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Due this year: 5-star rating for phone cameras

An industry group concludes its phone camera quality scoring system works. Expect it to arrive this year--if others can be persuaded to use it.

I3A President Lisa Walker
I3A President Lisa Walker speaking at the ISE 2011 conference. Stephen Shankland/CNET

LONDON--Please, the collective camera industry pleads, give us something besides megapixels to rate our cameras. And one industry consortium hopes to do just that, at least when it comes to mobile phone cameras.

Megapixels are an imperfect, though not irrelevant, measurement of image quality. Reducing pixel size to squeeze more on a sensor can have the effect of reducing the quality of the data each pixel captures. Thus, particularly in the mobile phone market where sensors already are small, total megapixels isn't a be-all, end-all measurement.

But by the end of the year, the fast-growing mobile phone segment of the camera market might indeed have something better than megapixels. That's when the International Imaging Industry Association (I3A) hopes to have finished work on a simple five-star rating scale for phone cameras.

The ratings, though as simple as they come, attempt to summarize a wealth of underlying detail about the actual performance.

At the Image Sensors Europe conference here, I3A President Lisa Walker said the test has passed an important step: formal validation that it actually works.

The test combines a host of technical measurements--detail, sharpness, chromatic aberration, lens distortion, and more--then links that analysis with subjective human assessments to ensure the measurements really are relevant. A detailed formula boils the various factors down into a single rating.

"It works," Walker said in an interview after her speech. Before the validation testing, I3A "couldn't say we could deliver a consumer rating system. Now we can."

A look at how the I3A's cell phone image quality scoring system might appear.
A look at how the I3A's cell phone image quality scoring system might appear. Stephen Shankland/CNET

There's still lots of work to be done, though.

First, the system has to be updated so that color and image noise are factored into the equation. Second, companies must be convinced to use the system, something they should be able to start doing sometime when the test is suitable for industry use midway through this year. And third, the test needs to be updated to handle video, something that likely will be done in 2012, Walker said.

Handset makers with inferior cameras might be leery of publishing unflattering scores on specification sheets or product boxes. Walker hopes that product reviewers, retailers, and others will use the ratings, though.

The ratings likely will come with a matrix that shares a bit more detail about the camera performance for those who want more than a handful of stars. The matrix as presently designed shows a variety of shooting styles--action, landscape, portrait, macro--fare when photos are presented on small or large prints or shown on mobile phones or TVs.

Third-party organizations--DxO Labs or Imatest, perhaps--will be certified to administer the tests, Walker said.

Walker showed results of the test on a variety of mobile phones from Apple, Nokia, HTC, BlackBerry, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson. Alas, she wasn't at liberty to show how individual phones fared, though.

But not everyone is convinced the project can accomplish what it attempts to. Difficulties factoring in both objective and subjective measurements is one tricky aspect.

"It's like trying to measure art," quipped one show attendee.

That sounds tough. But it's still probably better than measuring just megapixels.