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In some camera apps (native camera app in 2.2, Camera 360), "zoom" zooms in on the image -- filling the entire screen with a closer-in view of what you're shooting. In at least one app (Vignette [see below]) "zoom" shrinks the picture down. The latter behavior -- along with surely-lacking mechanical lens focus mechanism -- suggests that all of these zooms are purely digital, and not optical.

Vignette zoom crops the area down

See Also: Can a Dream's camera really zoom from the camera app? [device-specific question]

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Keep in mind that even a digital zoom is still "legit" and useful if the camera resolution is higher than the output resolution. Cropping to the area of interest and outputting the same image size still provides greater resolution in the area of interest. –  endolith Nov 5 '10 at 19:19
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4 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

More often than not, Digital. Consider:

  • How in the world would the motor for moving a lens fit in a phone case? For that matter, where would the find the room to have variable focal length?
  • Would the manufacturers really put such a battery-drainer in the unit? How much more expensive would it be, too?
  • Should somebody actually come up with a phone with optical zoom, it would be a big deal and a huge marketing gimmick. ("The only phone camera with optical zoom!") I haven't seen any. Have you?

That's not to say that someday someone won't make hasn't made such a phone. There sure aren't any right now. Unless they make a big deal about the camera zoom, you can assume it's digital.

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so tempting to accept my own answer, but this is meatier.... –  Michael Paulukonis Nov 7 '10 at 21:13
    
There are at least two Android phones with optical zooms: stackoverflow.com/q/18856127/112705 –  Dan J Sep 17 '13 at 17:58
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Um there is a way to tell if the phone has a optical lense... Actually 2 ways.

  • When zooming in, is there a motor sound coming from the phone?
  • When zooming in, does the camera lens look different (duh, it zoomed so it should look different when looking directly into the camera).

99% chance that the answer is NO.

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The best way to tell if it is digital or optical: Do the pixels look blown up (and therefore blurry)?

alt text

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But if the camera's resolution is higher than the output image resolution, it won't look blown up. –  endolith Nov 5 '10 at 19:16
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You can still get crappy lenses and CCDs and weird software algorithms that leave weird artifacts, making it difficult to tell. Plus, I hate to look at (side)effects, when the specs should available somewhere. Not that that does not provide an answer. –  Michael Paulukonis Nov 5 '10 at 19:42
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Well, technically, a digital zoom is just a cropping of the image. It only gets blurry if you stretch the digital zoom to match the size of the original image. –  Bryan Denny Nov 5 '10 at 20:11
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Al Everett has suggested that "no Android camera has [optical zoom]", but the 14-Megapixel Altek Leo Android seems to have 3x optical zoom "(not digital like other cellphones)."

The Altek Leo won't be available until at least 2011, though.

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And, as I suspected, it's a big marketing bullet point for them. I'll adjust my answer. –  Al E. Nov 5 '10 at 18:44
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