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Camera phones: are the megapixel wars over at last?

Just over a year ago, Sony Ericsson upped the ante and unleashed the Sony Ericsson Idou. The 12 megapixel-packing camera phone, which became known as the Sony Ericsson Satio, was the latest attempt to prove to punters that simply pumping up the pixels meant your mobile’s camera was better than your best mate’s.

Fast forward 12 months and things couldn’t be more different. Sony Ericsson’s new range unveiled at Mobile World Congress has peeled back the megapixel count to a more reasonable five, as found in the new Xperia X10 Mini and Vivaz Pro too. So, why the change of heart?

xperia x10 mini

Officially, Sony Ericsson says there hasn’t been one. “Sony Ericsson is focused on delivering a balanced and innovative portfolio of products aimed at specific sectors of the market,” said a spokesman when we asked if the age of the mighty megapixel mobile was over. “Recently announced products such as the X10 family and Vivaz focus on key functionality, such as HD recording and unique user interface, whilst delivering the best spec available that suits the design of the handset.”

But in reality, there has been a sea change. The Satio has been plagued with problems. Away from the nasty niggles with software, the camera produced noisy shots which just couldn’t measure up to previous winning efforts like the 8 megapixel Sony Ericsson C905. Also, as punters want phones that can do everything decently rather than one thing incredibly, adding extra megapixels just doesn’t cut it.

Sony Ericsson isn’t alone in doing this. Samsung has taken things down a notch and hasn’t taken the opportunity (yet), to take things up to 15 megapixels, as many mobile watchers suggested they might last year. Nokia, which in recent years has hung back and let Samsung and Sony Ericsson fight it out with each other in the camera space, has also resisted the urge to make sensors larger.

Nokia’s Damian Dinning thinks the truce in the megapixel march isn’t simply down to consumers gagging for all-round smartphone powerhouses. “In the early days of mobile camera development, image quality improvements were most significant by simply increasing sensor resolution,” he says. “However, there is a point where the resolution of the sensor extends beyond the resolving capability of the optics.”

In fact, camera phones with optical zooms (as opposed to digital), have yet to leave the confines of the Far East, where a Samsung model was first spotted last September. Until such a time as they do break out of those markets, the focus is clearly shifting to capable cams which can capture decent shots of your pals which you can shovel onto Facebook or associate with contacts as part of the raft of new social networking skins.

Mr Dinning echoes this view. “It is essential that Nokia considers the real world performance of the camera, as well as the need to remain competitive in a highly competitive market. Nokia’s priority in this regard is firmly weighted more to real-world performance than simply specifications,” he says.

It’s pleasing to hear. But the question is, will the megapixel wars start in earnest once we get used to this generation of best-ever smarties? “We will continue to bring new and innovative devices to market but we cannot comment on future specifications,” says Mr Dinning of Nokia’s plans.

Likewise, Sony Ericsson cannot comment. As smartphones remain focused on web-based functionality, it looks like we’ll be left waiting for a truly killer cameraphone to appear in 2010. If you want cracking shots, best pack your compact.

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