To beat the iPhone, you have to beat the iPhone’s camera

Speed kills, and the iPhone goes from 0 to a good picture faster than anything else

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I was at Intel’s CES booth, composing a photo with my Android smartphone, when a pair of anonymous hands thrust a shining iPhone 6 Plus into my line of vision. A nonchalant tap of the camera shutter button later, the hands were pulling back, having captured a stupendously clear and sharp picture on the first attempt. By the time I’d completed my routine of setting proper focus and steadying myself, the dude who’d beaten me to a better shot with none of the effort was already walking away. It was enough to make anyone sink into a deep state of gadget envy.

For a show overrun with various visions of smart drones and smarter homes for the future, the present of CES was remarkably uniform. I saw more iPhones in the hands of CES attendees than I did Android phones across the countless exhibitor booths. From the biggest keynote event to the smallest stall on the show floor, everything was being documented with Apple’s latest smartphone, and it all looked so irritatingly easy. I don’t want an iPhone, but dammit, I want the effortlessness of the iPhone’s camera.

I don’t want an iPhone, but dammit, I want the effortlessness of the iPhone’s camera

The iPhone’s lead as the smartphone to beat has rarely been defined by just one thing. At one point, the biggest advantage was the simplicity and speed of its interface; at another, it was down to the diversity and quality of available apps; and most recently, the iPhone has distinguished itself with the quality of its 8-megapixel camera. Today, the combination of all these things — simple and fast operation, strong optics and image processing, and a wide app ecosystem — is helping people create the best possible images with the least possible hassle.

The effortlessness of taking good pictures with the iPhone is probably that phone’s most underrated quality. And yet, its importance grows with every passing day. Consider how vital the camera in any modern smartphone is. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter are the most popular communication platforms, and they’re all either image-centric or moving toward a greater reliance on visuals. To get the most out of Pinterest, Tumblr, Foursquare check-ins, or Yelp restaurant reviews, you’ll want to be able to take quick and easy mobile pictures. The standard that must be reached isn’t so much about image quality as it is about quickness, predictability, and reliability — and nobody does those things better than Apple.

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In all the years of Android’s existence, in spite of huge investments of time and money, there’s never been a standout Android cameraphone. Some have cameras that are better in low light than the iPhone’s, many have higher resolution, and a number claim to be faster at focusing — but none pull it all together into the same comprehensive package that the iPhone can offer. Samsung and LG give you a pared-down "just shoot" experience, but they lack software polish and speed; Motorola’s camera launches and shoots quickly, but the quality is mediocre; and Sony manages to combine an excellent image sensor with terrible autofocus. Microsoft’s PureView cameras fare better, but the Windows Phone camera app is comparatively slow and unintuitive, and there’s a reason why former Lumia chief Ari Partinen is now tagging his photos with #iPhone6Plus instead of #Lumia1520.

As 2015 gets going in earnest and phone makers resume their annual quest to oust the iPhone from its dominant position, I offer this advice: don’t worry about the phone, focus on beating the camera. This is a familiar refrain, as true today as it was three years ago, and it’s frankly embarrassing for the mobile industry to lag so badly for so long on such a fundamental aspect of the modern user experience. The pursuit of gimmicks like UltraPixels and laser autofocus goes some way to explaining this conundrum, but I’d rather we just fix it.

The most critical component to Apple’s current mobile dominance lies behind that sapphire crystal lens. In today’s commoditized smartphone market, even great design and spectacular thinness are becoming commonplace. Powerful processors and large batteries are expected rather than exceptional. To win over new customers (and to keep existing ones), smartphone makers will have to act like what they are selling is actually a smart camera first and everything else second.

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