Modern smartphones are essentially pocket-sized mini-computers, capable of dealing with many tasks that not very long ago would have been processed on desktop or laptop computers. The camera module is just one component of many, but more and more consumers are carefully considering camera performance in their buying decision. Manufacturers have been well aware for quite some time and are investing heavily to make sure the cameras on their devices can compete with the best. The device division of mobile communication pioneer Motorola for example, which was taken over by Chinese PC makers Lenovo in 2014, first assembled a dedicated camera and imaging team in 2013 when it was still part of Google. Since then the brand has launched a number of new devices in its Moto range with a clear focus on imaging performance and features.
Camera companies, like traditional phone manufacturers, dismissed the iPhone as a toy when it launched, in 2007. Nokia thought that the iPhone used inferior technology; the camera makers thought that it took lousy pictures. Neither thought that they had anything to worry about. Of course, neither anticipated the value of having a computer in your pocket, and what the camera folks, especially, didn't anticipate was that, as the photographer Chase Jarvis puts it, the best camera is the one that's with you. The iPhone didn't really start to cannibalize the camera business until the iPhone 4 came out, in 2010.
Google's latest flagship smartphones -- the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL -- are finally shipping to customers, and the reviews are unanimous: The rear camera and dual selfie cams are best in class. But as good as those cameras might be, they're a bit puzzling -- and sort of paradoxical. The original Pixel and Pixel XL have two cameras: one front and one rear. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have two cameras: one front and one rear. And the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL have three cameras: two front and one rear.
The Google Pixel is the best smartphone you can buy, thanks in part to its killer camera. But its photo smarts go beyond the specs. The Pixel offers compelling evidence that phones haven't just replaced point-and-shoot cameras. Smartphone cameras are smarter, faster, and they're always in your pocket. Even better, they can improve your shots even after you've taken them.
If you're wondering how good your next phone's camera is going to be, it'd be wise to pay attention to what the manufacturer has to say about AI. Beyond the hype and bluster, the technology has enabled staggering advances in photography over the past couple of years, and there's no reason to think that progress will slow down. There are still a lot of gimmicks around, to be sure. But the most impressive recent advancements in photography have taken place at the software and silicon level rather than the sensor or lens -- and that's largely thanks to AI giving cameras a better understanding of what they're looking at. Google Photos provided a clear demonstration of how powerful a mix AI and photography would be when the app launched in 2015.