Only a few years ago, Dave Burke remembers, cellphone users were just happy to have a camera at all. But expectations have changed. "If you have a smartphone, people want it to take pictures like a DSLR. Even in one year the quality bar and expectation bar has gone up higher and higher. Internally, ours have too. I think we can do better, and we are."
As he says this, Burke, Google's Director of Engineering for Android, is walking through all the changes Google has made to the Nexus 5's camera in the five weeks since the phone hit the market. The fruits of the Android team's efforts is Android 4.4.1, the update rolling out over the next few days that is designed to fix the buggy, inconsistent camera on what is otherwise one of the best Android phones on the market.
Fixing autofocus fixes a number of other problems, too
The changes break down in five categories, Burke says, autofocus first among them. Mixing speed and image quality requires a fragile balance, particularly in low light, and Android 4.4 skewed too far toward image quality. "There’s a tendency to say, 'oh, we have this cool thing that stabilizes, so lets make the shutter time longer, reduce the gain even longer, and get better shots.'" But while the Nexus 5's optical image stabilization allowed it to get better-than-average shots in low light, in good lighting it just made for frustratingly slow shooting speeds. By speeding up the framerate and increasing how quickly the camera can read its surroundings and fire a picture, Burke and his team improved the autofocus, the exposure, and the white balance. "You fix the motion blur," he says, "and make everything faster."
Speed is a theme for the update, and the Nexus 5's camera really does feel faster across the board. The app launches a full second quicker than it did before the update, meaning you'll miss many fewer shots than before. There's also a new progress indicator in HDR+ mode, which makes the process, longer by necessity, feel a lot more straightforward. It's the first of what Burke says will be a series of interface changes, as Google tries to make Android cameras a little more controllable and obvious. Right now, nearly every setting is buried under layers of menus, and Burke says Google is working on undoing that.
In only five weeks, Google massively upgraded the Nexus 5's camera
But even now, after just five weeks of work, the Nexus 5's camera has been massively improved. We've only had a day with the software, but the changes are clear. Before, there were shots you simply couldn't get — I learned to not even try with fast-moving subjects, especially in low light, but now a picture of the New York City skyline out the window of a taxi is crisp and in focus, even if it's not quite as sharp as on an iPhone 5S. The Nexus 5 just inspires confidence in a way it never did before. It doesn't take six tries to get a picture in focus, because the camera doesn't re-focus again as soon as you hit the shutter. It just fires, and far more often than not gets a crisp, clear photo.
Photos are a little more contrasted, too, with slightly more vibrant colors. Burke says this was an intentional change, that "we just wanted to make photos pop a little more." The effect occasionally goes too far, with reds and oranges exploding off the screen, but for the most pictures look lively and accurate.
There's more work to do, both in performance and in software
There's still plenty of work to be done, of course. The camera app desperately needs a one-touch way to focus and capture an image, for one thing: moving your hand from focusing to firing doesn't cause blur the way it used to, but it still means you'll miss quick-moving subjects. Photos can still come out looking over-processed, and focusing in low light still takes a while. Burke says his team is working on "tuning the edge cases," too, making sure the camera can function properly in strangely lit situations.
With Android 4.4.1 on board, however, the Nexus 5's camera stops being a dealbreaker — it's not the best smartphone camera, but it's a camera you can use confidently and expectantly knowing that it will almost always deliver. It may not take the perfect shot yet, but rarely offers anything but a completely usable one. Burke says it's only going to get better, though he admits there's a lot to do. "Cameras can be pretty complicated," he says.