In the lead up to Apple’s Sept. 12 media event, where most expect the next-generation iPhone to be unveiled, there are still some things —believe it or not— that we don’t know about the device. The new iPhone is rumored to sport a longer, four-inch display, a smaller dock connector, an overall thinner design, updated RAM, and other internal components. But we have not heard much about the camera, which is one of the most important parts of any smartphone.

There is some evidence that Apple has now centered the FaceTime camera, such as the next-generation iPhone backs that we posted in May, and Apple seems to be moving toward FaceTimeHD, but we also expect the device’s rear camera to receive an upgrade over the previous-generation iPhone 4S.

While the iPhone 4S introduced a redesigned 5 lens camera system with a new sensor and 8-megapixels, the game has definitely been stepped up with a number of camera-related product announcements from Sony, Nokia, Motorola and Samsung. If the next-generation iPhone’s camera is to keep its lead with the most recent devices announced by these manufacturers, Apple is likely planning an improved camera system for the ‘iPhone 5′.

We first have the new line up of Xperia devices from Sony. This could perhaps be the biggest indicator of where Apple is headed with its cameras, as we already know Sony was first rumored by then CEO-Howard Stringer, and then later confirmed, as the supplier of the iPhone 4S’ 8-megapixel camera. The two higher-end Xperia devices in the lineup are both being equipped with an impressive 13-megapixel HD camera capable of going from “sleep mode to snap in just over a second.” The Xperia T also features a front-facing camera that supports 720p HD video, and improvements have been made to both with a 16x digital zoom, photo flash and enhancements to image stabilization.

Will Apple continue to use Sony as a vendor? Its loose-lipped former CEO is now departed and the Tsunami-affected camera production issues (if there were any) are behind it. Few people have complained about the camera in the iPhone 4S. On the contrary, it is generally considered the gold standard in phones.

Another consideration is the new iPhone’s significantly thinner body. Rumored at just 7.4 mm, versus the iPhone 4S at 9.3 mm, it could leave less room for lenses and force a redesigned camera system.

Phones. But is it a point-and-shoot killer?

Another angle we have to consider is the Android-powered cameras being released soon by Nikon; and more importantly, Samsung with the new Galaxy Camera announced last week during IFA. We had hands-on time with the Samsung Galaxy Camera and must say this could very well be a game changer for digital cameras going forward. Even without the built-in auto-shoot modes, photo-wizard editing features, and dozens of one-tap filters and effects, the device packs in a 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor, 21x optical zoom, and a 23 mm wide angle lens, while maintaining full Google Play support for third-party apps.

Nokia’s latest devices, the Lumia 820 and Lumia 920, have also made huge improvements with a new 8-megapixel-camera system and Carl Zeiss lens. While the PureView branding is up for debate, the redesigned cameras feature new “floating lens” tech for much-improved optical image stabilization, better shots in low light, in addition to a redesigned camera app. These devices are solving some of the biggest sources of camera-related complaints from current iPhone users.

Despite the camera of the iPhone 4S being one of the biggest upgrades at the time, it certainly feels dated in comparison to the camera landscape today. We noticed a new opening between the LED flash and camera lens on the next-generation iPhone backs that we posted in May, but it is unclear if this is related to an upgraded camera system. For the reasons above, we expect to see improvements made to the new iPhone’s cameras when the device is announced Sept. 12.

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