30 Days With Windows Phone 7: Day 17

Just about every mobile phone--whether a smartphone or traditional "feature phone"--has a camera, and the Samsung Focus with Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango" that I am using is no exception. But, not all mobile phone cameras are created equally, and not all mobile operating systems offer the same picture-taking experience, so today I am taking a closer look at taking pictures with Windows Phone 7.

Using the Camera

I will start with my favorite camera feature of Windows Phone 7. Actually, there are two, but they are inter-related. I love the fact that my "Mango" device has a physical button for the camera on the side of the phone. Not only that, but you can use the button to activate the camera function and take a picture even when the smartphone is locked.

It is frustrating to see something interesting and want to take a picture of it, but have the moment be gone before I can swipe, enter the password to unlock the smartphone, navigate to the camera app, and tap it just so I can take a picture. With "Mango" on this Samsung Focus, I can just hold down the camera button on the side of the phone and it opens straight to the camera function.

It's possible to disable this function from within the Pictures + Camera settings. At face value it seems to be an issue to be able to bypass the password security on my smartphone just by holding down the camera button, but Microsoft has considered the security implications as well. I can take pictures, and I can review the pictures I have taken, but I can't access the rest of the Windows Phone 7 operating system.

In fact, I can't even see the rest of the camera roll, or post or share the pictures while in this locked down camera mode (although the pictures are still automatically uploaded to my SkyDrive folder if that option is enabled--more on the in a bit). If I tap the back arrow or Start button at the bottom of the phone, it just takes me to the initial lock screen. There is a padlock icon at the upper left that I can tap as well to enter my password and unlock the device from within the camera function.

Tapping the screen to take a picture is not a natural, and it often makes me end up with my finger in front of the lens, or moving the smartphone from where I wanted it positioned. When it comes to actually taking a picture, the camera button on the "Mango" device works the way the button works on most point and shoot cameras--depress partially to focus, wait for beep, and depress fully to take picture.

Camera Settings

I am not a photographer, so I can appreciate the simplicity of full-auto point and shoot. But, I also know there are those who want more control over the camera settings, and the ability to adjust things like white balance, contrast, and sharpness. "Mango" seems to present both options in one platform.

Clicking on the settings icon at the bottom of the camera function opens up a complete menu of tweaks and alterations. I can change AF mode from "normal" to "macro", choose my white balance based on the available lighting--daylight, cloudy, fluorescent, incandescent, set the ISO and metering for the shot, and even determine what resolution the image should be captured at.

I can also understand why I might not want all of the complexity of the settings. The reason that smartphones are such popular cameras isn't because they take truly awesome photos--it's because they're convenient. The primary appeal of a smartphone as a camera is that I can point and shoot in an instant to capture a photo using the device that is with me virtually 24/7.

Windows Phone 7 gives me the option to change these settings, or I can just leave them all set to "auto" or the default settings and just let "Mango" take the picture. By default, the changes made to settings are not retained, but you can tap "Save settings" to store the configuration with all of your preferences. At any time, though, you can also tap "Restore default settings" to get back to the full automatic, point and shoot mode.

Capturing Video

At the bottom right of the camera display is an icon to switch from photo to video mode (or back if I am already in video mode). I can tell instantly if I am in video mode because the time appears in large numbers in landscape mode so I can monitor how long my video clip is as I record.

I can zoom in using the plus and minus buttons on the display--but only before recording. While the recording is live the zoom functions do not work.

If I tap the settings icon at the lower left, I get a different set of options than the photo mode. It is a shorter list, but I can still set the white balance, and choose image effects like sepia or antique. I can also set the video resolution to either VGA or 720p HD, and I can turn the flash on or off for recording video in low or no light situations.

Sharing Pictures

Nine times out of ten that I use my smartphone as a camera it is with the specific intent of sharing the picture. I might want to send it as a text message to someone, or post it on Facebook. While other mobile platforms (I'm looking at you iOS) let me text message or email a photo while viewing the pictures I have taken, Microsoft offers many more options for sharing directly from the camera and pictures tools.

For starters, in the Pictures + Camera settings I have enabled the option to automatically upload the pictures I take to SkyDrive. I like that I have an automatic backup of the photos, and that even if I lose or destroy my "Mango" smartphone, my memorable moments will still be preserved. Apparently, video clips are not automatically uploaded to SkyDrive, though.

When I review the pictures I have taken, I can open the options to do things like auto-fix the image, delete it, set it as my smartphone wallpaper, or add it to my favorites. The top two options on the list, though, are "share..." and "share on Facebook".

Share on Facebook is self-explanatory. I can tag people in the picture, add a caption, and upload the image. The uploaded image is shared with my "Friends" by default rather than posted to "Public", so if I want Subscribers to see the image I will have to go to Facebook and change it so it is shared with "Public".

The "share..." button seems to have a variety of options, but there aren't really as many as it appears. The choices are Messaging, Facebook, SkyDrive, and email. But, "Mango" lists each email account separately, and I currently have my primary email, my Gmail, and my Office365 accounts set up, so all three show up as options. I assume--or at least hope--that other options like Twitter will show up here as "Mango" is finalized and additional social networks are integrated.

For video clips, the options are limited to deleting the clip, sharing it on Facebook, or the more diverse "share..." list. There is no auto-fix, or save as wallpaper option.

What's Missing

As I mentioned, I'd like to see even more integration with social networking and other services (Flickr, Picasa, etc.) for sharing pictures.

But, the most obvious thing missing on my Samsung Focus is a front-facing camera. Facebook is integrated with Skype, and Microsoft is in the process of closing the deal to acquire Skype. It only makes sense that I should be able to conduct a Skype video chat from my "Mango" smartphone.

This is one area where hardware diversity is a double-edged sword. That issue will be addressed by some models of "Mango" smartphone. The Samsung Focus S--the full "Mango" evolution of this Samsung Focus I am using--does come equipped with a front-facing camera. However, the HTC Titan does not. So, shop carefully.

Overall, I like the camera functions in Windows Phone 7. I didn't bother getting into megapixels, or really comparing and contrasting the quality of the pictures themselves. That is partially because it is a function of the hardware which varies from WP7 smartphone to WP7 smartphone, and partially because I am not a professional photographer--so the simplicity of taking and sharing pictures is more important to me than how many megapixels the hardware is capable of.

Read the last "30 Days" series: 30 Days With Google+

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