This is the backside of my HTC Incredible 2. The camera lens is in the lower-left corner. Immediately above it are two LED lights that provide "flash" illumination in low light. The slot above the LEDs is the speaker, which you'd use for use the speakerphone feature.
Yeah, I know: It's a phone; specifically, an HTC Incredible 2. It's also a mobile computing device that provides wireless connection to the Internet, either through my provider's 3G network or my broadband connection at home. Depending on which application I launch, it can also be a turn-by-turn GPS navigator, an MP3 player, a video player, a video recorder, a voice recorder, an electronic book reader, and yes, a digital camera. As with most devices of this type, it's not that it does any one of these things exceptionally well, but rather that it can do so many of them well enough to be useful. Keep in mind we're talking about something that measures 120mm x 60mm x 10mm and has a 100mm (4-inch) diagonal screen.
The digital camera part is pretty impressive as these things go. It has 8MP of resolution, auto-focus, face detection, auto-ISO, auto-LED illumination (there's no flash as such), and digital zoom. Exposure, contrast, saturation, and white balance are all adjustable. It automatically geo-tags each photo with your exact longitude and latitude. For those who like visual effects, you can choose the way it renders JPEGs. Among the many rendering options are vignette, shallow depth-of-field, vintage, sepiatone, negative color, and solarize. It even includes a self-timer--although finding a way to aim and secure a smartphone with no tripod mount on a stable surface requires better than average ingenuity.
To switch the phone into camera mode you simply tap a camera icon on the screen. This opens the "camera app," which displays whatever the lens on the back of the camera is aimed at. (There's also a 1.3MP front-facing camera that's designed mainly for video-conferencing. Yes, it does that too.) The camera controls are located along the short sides of the frame. On one side is a scrollbar that controls the digital zoom. Slide your finger up to zoom in, slide it down to zoom out.
On the opposite side of the screen is the shutter button, which looks like the diaphragm of a lens. Tap any place on the screen and that's where the camera will focus. Tap the diaphragm icon to release the shutter, after which you'll hear a "click." The shutter is actually silent, so if you'd rather not hear a click you can simply mute the sound.
As wonderful and convenient as it is to have such an amazingly full-featured camera built into my cellphone, there's no way in hell I'd consider this a substitute for a "real" camera. The only viewfinder is the screen, which washes out in bright light. You have to hold the phone along the edges while keeping your fingers out of the way of the lens, so it's difficult to get a firm grip. There's enough shutter lag that action shots are out of the question (unless of course you're shooting video. As I said, it does that too.) Image noise and compression artifacts are minimal in bright light but atrocious indoors.
And yet... On occasions when I'm out and about and either can't take a DSLR with me or don't want to, the camera built into my cellphone is definitely better than no camera at all. It's perfect for visual notetaking. In one snap I can not only record a scene I might later want to revisit, I also record the exact location and time of day. I don't even have to bother with connecting the camera or mini-SD card to my PC to download a photo; I can attach it to an e-mail or text message and send it to whomever wants a copy. Small wonder that smartphones are beginning to displace point-and-shoot digital cameras among snapshooters as their camera of choice. And if you should happen to use one yourself from time to time, trust me, I completely understand.