How iPad 2G’s Rear Camera Will Probably Work (And Be Magical)

Rumors regarding the second-generation iPad have been circulating since the release of the first model, and some of the most popular recent speculation relates to cameras. It’s widely assumed that the new iPad will have one camera on the front for FaceTime, and potentially one on the back as well, the latter point seemingly confirmed by iPad 2G cases this morning. Yet there has been considerable ambiguity as to whether, why, and how Apple would implement a rear iPad camera up until this point, so we’re going to discuss the issue and add a little to the speculation here.

Whither A Rear Camera? Prior to October, FaceTime seemed to demand two cameras, as Apple included a camera switch-off feature in both the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G, the latter of which needn’t have included a rear camera at all. However, in light of FaceTime’s jump to single-camera Macs in October, it became obvious that Apple thinks “FaceTime” should minimally require “a camera focused on your face,” a microphone, and a speaker, plus the horsepower and battery life to maintain smooth audio and video calls. Beyond that, FaceTime can leverage whatever other related hardware the device happens to otherwise include, but nothing’s mandatory. So the choice of whether to add a rear camera to the iPad would be strictly optional from Apple’s standpoint, at least if adding FaceTime support is the key reason to do so.

Why Do It, Then? Competition is a starting point. Regardless of whether Apple likes to appear above adding features merely for the sake of adding features, an increasing number of rival tablet products are including rear-facing cameras. The rest of the iOS line is another factor. Leaving a rear camera out on the iPad when the iPhone and iPod touch now both have them would surprise and disappoint some people, leading to “wait for 2012” discussions Apple would rather not start. There’s also the issue of practicality.

Unlike a Mac, which sits on a desk or lap in positions that make less sense for taking rear pictures, the iPad is held in one’s hands and can easily be positioned for photography. It mightn’t be as ideal for photography as something smaller in some ways, but it could be positive in others.

How Will Apple Do It? One thing that Apple really enjoys doing, particularly when adding a new feature to an established product, is rethinking things that competitors have attempted and gotten wrong. In a highly unusual public blasting of the current crop of Android tablets, Steve Jobs personally criticized the whole lot for trying to use a phone-optimized operating system in what amounts to a bigger shell, without going into specifics as to why that was a bad idea, or why Apple’s approach with the iPad (iOS 3.2) was so different. The rear camera could be a prime example.

If you’ve ever tried taking a picture with an Android tablet (say, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab), you probably have some sense of what Jobs was referring to. Filling the screen of a 7” tablet with the same image that appears on the screen of a 3.5” phone just doesn’t feel right. Part of the problem is the field of view. Another is the quality of the photo. The third involves the disorientingly large previewing of that small, low-resolution image. Apple has a chance to fix all three of these things with the iPad.

The first part of the fix would involve using a lens that lets the iPad capture an even wider picture—something closer to a 28-millimeter equivalent.

Picture the iPad in an advertisement looking out at a landscape, snapping a picture, and having the landscape appear on the iPad’s screen looking just like what your eyes were seeing. Or taking a picture of a group of people, then becoming the picture frame for the family photo. It sounds so simple, but with the lens on the back of the Galaxy Tab (or, say, the iPod touch) right now, that’s not happening. The iPhone 4 at roughly 30-millimeters comes the closest in its family (previously 37-millimeter equivalent) to being able to capture a wide angle, but the iPad could go further. Even if it was iPhone 4-like, it would be pretty wide—better than the iPod touch by far.

With the right lens and field of view, the next issue becomes image quality. The iPod touch’s 0.69-Megapixel rear still camera has been pilloried for mediocre image quality and lower resolution than any iPhone ever released. Its 960×720 images look so-so on the iPod touch, so upscaling similar images to the iPad’s current 1024×768 display would look pretty weak, ignoring whatever improvements Apple has planned for the next iPad’s screen. An iPad rear camera will need to be better than what’s in the iPod touch to be at least acceptable, and as rivals are using much higher-specced sensors in their devices, it wouldn’t be crazy to see something similar to the iPhone 4’s 5-Megapixel sensor inside.

Last is the previewing issue, and this one’s tricky. Try and hold the Galaxy Tab up to take a picture and what you see on the screen is a big blown up picture of a narrow area in front of you. It just doesn’t feel right, and Apple has to know this.