All was quiet on Christmas morn... then a FLASH OF LIGHT!

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Picture the scene.... The snow falls gently, settling around the cars and houses.... The fire is lit and the living room is nicely warm. Your nearest and dearest are gathered round, talking and giving presents and enjoying the day. Kids are playing, excitedly. When all of a sudden... FLASH! A sheet of white light, illuminating the whole room. Not, as it turns out, accompanied by angels singing, for this isn't a divine event but a clued up geek using his smartphone with Xenon flash. Yes, it's that time of the year again, a true Christmas tradition. It's time for Steve's Xenon rant. And with more impetus than ever this year, now that standalone cameras have been all but eliminated from homes across the world.

You see, back in 2008 when I started pointing out that the likes of the Nokia N82 were the only camera phones capable of taking crisp, satisfying photos indoors on gloomy winter days (apologies to people in the Southern Hemisphere here, for whom it's mid-summer!), the idea that the camera in your phone would be the only camera you ever used wasn't really true. Most people still owned standalone compact or DSLR cameras, and these are what came out to play, especially at Christmas.

Heck, they still own them, but they're relegated to the bedroom drawer because every Tom, Dick and Harry in the world now owns a phone with a 'good' camera and with a 'flash'. Whether it's an iPhone [insert number here] or Galaxy S [insert number here, again] or Lumia 920 or similar, the perception is, at Christmas 2012, that you can now snap away happily, kids, presents, meals, parties, and you never again need to go fetch your standalone camera. 

And that perception is almost totally wrong. The photos of family and friends may even look vaguely acceptable on the phone screen, so people will be happy enough. Until they look at their photos a few days later on a bigger screen and realise that they all suffer from blur - because people move (shock horror), even by a fraction of an inch, in the 1/30s or so that it takes to snap a scene on an iPhone or similar. Result, a batch of very disappointing photos for hundreds of millions of misled smartphone users across the globe. That is, in fact, a lot of disappointment, if you add it all up.

Unless you own one of the following smartphones:

  • Nokia N82
  • Nokia 6220c
  • Sony Ericsson Satio
  • Nokia N8
  • Motorola XT720
  • Nokia 808 PureView

NB. The HTC 7 Mozart is omitted from the list because its flash is terribly implemented and I can't recommend it at all...

In which case you can snap almost anything.

For example, this:

Snow scene, Xenon-lit

Add up sales of the Xenon-flash-equipped smartphones listed above and they perhaps total ten million. So there are roughly 10 million people out there across Planet Earth taking great Christmas photos, beautifully crisp, even when kids are mid-air, jumping for joy at their presents. And the other half billion or so are taking lousy photos, crammed with disappointment.

Doesn't seem fair, does it? Shouldn't manufacturers put a warning on each phone's box: "Warning: The camera in this phone can't be used to take photos of people indoors"?

I remain, to this day, utterly bewildered that there are almost no phones in production that include a proper Xenon flash. It's not rocket science - the N82 had this in 2008, for goodness sake - see here for my explanation of Xenon at the time. And several Sony Ericsson feature phones before that.

From my piece last year:

Which is my bone of contention - there's absolutely no reason why we can't have our cake and eat it. Smartphones - 'converged devices' were originally supposed to replace our cameras. The fact that they haven't for many people is the fault of manufacturers for lacking the courage to put in proper hardware that will delight people, whatever light conditions they have at their celebrations...

It's really not rocket science for manufacturers - put in a 1/2.5" sensor or better (that's 'N95 size' and that was way back in 2007!) and put in a Xenon flash. Yes, the volume of your smartphone just got larger by about 5cc, but that's nothing, repeat nothing compared to how over the moon your customers will be by the terrific photos they get from their 'always with them' phone.

And from my earlier 'One day you'll look back... and be glad you had an N8!':

My point being that photos and videos, unlike most of our other smartphone activities, last a lifetime, i.e. they're not transient. And, most importantly of all, they can't be re-taken - they capture a moment in time and if the shot is messed up, then it's messed up forever. In my humble opinion, this means that unless you're prepared to take a standalone camera around with you, it's best to take the best camera phone that's available - in this case the N8. The Xenon flash will freeze and illuminate the fastest and most terribly lit party scenes (witness the Christmas present ball being celebrated/thrown, shown right!), the sensor will produce usable memories of even the most gloomily lit garden in the snow. Take it from me.

Enough ranting from me. Apart from December 2013, next year, when I daresay not a single manufacturer will have taken my advice, we'll then have almost the entire world taking disappointing Christmas photos and even hardened iPhone 6, Lumia 940 and Galaxy S IV owners will all be rummaging through their office desk muttering "Now where did I put my camera? Wish I still had my old Nokia N8 or 808..."

Nokia N8 camera

The ultimate Xenon implementation, with very little extra bulk, on the Nokia N8, running Symbian