LG's KG920 has become the first phone to hit UK shores sporting a built-in 5-megapixel camera array. At a time when most mobile phones offer around a million pixels (1 megapixel), and some notable bestsellers still have VGA cameras, the release of such a record-breaker is a real technology headline-grabber.
Basically, the more pixels, the more detail a digital picture holds, allowing it to stand closer inspection, and enabling it to be blown up that much further. Previous best-in-class cameraphones have raised the bar to just over three million pixels - but the additional resolution comes into play if you want to print out your pictures. This is particularly so if you are going to crop in on the image before making your hard copy.
In theory, a 5-megapixel image file can be used to produce professional-standard 8x6 inch prints, and should easily be capable of producing an A4 print on a desktop printer. Anyone who has bought a standalone digital camera will already know that five megapixels is less than extraordinary - even some sub-£100 models offer this resolution. And those that watch what is going on in the far east, will know that cameraphones in Korea are already on sale with 8-megapixel and 10-megapixel sensors.
The pixel count, however, is not the only way to judge a camera. It isn't even the most important. Lens capability, focusing accuracy, processing speed and the sophistication in the analogue-to-digital conversion process are also paramount. Ultimately, it is the pictures themselves and the camera handling that count...
The first pleasant surprise about the LG KG920 is that it is not particularly big. At 130-odd grams it is not as small as non-3G handsets go - however, compared with some 3-megapixel cameraphones that we have looked at in the past it is reasonably compact. Part of the reason for this, however, is that it does not have an optical zoom (found on models such as the chunky Nokia N93 and the heavyweight Sharp 903) - nor does it offer any onboard smartphone operating system.
However, in comparison to a digital camera it is a likeable shape, and if you like your gadgets to have lots of knobs and buttons you will love the design. The surfeit of controls are designed to give you fast access to as many phone and camera features as possible, without having to delve into menus.
But at first, the array of options does seem confusing. A trigger on the side of the phone is used to fire the camera up and take exposures - but you need to learn which way to twist the phone, otherwise all the buttons are in the wrong place.
The lens/keyboard part of the camera twists, adding to the options to work out. This revolving feature is useful for taking pictures of yourself, but as the movement is limited to 180° it is not a perfect solution for taking high-angle shots, as on other models.
The keyboard itself is rather innovative. The numbers are pushed to one corner, with a joypad to the right and dial keys and softkeys above. It is a neat arrangement, but one that again takes some familiarisation, and one that may scupper users with substantial fingers.
Unusually, you need to use the memory card with this phone, otherwise the camera, MP3 and Bluetooth file transfer facilities are disabled. With top resolution image files using up to 2 megabytes of space each time you press the shutter, it may be a sensible approach, as otherwise internal memory would soon clog up.
But the onboard 8MB of storage does seem rather small - although the fact that LG says it will supply the handset in the UK with a 256MB MiniSD card does make amends. The maximum card size for the handset is 512MB (so you can't use the latest two gigabyte cards).
The camera may make do with a lens with a fixed, wide-angle focal length but you can zoom digitally even when using the highest quality and file-size options. More importantly, the camera provides a full-range autofocus system which allows you to focus so close that the lens practically touches the thing you are photographing. The autofocus works well whatever the light conditions, with the built-in flash providing extra illumination when necessary for the system to lock onto the target.
This extreme close-up ability is one of the things that really separates this camera from ones found on more average phones. But the provision of the autofocus system that makes this possible comes at a price. First, you have to wait for the image to become sharp before you take a shot. This takes at least a couple of seconds - sometimes longer. This is quicker than some AF cameraphones we have looked at, but it does hinder spontaneity in your pictures.
Secondly, the choice of focusing distances means that there is scope for the camera to get it wrong, forcing you to look carefully at the screen after shooting to confirm that another attempt is not necessary. For the serious picture taker, however, these issues are a small price to pay.
The flash is a useful affair, using the same xenon tube technology used on 'proper' cameras. It isn't going to light up the Albert Hall, but it does make decent-looking afterdark portraits a reality. There is even a special mode for minimising those ugly red eyes you get in such situations.
However, we found it was often worth trying to take shots without the flash whenever possible. The camera is capable of using quite long shutter speeds (looking at the buried data within the image file, we discovered shots taken using a 1/3sec exposure) - and this can produce a more atmospheric or natural-looking image (despite the increased risk of blur created by camera shake).
There are a reasonable number of creative controls - to override sensor sensitivity, exposure mode, colour balance, picture brightness and so on. We were also pleased with the processing speed at maximum resolution, creating a delay of only 12 seconds between successive shots. However, it is the pictures themselves that tell the real story.
Not every picture we took was great - but a good proportion were superb. This device provides images that are simply packed full of detail, and with hardly any noise or compression artefacts, the sort of shots that you really could print up and win prizes in competitions with.
Colour balance and exposure are extremely good for what is still essentially a point-and-shoot compact, providing near perfect Photoshop histograms in a wide range of situations. The average user will be particularly impressed with the tonal range of skintones, providing portraits that even the person posing will be pleased with.
Getting pictures on and off the camera is painless. A card reader or Bluetooth could be used but USB mass storage support means that you can use a USB lead to plug the device into any recent PC or Mac, and you will be able to drag files to and from the card.
This functionality also comes into its own with the MP3 player. Yes, the KG920 is not just a one-trick wonder, it can also put in a decent performance as a portable music machine. The speakerphone puts in a bright but tinny rendition of your tracks whatever equaliser setting you use, but plug in the supplied headset and you get a real audio treat.
The earbuds provide excellent definition, making it particularly good at handling classical music, but you also get great volume without distortion, which any rock fan will appreciate. The two-part earpiece arrangement means that you can hook in any headset that fits a standard 3.5mm jack socket.
Beyond this, however, the phone's notable features are thin on the ground. For a middle-of-the-range GSMonthly handset they are nothing exceptional. Despite the impressive camera, for instance, video is shot at 320x240 pixels - a quarter of the resolution of some camcorder phones. The calendar is only capable of keeping note of 20 appointments, so it won't replace your one-year diary.
The more you get your phone to do, the more it burns up the battery power. On the first day of using this handset we were eager to put the camera through its paces, shooting off some 60 images at full resolution. But this meant that later that evening, a low power warning put pay to our picture taking. With more measured use the battery managed to keep the phone running for over four days, during which we took a dozen images, and made some 10 minutes of calls.
Call quality and signal strength are both very respectable, making this a good package for those who want the normal mobile facilities, and a camera that takes high-quality pictures. The camera is not without its quirks but if you want printable pictures, for personal or professional use, this will do the job for you, particularly if you take time to learn how to get the best out of it.
Costing over £400 in SIM-free form, it is far from being a bargain and you are undoubtedly paying a lot for the state-of-the-art camera. However, with the right tariff the handset can be picked up for free - and that makes it far better value. Chris George