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Why phone companies care more about the camera on the front than the back

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Selfies, selfies, selfies

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At IFA yesterday, two new smartphones were announced with 8-megapixel cameras. That could be said pretty much every September for the past three years, but what’s peculiar about the HTC Desire 820 and Lenovo Vibe Z2 is that their high-resolution cameras are on the front of the device: designed to help people take pictures of themselves rather than the world around them. Both also have 13-megapixel rear cameras, of course, however no one’s talking about them. The age of mobile photography is transmogrifying into the era of selfie — and smartphone makers are changing their phones to keep up.

Selfie phones are all the rage at IFA

HTC and Lenovo’s devices are joined by Microsoft’s Lumia 730 "selfie phone" and Sony’s Xperia C3 "pro selfie" handset in being tailor-made for the auto-photography crowd. Beyond them, there’s a sea of devices like the Huawei Ascend P7 that also seem to over-spec the front-facing camera, plus every phone maker’s software now includes concessions to our growing selfie obsession. LG’s current flagship smartphone, the G3, doesn’t have a front-facing camera, says the company, it has a selfie cam.

The reaction from device manufacturers is understandable. They’ve picked up on a growing habit of mobile users that can actually be served by steady technical improvement. Image quality from primary smartphone cameras has plateaued and megapixel counts long ago surpassed the basic necessary level. Companies are increasingly relying on software and borderline gimmicks like LG’s laser focus to make their phone cameras stand out. Front-facing cameras, on the other hand, have traditionally been afterthought additions — making them better is a relatively simple act of retreading the resolution and clarity evolution that’s taken place at the back of your smartphone.

The primary camera is still on the back, but the one that’s driving sales is on the front

The fashion of using mobile devices to document and journal one’s life is hardly a new phenomenon. People have always enjoyed sharing pictures of their food, and selfies have existed since the very earliest cave drawings. What’s novel now is that it’s all become quite conventional and normal. As with talking on a cellphone or texting, what used to be odd or geeky is now entirely commonplace.

The primary camera remains on the back of your phone, but the one that’s driving user interest and hardware sales is on the front. HTC’s predecessor to the Desire 820, the 816, has become the company’s best selling recent device at least in part on the strength of its front camera. An HTC executive illustrated the point with an anecdote about his niece: he gave her a One mini 2 after she had a One S — both attractively designed Android phones — and the only thing she could talk about was the massive upgrade of the front-facing camera.

Facetune has been one of the most popular iPhone apps for a while now and its entire purpose is to help you airbrush portraits and selfies. LG’s current camera suite has a slider control for skin softening and HTC has a similar Live Makeup mode. Going in the opposite direction, there’s the humorous FatBooth app for showing you what you’d look like with a few extra pounds, and HTC also has an option for merging two people’s faces into one creepy mutant. The only thing selfies seem to be missing is their own Instagram — the sort of lightning rod app that cements them as a proper category in their own right. Still, the popularity of the existing apps illustrates just how much of an opportunity there is for hardware manufacturers to distinguish themselves.

Specs used to be everything. Now the standard has risen to such a level that you can gloss over almost all of them when making your smartphone buying decision. It’s about the platform, the apps, the feel in your hand — hell, even the particular color scheme and aesthetic matter more than the number of cores or hertz available within. Cameras are the one last bastion where the spec still reigns supreme. Choosing the right component inside the front of the phone can make all the difference for the person outside it.