Review: Meritline Wide-Angle Lens for Apple iPhone
Though Apple's original iPhone does many things extremely well, still photography has been a point of controversy for nearly a year now -- some users insist that the camera is awful, while others find it to be superb by mobile phone standards. Even iLounge's editors are split on the subject: this reviewer has taken well over 1,000 photographs with iPhones and falls into the latter camp, but we all agree that the iPhone can't fully replace a dedicated point-and-shoot digital camera, even though many users will find it good enough in common photographic situations.
If you disagree, you probably wouldn’t even consider the idea of adding something else onto your iPhone’s camera—throwing good dollars after bad ones—but if you like the camera enough to see what it can do when extended, Meritline’s Wide-Angle Lens for Apple iPhone ($30, sold for $15 shipped) is an interesting option. Rather than trying to create an entire case or full-body shell, Meritline is selling a plastic attachment that slips onto the iPhone’s top and noticeably expands its fixed-lens camera to a greater width.
Made from clear hard plastic that’s secured in the iPhone’s slightly recessed ear speaker, the Wide-Angle Lens pops on just securely enough not to shake at all while in use, and pops off with only a tiny effort. Meritline’s design can be held upside down without disloging the lens, and you can continue to hear audio through the ear speaker while it’s attached. A hole in its top leaves iPhone’s headphone port, SIM card tray, and Sleep/Wake button accessible, as well.
The lens is made from black and clear plastic, which sticks out enough to double the iPhone’s thickness and make it look like a miniature flashlight. Inside is a gently bent disc of plastic, which like all wide angle lenses gathers additional light and detail both through added surface area and by bending the image it acquires to project onto the iPhone’s existing lens and sensor. As the Wide-Angle Lens adds on to the iPhone’s lens rather than replacing it, you can’t expect images taken with the Wide-Angle Lens to be of higher aggregate quality than the ones that the iPhone takes alone, but you can expect that they will look different.
What’s good about the Wide-Angle Lens is that it unquestionably captures more in a given frame than the iPhone can without assistance. These shots show how much of a nearby item the iPhone can capture with and without the attachment at the same distance: the Wide-Angle Lens does exactly what you’d expect in terms of bringing more of the object into the frame from the same vantage point.
At a close distance, this isn’t a huge issue. These shots actually taken with the iPhone reveal a little blurring and geometric distortion on the sides and corners of the wide-angle image, whereas the iPhone’s original shot is pretty clean from corner to corner. Again, these two shots were taken from the exact same distance, and the aided iPhone one captures the entire chess board, while the unaided iPhone loses plenty on its top and bottom. Notably, however, if you get much closer to the board than we did, you’ll notice even more pincushion-style distortion, with the center of the image bulging relative to the corners.
Where the Wide-Angle Lens runs into more trouble is at greater distances—and by “greater,” we mean anything more than a foot or so away. Pictures taken from several-foot distances start to blur noticeably at the corners and sides, creating an effect that is artistic, not accurate. The outdoor and indoor shots here show how the lens presents a wider view, but with substantially lower quality. Bear in mind also that our shots are scaled down from the 1600x1200 originals, which look even blurrier up close.
There’s no doubt in our minds that the geometric and blurring distortion found in Meritline’s Wide-Angle Lens are issues common to inexpensive lenses, surely an iPhone add-on should be expected to offer better image quality in relatively common shooting environments. Unless you’re planning to shoot at fairly close distances where the blurring isn’t as objectionable, or you’re willing to accept the artsiness of perpetually out-of-focus corners, we’d categorize Meritline’s Wide-Angle Lens as a fun, fairly inexpensive toy add-on rather than a serious or even good option for photography. It’s worthy of a limited recommendation for what it can do, but most users would expect that it would be capable of better. Hopefully better options will be available for the iPhone 3G.