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Smartphone cameras are good enough and it's time to focus on the rest of the phone

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 Flex Camera Module
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 Flex Camera Module (Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

Since cameras were invented, these devices have been a cornerstone of society. With the first truly accessible and portable camera, arriving in 1888 from Kodak, people have been taking photos to freeze-frame a moment of time. Fast-forward to smartphones with cameras built-in, and we've reached a point where nearly everyone has a camera — at all times. But with so many fantastic camera phones at nearly every price — is the camera really a selling point when buying a new smartphone?

Now, I'm not saying that the camera in your smartphone isn't important or possibly even the reason you purchased that particular device. I'm simply saying that for the average person, not the weekend warrior photographer or budding filmmaker, that camera has gotten so good on so many phones that perhaps manufacturers need to begin shifting their focus (get it…focus).

Thanks to the maturation of computational photography, smartphones are better than ever at taking pictures in a wide range of situations. This was something that, at one time, required buying the top-of-the-line phone to accomplish. But now, you can get something like the Pixel 4a for around $350 and have one of the best camera experiences out there.

While you'll still need to fork over a few more Benjamins if you want more advanced features like 100x zoom found in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, things like that are only used every now and then by most people. Though seeing eye-popping zoom numbers, astrophotography mode, cinematic mode, and other buzzworthy features advertised can be enticing, if you're really thinking about what will be used most frequently on your next smartphone purchase, do those gimmicks truly matter?

It's hard to point to an upper-tier smartphone from the past five years that doesn't have a more than capable camera.

Do I think that these advances in camera features are useless — no. But I think that smartphone manufacturers could put more effort into finding ways to make the rest of the device just as intriguing. It's no coincidence that there's been rumblings that phones have become boring in the past few years. But the introduction of some truly amazing folding phones like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, and even the upcoming Microsoft Duo 2, are shaking up the smartphone industry and giving consumers more than just a camera to look forward to.

Speaking of Microsoft, on the first Duo, the company felt so strongly that the camera wasn't the most important part of a smartphone that it only included one — and a not very good one at that. However, the mistake was realized and corrected with the Duo 2. Although I don't think that the error was the assumption that the camera isn't the most crucial feature, rather that it was that people care so little about the camera that it could put a bad one in its phone.

Surface Duo 2 Black Flat

Source: Daniel Rubino / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Android Central)

The smartphone camera is a vital part of modern smartphones, and every phone should have a good one. The Microsoft Duo proved that by offering a subpar shooter on the phone, thus putting it at a major disadvantage from phones that offered better photography abilities at much lower prices. However, the Duo was aiming for an experience that didn't revolve around needing a good camera but forgot that people still want to take good pictures when a moment presents itself.

Samsung is so confident that the experience of a folding phone is enough to sell units that it didn't even upgrade the camera hardware in the Z Fold 3. Instead, the company opted to keep the exact same hardware and tweak the software to improve the picture quality. The Galaxy Z Flip 3 got a nice upgrade to its camera system, but in no way is that the primary selling point of this device.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold Flip 3 Hinge

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

Many smartphone makers are working to find new ways to make the camera a central feature of their new phones. Even Apple, with the new iPhone 13 series, spent the bulk of its presentation talking about the cameras, with only small mentions of changes to the rest of the device. Is this because companies are struggling to find what consumers really want in a new phone? Could it be because some of the manufacturers are scared to branch out from what they know works?

Perhaps it's a combination of all of these things that are keeping most smartphones from evolving past the rectangular slabs we've had for the past decade. It's a shame that brave brands like LG and its Wing are gone because they weren't afraid to take risks. Although that likely could've been part of its downfall. But the fear of trying something new for large companies like Apple and Google shouldn't mean that the camera is the only place that sees innovation.

Chris Wedel
Chris Wedel
Chris Wedel is a fan of all things tech and gadgets. Living in rural Kansas with his wife and two young boys makes finding ways to get and stay online tricky. By utilizing his years of experience with the tech and mobile communications industries — success is assured. When not conquering connectivity challenges and testing new gadgets, he enjoys cruising a gravel road in his UTV with some good tunes.
31 Comments
  • Unfortunately I think they need to focus on the hardest part to innovative on, battery life and battery tech. That's something people will truly care about like they've thursted after a better camera. Imho, tablet style foldables won't even interest the average user until they get slim enough to not feel like a giant brick in the hand when closed, and to do that your going to need improved battery tech that takes up less space because one thing most users definitely won't give up is battery life for a foldable form factor. Some people seem to like the clamshell design now, but I think a lot of people would rather just have a black bar style phone that is much more rugged
  • Good points. Agreed. They can do more now by increasing phones by even a few millimetres to give larger batteries. Make Fast Charging the norm.
  • Let's say you'd add half an inch of thickness to your phone. That will maybe give you two or three days more battery. That is a terrible trade-off. Phones are already too big today, because we need the big screens. Adding thickness to an already massive device is the opposite of evolution.
  • They are doing that. Samsung, among others, is spending a ton of money to try to get things like graphene batteries out there. It is just a so specific category, that's been around since the 19th century, so if you're staring yourself blind on it, it doesn't seem to move. Battery tech has evolved a lot in the last three decades. A crazy amount if you compare your current phone and its capacity with the first mobile phone. I think, the main reason some people are obsessed with battery evolution is because they want feature phone standby with smartphone abilities. That is obviously a fantasy that won't happen. I also think you're underestimating how many people sees the obvious advantage of a folding display. I just read that the new Flip and Fold 3 broke one million sales, in a month. In South Korea alone. It is a game changer because it adds much better portability and it actually adds a much smarter ruggedness than any screen protector can ever offer, because the screen isn't exposed when you don't use it.
  • The camera is still a major reason for me buying the phone that I buy but I also agree companies should focus on other parts. I disagree about computational photography being mature though and is an area companies definitely need to keep pushing.
  • In Apple's case, their cameras were so shody for such a long time that being able to brag about a great camera is still new to them...
  • amen!! I use my phone for business and care very little about the camera being able to make a feature film.
  • Agree. I'm in the minority of users that rarely takes pictures and phone updates are boring since they are just camera upgrades. Phone cameras have been "good enough" for me since the Galaxy Note 4. I would rather have the things that got taken away like headphone jack, SD card port, IR, physical keyboard, physical camera button, and integrated kickstand. Man I miss my Evo 4G and T-mobile Sidekick 😭
  • Well, you can get much of what you miss with a Sony 1, or 5 mark 3!
  • The camera is important because documenting our lives through pictures and video is important to so many people. The phone has taken the place of dedicated cameras for a huge percentage of the population. At the end of the day, screens, performance, and storage are just fine for most people. The camera is the differentiator because it's so important.
  • I completely agree that it's important. I have two young children and take loads of photos. I used to have a pocketable digital camera for that function, and when I see photos from it compared to what I can do now on my phone — there's no comparison. I just think that the rest of the phone seems to be looked at as an afterthought by many companies.
  • Well, I guess this is what they mean when they say that we're a nation divided lol. Those who are in the "The camera is important because documenting our lives through pictures and video is important to so many people" camp, and the ones that can't fathom how we have evolved to that point lol My hunch is that it might be a generational gap or maybe more simply a lifestyle thing. Taking pictures has always seemed like being a "chore" since I can remember, and now it's "..important because documenting.." A tale of two cities, indeed.
  • Why are you trying to rationalize Samsung putting terrible cameras in the Flip and Fold? Regular phones have plateaued, which is why they're focusing on things like cameras. Innovation just isn't a thing in a mature category like regular phones. For phones like the Flip and Fold, it is inexcusable for them not to have exceptional cameras given their price.
  • The Fold 3 phone cameras are FAR from terrible - and this is coming from someone who traded his iPhone 11 Pro to make the switch. Is it the best any flagship device has to offer, no. But to say it is a terrible camera is a falsehood, and if it was part of the reason they were able to drop the price $200 then more power to them. PS - I do use my phone camera for almost everything (retired my Nikon DSLR) and the pictures on the Fold 3 are great.
  • I completely agree.
  • Except, they're not terrible. Where in the world did you get that idea from?
  • i have the fold 3 and don't think they are bad, my old phone was a note 10+, i do think i might miss the 2 apeterures you could use on the note 10 + for low light vs. normal, but it's at least as good as my note 10+ was.
  • Agreed.
    My use case doesn't require even having a camera on my phone.
    Can't remember last time I took a picture lol. I rarely use the cameras and when I do, it's the occasional video call with baby niece. I would be fine with mediocre cameras and a cheaper priced device to compensate Might just be I was raised weird.
    Never even think of ever taking pictures.
    Even though cameras were common in the 70's, my parents took just about zero pictures of us through the 70's and 80's.
    Maybe they just didn't think we were photogenic lol
  • I absolutely agree that the cameras on all mid-range and up phones are far more than adequate! Even though I currently have a camera centric phone (Sony Xperia 1 iii) I did not buy it for the camera but rather for the front facing stereo speakers, no punch holes or notches, a headphone jack, and a notification LED!!!
    The expandable storage is great even though I currently don't need it. SO the "advanced" camera is just something that came with the phone...for me! I am way more concerned about cell connectivity. Right now for me on T-Mobile I can easily get 5G, and when running tests it is faster than LTE, but in real world use I find that when using 5G there are times when notifications are delayed, web pages hesitate to load, and YouTube videos buffer. However, when using the "slower" LTE I have none of these issues. Battery life is also a little better on LTE. Now I just received an email from T-Mobile in the last couple of days stating that my area now has 5G...Hmmmm, my area has had 5G for several months??? So maybe they improved it? I will give 5G another try for a few days to see if things have truly improved, and if not...then I will stay on LTE.
    Taking pictures on a communications device is a nice perk for me. If you cannot communicate reliably 24/7/365 then taking pictures is not very important at all.
  • Have been saying this for ages. OEMs put to much emphasis on the camera. It's not the driving reason I get a new phone, they're all good now on top tier and often midrange now too.
  • The good news is that it has gotten very easy to keep using the same phone year over year. There are lots of great ways to spend and/or save phone money. It's even better news that when you do need a new phone, there is little to no downside buying a year or two old model (new or refurbished) for significantly less than what it cost new.
  • That's a great point.
  • Well for me the camera is part of what I look at while considering a device and it's specs. But it is not the most important. Durability, battery life, performance, screen quality and size, physical storage/memory, processing capability (chipset plus available RAM) are also amongst the things I'm looking at while trying to purchase my next smartphone. Of course pricing is crucial well. Micro SD card support, headphone jack are also important. Design is not a make or break, but also not something I completely disregard either. I think that most average consumers are looking for a solid package that offers them most of the features and functionality they need in their day-to-day life. That comes courtesy of a well balanced combination of hardware and software. I'm also seeing the trend that people are more and more inclined to at the very least keep their devices longer than before, instead of just trying to keep up with the Joneses. Including fast charging and wireless charging , an IPX rating, as well as well as stereo speakers, especially in mid-tier (and perhaps even some entry level ones) devices, may also help take away the camera centric focus of the OEMs. That is for example, why I personally find a device such as the Nokia XR-20 quite appealing. While not perfect by any means, it embodies, at least for me, some of what I was talking about. I have nothing against foldables (or dual screen devices) by any means and can definitely appreciate the innovation behind them, but for now I think they are largely still a novelty and more about style than substance. I'm sure as the technology advances and matures that will definitely change. The price has to as well.
  • Thank you. I'm not Ansel Adams.
  • Yeah the cameras ar all pretty good.... And the phones are plenty thin... And the screens are actually completely acceptable so folders like you focused on are not needed. What would be cool is a phone that has good signal strength and a decent battery... Maybe even decent microphones (to you know actually place calls with) Unfortunately everyone is so obsessed with advancing technology that no one has bothered fixing/perfecting it. Folders are not needed... It's a structural weak point We need phone to do what we expect them to do reliably... And for cheaper... Then we should advance the technology again. $1k phones are for morons a pixel 5a does everything you need... But it's STILL over priced... I'm happy with it considering the options but the parts to make these are not that expensive... We need a pixel 5a for $199 with 30% better signal strength and 30% more battery life by 2024. Solid phones for people on tighter budgets than myself...
  • The only morons are the ones calling other people morons for making their own choices... And what are these folders you're talking about?
  • I agree that OEMs need to focus on more than the camera but I have to point out that, after noting this, you spent nearly the entire article talking about cameras. I think increased interest in foldables has shown that you can pay attention to other aspects and get good (and sellable) results. What other aspects of smartphones need some attention and reimagining?
  • Yes focus on more then the camera, but not on foldable phone. Focus on battery tech (which was mentioned) and some kind of composite that you can use on the back that will allow wireless charging and make the phone less fragile.
  • Content creation has been and still is becoming more and more valuable. It was photography and now it's leaning toward video. The people that create content are also going to be the most visible and their choice of phone will sell many more phones than an ad campaign. I personally don't take many pictures and I don't think there is meaningful difference between premium phone cameras but I do think it makes sense to market whatever your difference is like crazy.
  • Nineteen years ago I had just purchased the Sanyo SCP-5300. I'd also recently bought a Samsung flip phone with a detachable camera. I saw the Sanyo and put the Samsung aside; for good as it turned out. I was taking photos of my coworkers with the Sanyo that first week and sending same to those who had email addresses. Heady times those early days of digital photography with a camera phone. A year later in October 2003 I had the Sanyo SCP-5500 which could record and send 15 second videos to someone with a compatible device. I also got one for my girlfriend and we had fun sending videos to each other. My Sanyo SCP-5500 is sitting on my nightstand. I recently got it out to look at the contents from when I'd last used it in late-2004. Phones were seemingly more fun in the eclectic early days.
  • Wholeheartedly agree. Hell, most phone reviews cover mostly the camera and the other parts of the phone are afterthought so reviewers reinforce that. Let’s have more diversity in materials (metal, ceramic, titanium, glass, plastic, etc), bigger batteries that last 2 days of usage, small phones for easier ergonomics, and, crazy idea here, bring back SD cards and headphone Jacks. It’s so easy to have good phones, if manufacturers try.