iPad 2: Cameras ain’t cameras

I’m an enthusiastic user of the iPad 2 that arrived two weeks ago. It was everything I could expect, except in one respect: the camera.

Actually, there are two cameras – the front-facing 480×640 (VGA) resolution camera and the rear 720×960 resolution camera. Given that the iPad 2 display has a resolution of 768×1024, neither camera is capable of filling the screen to its full potential. However, given I was most excited about the video calling potential of the iPad 2, it is the front-facing camera that concerns me the most.

Comparing that camera to a VGA  resolution web cam that I had around (the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks that according to Wikipedia was first released in 2002), it is definitely of higher-quality. You would certainly hope so, given the decade for technology to improve in the interim. But, it is still only VGA Рjust 0.3 megapixels.

Image on the left taken by Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks, and image on the right taken by Apple iPad 2 front-facing camera

Although, when you then use the FaceTime application on the iPad, the quality takes a noticeable dive. Based on some info from a jailbroken iPhone mod, it seems FaceTime actually runs at 240×320 resolution (i.e. 0.08 megapixels).

Same picture as above, but through the FaceTime app on the iPad 2.

Since FaceTime for the Mac supports video calling up to 720p resolutions, it’s not a limitation of the protocol. But it’s apparently also the same resolution that Skype runs on the iPhone (and hence iPad), so trying a different app won’t change that.

The whole video calling experience does not show off the best of the iPad hardware, however the camera and the reduced resolution used in FaceTime is just good enough to achieve an acceptable result. Given that Apple normally aims to delight and amaze with their devices, this doesn’t meet my expectations.

While I can see how it could be better, FaceTime is still slick enough to have encouraged me to use it many times since we got the iPad 2 – it is a good video-calling device. That doesn’t stop me hoping that will be a future firmware upgrade that will at least restore some of the lost resolution.

Also, in the same way that the lack of a camera in the iPad 1 created a clear point of difference when the iPad 2 was released, the low-quality camera in the iPad 2 gives Apple the opportunity to fix this in their next iPad. (If they could find some way to include a directional speaker, that would be awesome too.)

Placing video calls on the iPad 2 has confirmed for me that it could be an incredible device for this use case, and I hope that Skype releases an iPad app to create a bit more competition here (and open up the range of people that I can call). We might get better video calling resolution, yet!