Published: March 4, 2009 -- Iíll never forget the time I visited a Riverwalk restaurant in San Antonio and ordered risotto: rice thatís been stirred in broth until itís rich, creamy and perfect.
The Samsung Memoir, sold by T-Mobile, features an 8-megapixel autofocus camera.
But what the waiter brought to the table wasn't risotto. It was just rice. A bowl of yellow rice.
"Oh, I'm sorry,Ē I said to the waiter. "I actually ordered the risotto?" The guy looked at me like I was the village idiot. "What do you think risotto means? It means 'rice' in Italian. That's what you got."
I thought of that "risotto" last week when T-Mobile released the Samsung Memoir, the first 8-megapixel phone camera in the United States ($250 with two-year contract, after $50 rebate).
See, high-tech companies play that same name game all the time. They get you all excited about some pocket camera by saying that it takes "high definition" videos -- but even though the video has the qualifying number of pixels, it looks awful. Or they'll get you fired up because their new cellphone has a "touch screen" -- but it turns out to be stiff, balky and not worth it.
So when Samsung says that the Memoir takes 8-megapixel photos, your first question should be: So? If the sensor, lens and circuitry are standard cellphone parts, having a lot of megapixels won't do anything to improve the picture quality.
Fortunately, the pictures from this phone really are excellent, at least for a phone. Unfortunately, the remainder of the Memoir is only mediocre.
The concept of a phone camera (as opposed to a camera phone) isn't new. Whereas a camera phone is a cellphone with a tacked-on cheapo camera, a phone camera, like the Memoir, is intended to give equal weight to the camera part.
Like the excellent Motorola/Kodak Motozine ZN5 (also from T-Mobile), the Memoir looks like a cellphone on one side and a digital camera on the other. When you hold the thing horizontally, you find a shutter button under your right index finger, and zoom in/out buttons (which double as the volume keys) under your left index finger.
There's a real flash (a xenon flash, brighter than LED but not as bright as a real camera's flash) and a true autofocus mechanism. On the big, bright touch screen, you can tap icons to access an array of camera controls, many gimmicky and ineffectual: white balance, exposure adjustment, scene modes, ISO (light sensitivity), antishake and so on.
There's even Smile Shot, meaning the camera waits to take a picture until the subject is smiling (it works) and Blink Shot, meaning the camera doesn't shoot if the subject's eyes are closed (doesn't really work). You can transfer your photos at reduced size to sites like Flickr and Kodak Gallery with a single button tap, or you can e-mail them. To transfer the full-resolution photos, you can send them to your computer by Bluetooth, put the memory card into a card reader, or connect the U.S.B. cable to your Windows PC (software installation required).
The photos are surprisingly good, especially in bright light. The colors are true, and the detail is about what you'd expect from an inexpensive digital camera.
They are not, as the marketing would have you believe, good enough that you can "leave your digital camera at home"; the Memoir is just too slow for that. It takes four seconds to start up the camera mode, six seconds between shots.
Worse, the shutter lag is something fierce; the camera sometimes waits a good two seconds after you press the shutter button. Moving subjects are almost always blurry. As long as you're still and so is your subject, you'll be in good shape -- but that rules out many photographic situations.