Camera bulges are wonderful things and all smartphones should have them

Opinions. People have them; mostly they are bad.

Here’s a bad opinion many people have: Camera bulges are ugly and phones shouldn’t have them.

Here’s an opinion I have of those people: They are silly and wrong.

The above image, leaked Sunday, appears to give us a look at the design of Motorola’s next-generation Moto X flagship phone. You may notice the coin-sized bulge on the back for the camera.

People are already hating on it.

Writes Darren Orf at Gizmodo:

The camera does add a huge bulge to the back of this phone, though. It almost looks as bulky as the lens on the Galaxy S6, easily that phone’s biggest design flaw (which they fixed with the S7). The module itself also looks suspiciously like the Moto 360, with the notorious “flat tire” included. Except most people hate the flat tire, so I’m not sure why Motorola needs to remind us of it.

To his credit, Orf adds that if the Moto X outshoots the Galaxy S7, he’ll eat his words.

In this bulge-hatred, Orf is not alone. My colleague Alex Heath called the iPhone’s bulge one of the two “most annoying” features of its design. Ben Brooks had fun back in 2014 pointing out the pains Apple took to hide it in product shots.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know if the 2016 Moto X will outshoot the Galaxy S7. That’s a high bar. But for smartphone cameras to improve beyond where they are right now, they’re going to have to get bulgier, lumpier, and downright swollen with expanded optics.

That’s because images from cameras with larger sensors simply look better and less distorted than images from smaller sensors. Plus, the wider the individual light-gathering pixels are, the more accurate and higher-dynamic range they tend to be. (This was the driving force behind HTC’s misguided “Ultrapixel” camera.) And when sensor sizes swell, their optics have to bulge to match them.

Similarly, bulging optics offer more opportunities for wide apertures. And when folded lensing arrives in smartphones in a big way, small bulges will make room for staggering quality and functionality improvements.

And really, what are the trade-offs? A device that imperceptibly wobbles when you lay it flat on a table? A break from the planar rectangularity that reigns over all smartphone design? Riddle me this: Why are you willing to stuff a 5-inch-plus device in your jeans pocket if an irregularity sized somewhere between a surgical bobbin and a US nickel makes it uncomfortable?

There is a real value in making smartphone cameras more powerful. Not only should we always celebrate an endeavour to spread an artistic tool to the masses, but in this case they’re enabling the most massive visual archive of any era in our species’ history. They record our lives and spark sea changes in political consciousness. There’s little the corporate tech world actually does in a year that truly and meaningfully changes the world, but expanding access to quality photographic tools is an undeniable instance where it has and continues to.

If most tech writers got their way, though, our phones would stay flat and boring and their cameras would plateau. Luckily, Motorola and others seem to be ignoring those people.


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