Wednesday, August 18, 2010

iPhone 4 Camera - Update #3

After further testing, it's become apparent that despite my new handset showing significant improvement over the old in terms of white balance, it still cannot hold a candle to that of the 3GS. Furthermore, an increasing number of friends with iPhone 4s are starting to report the same complaint.

So I decided to mail Steve Jobs directly on the issue asking for assurance that the issue was being looked into.

Somebody who is not Steve Jobs mailed me back to say the issue would be better discussed by phone, and that I should speak specifically to them. I'm hoping that they will not be a regular customer service advisor treating my case as a single problematic unit, and instead indicative of a wider quality control issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

We shall see.

They called, and did not appear to be a regular customer service advisor. Turns out Steve Jobs read my mail, and forwarded it on to one of his teams with a comment that they should look into the complaint. While he couldn't comment on the issue specifically, he assured me that Apple are now aware of the growing discontent over the white balance and are investigating. This is good news, and hopefully it will be addressed in due course.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

iPhone 4 Camera - Update #2

Decided to pay a visit to the Apple Store in Ginza and have a chat with one of their "Geniuses" about the White Balance issue. I prepared in advance a few comparison snaps from the 4 and the 3GS, and the gentleman was immediately convinced there was indeed a problem and prepared a new unit. Naturally, given the number of complaints being made about the camera, and the number of times I'd heard the story of having the unit replaced several times only to have the exact same problem each time, I was a little concerned. He explained that early production runs occasionally have small (or sometimes entire) batches of problematic units, but Apple normally iron out the problems fairly early, so if the problem persists I can keep changing it until I find one I'm happy with – the warranty lasts for 1 year.

So on arriving home with my new iPhone 4, I decided to test it under the same conditions I'd tested the previous unit with.

The white balance under the warmer lighting isn't perfect (and I wouldn't expect AWB to be perfect, especially not with a sensor that size), but despite the difference being subtle, the qualitative difference is quite remarkable. This feels more like a camera I can use indoors, and am reasonably happy now, but still feel it's falling short of the mark.

However, there remains a serious problem. Many iPhone users will be unfamiliar with the concept of white balance adjustments, and despite indoor shots coming out bright orange, it's not far fetched to assume that many will not realise they're using a faulty unit. If Apple can identify the fault and fix it in a subsequent update then great, but failing that, they're seriously letting their customers down here.

Friday, August 06, 2010

iPhone 4 Camera - Update

Upon further inspection, it seems apparent that my initial conclusion was incorrect, that being that the iPhone 4 AWB (Auto White Balance) either doesn't exist, is inactive, or is broken. The scene below was taken at my home last night.

Excuse the mess; my house is currently between tidy.

As we can see, the camera moves between a number of conflicting light sources, and it evidently does make some attempt to compensate. This is especially noticeable around the kitchen sink area, and more so after I manually compensate by adding a "colour temperature blue" adjustment filter (which is how colour correction was done in the days before digital).

One point that I find particularly curious is that although the fluorescent lit room looked mostly fine to begin with; the colour temperature is very close to that of sunlight, it seemed unable to adjust when the CTB filter was placed in front of it. If the AWB is working and has difficulty with the warmer colour temperatures, you'd expect it to at least handle the cooler ones. I digress.

So evidently there is an AWB, and it "works", it just works really really shoddily. I'm hoping it's poor calibration that can be fixed with a software update, but it's also quite plausible that basic camera functionality including the white balance is housed in a dedicated hardware unit that would need to be physically replaced. Again, Apple have been very quiet on the issue and people are getting anxious because even replacing the handset under warranty leaves no guarantee that the issue will be fixed.

Apple, are you there?! Anyone?

I spoke to another rep today, who said he had not heard of the problem. However, I did get myself an appointment at the "Genius Bar" for next Wednesday. Odds are, the lighting at the Apple Store will be fluorescent, making it difficult to replicate the problem (or indeed see if any replacement phone they send my way is fixed or not) so I'm thinking that bringing along a CTO filter to imitate tungsten lighting should do the trick. I'll need to test that first though using the iPhone 4 and the 3GS, with videos prepared in advance for evidence.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

iPhone 4 Camera – Worst Phone Camera Ever

Now I don't normally work in superlatives like this, but it was necessary to balance Jobs' own enthusiastic appraisal. Perhaps the title should more accurately read "iPhone 4 Camera - Handles Warmer Colour Temperature Lighting Such As Tungsten Worse Than Any Phone Camera I've Ever Owned, And I've Owned A Fair Few" which I would absolutely stand by, but if you've read this far then you already know that so there's little point going back and changing it now; and if you haven't read this far, then I can say anything I want about you and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. How do you like them apples?! I guess you'll never know.

In fairness, the iPhone 4 camera performs quite reasonable in daylight conditions. The spirit of the one-touch enhance that was touted in iPhoto nearly 8 years ago to make up for the somewhat lackluster picture quality of your typical digital camera seems to have been included giving pictures that most of the time need no post processing.

However, once you step in from the sunshine and find yourself under tungsten lighting of about 3000 Kelvins or less, that's when the faults start to really show. The best way to explain the problem is as follows: sunlight has a very bluey hue, whereas tungsten lightbulbs as found in typical family abodes have a very orangey hue. Our eyes being connected to our brains perceive both as looking "normal". A camera only sees the light as is, so those daylight scenes actually look really blue, and those tungsten scenes actually look really orange. Thankfully, digital cameras normally come equipped with an "automatic white balance"* which compensates for this making both scenes appear the way we'd expect to see them. This is demonstrated well by the video below (courtesy of Bunnyhero).

See how orange the tunsten lit room appeared? See also how the camera compensated after a moment to make it appear normal? See how blue the other room appeared on emerging from the bathroom? This is what the "automatic white balance" does, and on the older iPhones it clearly did it well.

Now compare to a near identical video taken with an iPhone 4.

As you can see, it makes absolutely no attempt to compensate for the warmer lighting conditions. Whatsoever. Did the manufacturers forget to switch the AWB on? Is it broken? Does it even have AWB? Despite the iPhone 4 being available for more than a month now, Apple have been very quiet on the subject, with support reps claiming they've not heard of such a problem.

Well this is a problem, and despite a buzz of documentation early in July, very little has been mentioned of it since. So I guess it's down to me then.

*Many digital cameras also allow manual white balance whereby you can set to daylight, tungsten, fluorescent and various other presets, set a custom temperature in Kelvins, or simply supply a white reference to lock the colour temperature to. In professional applications a manual white balance is normally preferred. The iPhone 4 does not have a manual white balance option.