Please, Android phone makers, just give us better cameras, not more dumb gimmicks

We’re barely a week into 2020, and we’ve already got the first smartphone camera gimmick of the year. At last week’s CES in Las Vegas, OnePlus demoed an “invisible camera,” which uses electrochromic glass to create various tints in color to make the camera under the rear glass seem like it’s not there until it’s called into action. It takes its inspiration from the McClaren 720S Spider supercar, and it generated lots of media coverage and undoubtedly long lines at OnePlus’s booth.

Granted it’s a concept of a prototype that’s probably not shipping for many months (if at all), but it shows how most smartphone makers are thinking. Instead of working to make our phones take better pictures, companies are filling out phones with camera gimmicks that are flashy but offer no real benefit.

Not to single out OnePlus: We’re also hearing rumors that Samsung is going to put a 108MP camera in the next Galaxy phone, which is straight-up overkill. LG used to be one of the leaders in smartphone photography, and after filling its phones with gimmick after gimmick, now it’s struggling to take basic night shots.

Just look at the Android camera “innovations” we’ve seen over the past couple of years:

  • Pop-up selfie cams
  • 180-degree flip cameras
  • Under-screen selfie cameras
  • Palm-reading sensors
  • Dual aperture
  • 3D vein mapping

That’s to say nothing of software gimmicks such as AI scene selectors, super slow-mo videos, and AR emojis. Smartphone cameras have distracted users with party tricks, when smartphone makers should be focusing on the one thing that matters: taking great pictures, even if there’s a bump, a notch, or a bezel.

Focus on the camera, not the bump

In basically every smartphone camera ranking, there are three main competitors: Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Pixel, and the latest from Huawei. All three have one thing in common: big camera bumps and no gimmicks.

oneplus concept OnePlus

OnePlus’s concept camera is invisible until you need to use it.

I used to complain about camera bumps, but I learned to stop caring about what the back of my phone looks like. Even if you don’t put a case on it, how often do we look at the back of our phones? Tiny camera bumps, colors, and finishes might make a difference when they’re lined up on a table or rendered on a website, but ultimately, it’s the performance that matters. The best phones build the handset around the camera, not the other way around.

Case in point: The square arrays on the Pixel and iPhone have a purpose. It’s subtle, but when you zoom in or out, you don’t need to reposition your phone to re-center your shot. The image simply zooms accordingly, and whatever was in the center previously is still there. On every other phone, you need to shift your phone. Sure, it only takes a second, but that could be the difference between capturing and missing a moment.