First megapixel camera cell phones unveiled

Digital photography with cellular telephones is about to get a whole lot clearer.

NTT DoCoMo Inc. will put the first handsets with megapixel-class image sensors on sale in the Japanese market within the next three months, it said Tuesday, while J-Phone Co. Ltd. said it plans to launch a similar handset in the middle of May.

"For the first time we are offering up to 1 million pixels," said Takeshi Natsuno, managing director of NTT DoCoMo's I-mode planning department, as he unveiled the handsets from Fujitsu Ltd., Sony Corp. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. at a Tokyo news conference. "This is on par with low-end digital cameras and so now it is possible to take high quality pictures with a cellular phone."

The three handsets are part of NTT DoCoMo's 505i range of cellular telephones, launched on Tuesday. Embedded cameras are standard across the entire range and resolution ranges from 310,000 pixels at the low end to 1.2 million pixels on the Fujitsu and Sony handsets.

"Until now, a cell phone could not be used in place of a digital camera," said Natsuno, "With the 505 series, there are (models with) 1.3 million pixels and that is on par with disposable cameras."

Memory card slots have also been made a standard handset feature for the first time. Two handsets, from Sony and Mitsubishi Electric, support the Memory Stick Duo while the other four handsets, from Fujitsu, Sharp Corp., NEC Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., support the recently launched Mini SD card.

Other special features include a fingerprint scanner on Fujitsu's handset. This can be used in place of a password or code number to gain access to the handset or to secret telephone numbers. The scanner is located at the bottom of the keypad on the handset and is easy to use, said Natsuno, although it failed to recognize his fingerprint during a demonstration.

The telephones are scheduled to go on sale over the next three months, but prices were not announced. They are based on the Japanese PDC (Personal Digital Communications) format and will not work in other countries.

The move to megapixel-class image sensors is an evolutionary step in the development of cellular handsets with embedded cameras.

The first such handset was a model from Sharp Corp., launched by J-Phone Co. Ltd. in November 2000. The J-SH04 had a 256-color LCD and 110,000 pixel image sensor. By April of 2001 more handsets had appeared on the market and J-Phone launched its "Sha-mail" service allowing users to send images to one another. Around a year later, in mid 2002, the first handsets with 300,000 pixel class sensors, capable of delivering VGA (640 pixel by 480 pixel) resolution images were becoming available.

When it comes to camera phones J-Phone is still the market leader. In late March it reported that the number of Sha-mail compatible handsets sold had surpassed 9 million, which means roughly two out of every three J-Phone subscribers has one. NTT DoCoMo said in December 2002 that it had achieved sales of 4 million handsets in the six months since its "I-Shot" service was launched.

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