetings to Detroit

Why is it that so many phone related articles on this European site seem to always be about two US phones, one of which is not even available here? It seems that US phone makers have lost the big battle to European and Asian competitors so Merkin journos are desperately trying to focus on the remaining - let's be frank - fringe products with any excuse for an article. It's almost painful to watch. Next an authoritative comparison of car and home audio systems featuring an SUV and a people carrier?

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Paris Hilton

Use a proper camera

On p.2, the photos of the Marriot on the 3G v.3 and the 3GS link to the same file.

I use a bakelite rotary-dial telephone to take *all* my photos, and a Wista 10x8" field camera for calls. You wouldn't believe how inconvenient that can be, but at least I get to laugh at iPhone fanbois.

Paris, because she probably likes a large format.

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Thumb Up

Speed of photo taking?

It would be useful to have a speed comparison. Not shutter speed, but the delay between pressing the 'shutter' and the photo being taken.

I find this a continual annoyance of the iPhone (both original and 3GS). The whole point of a mobile phone camera is to grab quick shots when you don't have a proper camera to hand - for example, like you say, random celebrity sightings and drunken friends.

Quality isn't vital, but speed is. When it takes half a second after pushing the button to actually take the picture, more often than not the opportunity is lost.

Oh and I agree with Sarah Baucom - it looks to me like the Palm Pre is applying a software based sharpening filter. This makes casual photos look better, but it would be nice to be able to turn it off for more accurate photos. Applying a similar filter to the iPhone's photos in Photoshop would probably give the same result.

(Speaking of filters... whoever drew these new icons needs to take a look at the clipping of the 'thumbs up' and 'unhappy face' and make them as smooth as their counterparts)

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The Palm is AWFUL

Never mind the colour balance issues, isn't the main problem with the Palm the fact the photos look like they've had the Photoshop watercolour filter applies to them?

They look terrible.

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FAIL

Forget the pixelage

Apart from the resolution of the CCD and the image processing software the real reason digital cameras are often shockingly bad, especially on phones, is down to some basic physics. Light is focussed onto the CCD using a lens and the lenses on camera phones are normally static affairs which do not vary their focal length depending on the distance of the subject, all this stuff is normally done in software (badly). Even an autofocus digital compact camera has very little distance between the lens and the ccd (and normally a tiny ccd - to the order of a couple of millimetres) so the lens has to refract the hell out of the light in order to focus it on the chip.

Compare this to a good quality SLR and you will notice right away that the whole thing is bigger so the light does not have to be bent quite as far. The 35mm film means that the light does not have to be refracted so much in order to focus it on the film, good quality digital cameras (the sort the paps use) have larger CCDs, not just to give them a higher resolution but also to ensure that they do not have to bend the light so much.

Refraction works because of the different density of the lens and the surrounding air so there is a hard physical limit to how much the light can be refracted, this means that no matter how many megapixels you have in a phone or a compact camera it will never take a shot that is as good as large format slr type camera with a large ccd.

Then there is lens quality into the mix as well. It's a precision thing and lens quality makes a massive difference, much more than the number of megapixels.

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Mistake

The images on page 2 are not uploaded correctly - the iPhone 3GS shot is identical to the iPhone 3G v3 shot when you click for the hi-res image. Thus - can't compare...

You also fail to mention anything about the sensor, its all about image processing and megapixels. The sensor is more important than megapix count...

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Anonymous Coward

Not enough time spent tweaking the settings...

All the problems described are probably down to a lack of time spent tweaking the endless set of settings inside the camera ISP. Given the pipeline involved in even the simplest camera phone (lens shading, auto focus, denoise, sharpening, white balance, colour balance, gain control to name but a few), there are a huge number of parameters to test for and set. Most of which change when lighting conditions change, or the flash is used...It can take months to get all these optimised, and when time to market is so important.....

The flash problem on the pre appears to be down to bad software - it's not selecting the correct AWB curve in certain circumstances - again - a lack of testing and tweaking.

But look on the bright side, next gen phone cameras are getting pretty good, even with the sh**y sensors/lenses they have, the software can improve the picture quite dramatically. Even to the level of your old DSLR.....

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FAIL

Brought to you....

... by the Department of Bloody Obvious.

Almost all cameras embedded in phones suck. Some suck less, some more. There are few fine exceptions (Sony Ericsson Cybershot range), but those are rare exceptions. What can you get from crappy plastic lenses with terribly undersized sensor and no proper software to drive all this crap-o-rama?

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WTF?

Stating the Bleedin' Obvious

"If you want to take real photos, get a real camera" - real insight from El Reg there!

Having said that, I thought the review was pretty good and does show that phones can take half decent pictures in an emergency. Would have liked to see some low-light shots though to see how the Pre's flash performs

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Stop

@AC 20:53

You took several camera phones and took a number of photos of big, blow-up-able buildings in San Francisco? That's brave journalism.

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Troll

Wavy Path

Are you sure you didn't capture an earthquake passing through?

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Bronze badge

Pixels and Lenses

Firstly in the world of digital cameras far too much emphasis is placed on the pixel count. As at least one poster here has proved many people believe that more megapixels mean a better camera. Before we even get to the most important part of any camera it's worth pointing out that not all CCDs are created equal in exactly the same way that not all photographic emulsions were created equal, back in the day I knew people who maintained that bargain basement Orwochrom was as good as Kodachrome. Trust me, it wasn't. The same applies to CCDs, and like old photographic emulsions in general the more expensive the CCD the better it is.

But the most important component in any camera is the lens. Cheap cameras and camera phones often boast an increased pixel count from one model to the next while retaining the same lens. A lens that often wasn't capable of resolving at the original lower pixel count, so you won't see any real improvement in the images they'll just take up more memory. Even worse are the cameras that insist on storing their images in jpg format at a relatively high compression.

Of course the firmware plays a part, but when it comes down to it, if you have a crap lens or CCD then no amount of software will produce a good image.

To many words have been written in consumer magazines on the subject of camera phones being as good as real cameras. It reminds me of the days when they used to tell us that cheap 35mm compacts were as good as SLRs.

Oh and anybody who uses "digital zoom" doesn't actually care about the final image.

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FAIL

Two iPhones?

Interesting choice of devices to compare... two almost identical phones from the same manufacturer, one other phone, and an antique DSLR. Where's all the camera phones from the other seven or eight manufacturers? Perhaps one of the ones that actually claims to have a decent camera in it?

It might also be interesting to compare these against a compact camera or two - the things that phone cameras are actually competing against. Everyone knows you need a DSLR if you want to take "professional" photos. We want to know whether it's worth carrying around a separate compact camera and mobile phone for those everyday shots, or whether phone cameras are "good enough".

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Pint

"Never really understood the point, other than taken drunken photos of your mates on a night out"

I thought that was the point?

If was going to do proper photography I'd use some sort of camera. If I'm going to do proper drunkeness I don't want to take a loseable breakable camera with me.

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FAIL

@SuperTim

"I dont see you tinkering in your shed and bringing out a sleek and small multifunction device."

That is one of the dummest arguments around. By that reconing you wouldent be upset if the dentist drilled trough your tooth and into the gum. Cause Hi can you do better? The car maker that forgot to put in a functional rengien? Oh np guys I can´t build an engine so its ok that you dident.

silly...

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Coat

Megapixels, smegapixels...

We live in a world where marketeers like to reduce comparisons between devices to a list of tick boxes and numbers. Megapixels are a great example of a statistic that means pretty much nothing to picture quality, but is used by everyone as a measure of potential quality.

First, megapixels are used to denote an area. If you had a line of megapixels then it is true that 3MP would be 50% better than 2MP. However the megapixels are in a rectangle about 1200 x 1800 for 2MP or 1400 x 2100 for 3MP, this is a 17% linear increase. This doesn't look so good, which will be why the marketeers avoid telling you this. Resolution is usually very small print somewhere technical - BTW megapixels aren't a measure of resolution.

Second, the megapixel number tells you nothing about the actual size of the sensor - just how many pixels it has on it. It shouldn't take many brain cells to figure out that as each pixel gets smaller it will receive less light, so more amplification will be needed to get a good signal. This makes the signal noisier so it is cleaned up by software. This loses information and makes for softer images which are often then sharpened mercilessly.

I won't even start on the lenses.

Don't worry about the quality of the phone in your camera. They are all rubbish.

Oh, and AC 06:16 - funny that you slag off film and recommend Ken Rockwell in the same post when KR is a recent convert back to film from digital. http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/free-digital-camera.htm

Mine's the one with a roll of Kodachrome in the pocket.

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Grenade

Loss of standards?

Digital media have conspired to make more media more accessable to more people - sharing and communication is now commonplace between social groups spread worldwide, in a way that old media could never have supported. This is a good thing, but also a bad thing...

The quality of commonly-accessible digital media (jpgs, MP3s, pdfs, etc.) is often worse than the media they have replaced (notice I am not including FLAC, RAW shot in a 39 Mpix digital camera, etc.). As such, we as a generation are getting used to reproduction standards that are in some ways worse than what we had a generation ago - your common compressed MP3 played through iPod headphones sounds worse than a good quality turntable hooked up to a vintage 1970s hifi with good speakers. But as it is "digital", we think that it must contain all the data that should be there, and we learn to relish it's ubiquity.

The upshot of this is that we are getting more media shared wider, but our appreciation of the nuances is dissapearing. When you look at a friend's holiday cameraphone snaps on Facebook, it will never have the granduer or impact of vacation pictures taken as 35mm slides and projected on a screen in the living room while you all sit down and drink wine and discuss them. You will never see the fine details on Facebook, notice the background of the pictures, the expression of the faces of those in the back, the whitecaps on the water behind them, etc. You WILL get a top-line impression of what was going on - the central thought, as it were, but not the complete context, or the mood, or the complete emotion.

As a result, we are more and more drowing in media saturation, with ever lower expectations of what it should or at least could be. Photography especially is more and more about conveying a very simplistic thought, rather than an appreciation of the photograph itself - after all, it's silly to worry about the "rule of thirds" when the entire photograph is only a 2" square of pixels on a monitor.

The only good news is that digital photography is also making DSLRs and processing more readily accessable to those that would persue it as a hobby, and as a result the "serious amatuer" ranks are swelling slowly but surely. The only question is whether people will still care to view that type of studied photography for long...or appreciate it.

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can't compare phones to DSLR's..

.. but compact still better!

My 4 year old 5MP Compact still outshines any phone camera I have used, including Sony's

I don't take my DSLR on holiday abroad, but do take Compact, I wouldn't think of using my Phone camera......it was phone years ago as a novelty but now I'd rather use a device designed for taking photos

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@teebie

Yes that is the point, how many times have I actually used the camera on my phone on a night out....em...once! I have owned a phone with camera for ...oh...6 years or more, and I have never used my camera other than that one occassion.

Its a fad, and we are brain washed into thinking we need one!

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Megaphone

Pre Wee

The Pre photos look better than the 3GS, but that's because it looks as though they have been over 'enhanced' whereas the 3GS photos look more like they have left that for you to do in iPhoto/Photoshop etc..

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Flame

@Pabs

I have taken over 3000 pictures on my phone its no fad. YOU dont need one. I however do and it is my primary consideration when purchasing a phone.

Now who needs a friggen mp3 player on a phone? never used it, to paraphrase: Its a fad, and we are brain washed into thinking we need one!

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