HTC’s “Selfie Phone” Hints That Smartphones Are Becoming Smart Cameras

HTC Desire Eye camera

HTC’s “Desire Eye” phone comes with an ultra-powerful 13-megapixel front-facing camera.  

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At last, someone has built a smartphone specially designed for taking photos of the most important person in your life: you.

The “Desire Eye” is a new midrange smartphone from Taiwan-based HTC, announced Wednesday, and people are already calling it “the selfie phone.” That’s because it boasts a ridiculously powerful 13-megapixel front-facing camera—the same resolution as its rear-facing camera—as well as auto-focus, a dual-LED flash, and the ability to record video at 1080p.

By contrast, the iPhone 6’s front-facing “FaceTime HD camera” is just 1.2 megapixels. Even its 8-megapixel rear-facing “iSight camera” can’t match the resolution of the Desire Eye’s selfie-cam. The front-facing camera on Samsung’s flagship Galaxy 5S is 2 megapixels.

The Desire Eye will be available later this month, and its price has not yet been announced. Its positioning in the middle of the HTC line would seem to imply it will be less expensive than the company’s flagship HTC One M8, which starts at $200 on contract. But the blog Phone Arena reports it may cost just as much.

The selfie phone is one of two quirky new devices HTC announced Wednesday in a bid to generate buzz in the ever-noisier mobile hardware market. The other is a handheld camera called the RE, whose appearance has been compared to a periscope or an asthma inhaler.

The theory behind HTC’s latest moves is that the devices we still call “smartphones” could just as easily be called smart cameras. That is, for many people, they’re not so much Internet-connected phones that happen to take pictures as they are Internet-connected cameras that happen to make calls.

It’s smart thinking, but industry watchers will note that it isn’t entirely novel. Nokia has already tried a similar camera-centric approach to differentiate its Lumia devices, with limited success. HTC must be hoping that Nokia’s problem is not the hardware, but rather its marriage to the unpopular Windows Phone operating system. Perhaps a camera phone like the Desire Eye that runs Android will fare better. And the RE camera, which connects to your phone via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, will work with both Android and iOS devices.

It would be easy to write off HTC’s new wares as gimmicky. The thing is, HTC has actually been making critically acclaimed smartphones for years. They just haven’t sold all that well, perhaps because they weren’t, well, gimmicky enough. That’s why the company dropped its “Quietly Brilliant” slogan last year, with chief marketing officer Ben Ho admitting the company “hasn’t been loud enough.” If the Desire Eye can combine the company’s craftsmanship with a little more pizzazz, it might just have a chance to become the selfie-snapper’s gadget of choice.