Little by little, thanks largely to rumors and reports and alleged leaks, we've been able to piece together the puzzle known as the iPhone 5, the moniker assigned to Apple's sixth-generation super secret smartphone set to release later this year.

We already have a pretty good idea of what the iPhone 5 will look like -- most recently, parts and schematics surfaced on the Internet, including the phone's shell and its front and rear faceplates -- but we are still largely in the dark about what will be inside.

One thing Apple fans really want to know: How will Apple improve upon the iPhone 4S's 8-megapixel iSight camera? According to a research note from KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple will make significant improvements to the entire camera infrastructure in the iPhone 5, all while decreasing the overall thickness of the phone.

From Kuo's report (via MacRumors):

[A] number of components have required a slimdown, Kuo said. The component that will undergo the most dramatic makeover is the rear camera. Our research shows that iPhone 5 will feature the first-ever slimmed rear camera of all iPhones, in an effort to deliver an ultra-slim iPhone 5.

Kuo's research note also included a table of iPhone models -- past, present and future -- comparing the specs of each phone and camera infrastructure. Compared to the front-facing VGA camera and the 8-megapixel rear camera in the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 will reportedly feature an HD front-facing camera and the same 8-megapixel rear camera. However, the camera hardware will be made much smaller: The iPhone 4S measured 9.3 mm deep, but the iPhone 5 will only measure 7.9 mm thick.

The significant improvements Kuo is referring to mainly relate to the size of the infrastructure. Kuo said the iPhone 5's rear camera will still be 8 megapixels and the aperture will be increased from f/2.4 to f/2.2, but Apple was happy with the performance of the camera in the iPhone 4S. The challenge was to make the camera parts thin enough to fit inside a thinner smartphone.

The reduced thickness means even greater challenges for lens design and assmebly, as not only the lens, but also the voice coil motor (VCM) and CMOS image sensor (CIS) need to be slimmer, Kuo said. Finally, the compact camera module (CCM) supplier, responsible for the terminal assembly, will be confronted by assembly yield.

Kuo said the front-facing camera will also be vastly improved. Not only has the camera migrated on top of the earpiece, but the camera itself has reportedly been rebuilt to take pictures with a 16:9 aspect ratio, as opposed to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the VGA-quality FaceTime camera in the iPhone 4S. Since the iPhone 5's screen is reportedly bigger, Apple needed to change the aspect ratio anyway, but the FaceTime camera will now reportedly take HD photos, as well as more centered images.

How The Camera Fits Into The iPhone Puzzle

It was safe to assume Apple would improve its front and rear cameras in its next iPhone -- either in a minor or major way -- but it's important to know how the new cameras fit into the overall picture of the iPhone 5.

On May 30, the repair experts at iFixyouri revealed new iPhone components that looked similar to the iPhone 4S, but with a few significant differences, including the size of the overall frame and the placement of its various parts. Even though it differed from all previous iPhone models, it aligned extremely well with previous trusted reports of the phone. As icing on the cake, the Cydia Blog released what it believed was a complete schematic of the new iPhone model, which matched perfectly with the released iPhone components.

Here's what we learned about the iPhone 5 from its leaked photos:

Metal Back: The iPhone 4S features a back made of all glass, but the new photos from iFixyouri show black and white iPhones with much of the back encased in metal. It's not clear what function the metal back serves -- if it's simply a style choice -- but all of the photos of the new iPhones include these metal portions on the back. There's a slight chance that the metal back could help improve call reception, given that the metal trim along the sides is molded into the metal backplates, giving it a unibody feel. However, this is not the liquidmetal back that some hoped for, which is a technology that is still some years away; this back is likely made from a piece of aluminum alloy.

Camera Opening: Photos of the released iPhone show a subtle but interesting difference to the camera infrastructure: On the rear panels of the black and white iPhone models, there is now a small space between the camera lens and the LED flash. Looking at the inside of that space, there appears to be a tiny object that occupies the opening, which could be a small microphone to help with capture higher-quality audio when recording video.

Migrated FaceTime Camera: To better mirror the faceplate of the iPod Touch, Apple has apparently moved the FaceTime camera from the left of the earpiece to above the earpiece itself. Moving the camera likely frees up more space to include more parts and components like LTE and NFC chips, but it also makes the iPhone more symmetrical and appealing.

Migrated Earphone Jack: Photos of the new iPhone show the earphone jack, which has traditionally been located on the top right corner of the phone, has migrated to the bottom left corner of the device. This design change aligns perfectly with a May 14 report from Hong Kong-based components supplier SW-Box, which claimed to have acquired a new headphone jack, ear speaker, and Wi-Fi cable part for a new iPhone. SW-Box's audio components would fit perfectly within the new design released by iFixyouri and 9 to 5 Mac.

Redesigned Speaker Grills: The speakers on the bottom have been expanded and redesigned in the new iPhone model. Now that the dock connector from the iPhone 4 and 4S has been shrunk down, Apple has more room to create bigger and louder speakers.

Smaller Dock Connector: As predicted earlier by 9 to 5 Mac, Apple wants smaller dock connectors for its iPhones, and the newly released iPhone 5 models only confirm this.

Other Possible iPhone 5 Features

Even though there's no guarantee any of the following features will end up in the iPhone 5, they were all rumored or reported at one point or another. But even rumors can have some validity to them: Many rumors have gone on to appear in future devices, they just weren't ready at the time. So even though an OLED screen may not appear in the finished product, it's certainly nice to daydream about, isn't it?

Apple-Made Maps App. The first iPhone launched in 2007 with a maps application from Google, which helped users find local businesses, find their own location, and get directions. Five years later, Apple is looking to introduce a new in-house application, which will be made from the technologies of three acquired mapping companies, Placebace, Poly9, and C3 Technologies, which were purchased in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively. The new application promises incredibly detailed 3D maps, 2D maps and street views, and more information about traffic and location data. According to 9 to 5 Mac, Apple will introduce the new Maps application alongside iOS 6 at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June.

Advanced Haptics. Another recently published Apple patent describes a new haptics feedback system that allows a user to interact with the content on the screen by touching it, which is accomplished with sensors and actuators working simultaneously. The new multi-tiered system is extremely sophisticated: Using several layers of elastic screens stacked on top of each other, Apple's screen can produce 3D buttons or objects to interact with, as well as give texture to images, like topographical maps.

Apple's haptic system can create different types of actions, including vibration, net displacement, bending, deforming, or any combination of those elements. The technology can also work with a secondary display screen or audio system, which would be useful if Apple ever builds its iTV, but the system can also be applied to flexible organic light emitting diode (OLED) screens. This advanced haptics system would also work with almost every portable Apple device, including iPhones, iPod Touch devices, iPads, MacBooks, and even TVs, video projectors and e-Ink displays.

LTE Connectivity. It's already a foregone conclusion that Apple will implement radio bands for 4G LTE in the iPhone 5, given that Apple introduced the high-speed network on its new iPad, released on March 16, which was likely done as a practice run.

LTE features significantly higher download and upload speeds compared to 3G technologies, but previous implementations of LTE in smartphones tended to ravage battery life, which was a major complaint from users. If Apple wanted LTE in the iPhone 4S at the time, it would have been forced to increase the phone's thickness to accommodate a larger circuit board and a bigger battery. Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a company earnings conference call in April 2011, said first-generation LTE chipsets force a lot of design compromises.

Crack-Proof Glass. Apple's patent for crack-resistant glass, granted on Nov. 15, uses the same alumino silicate glass solution used in the iPhone 4 and 4S, but chemically treats it with potassium and sodium ions to achieve greater compression thresholds on the surface and edges of the glass, making it less susceptible to cracks.

Apple also included a handy feature that will appeal to everyone who's ever dropped their iPhone: The patent calls for a shock mount to be placed between the glass and the body of the device, which will instantly inflate if the device senses it's falling. If the iPhone's internal accelerometer senses it's falling, an actuator within the device sucks in the cover glass as it accelerates to the ground, protecting it from damage.

OLED Display: Apple is reportedly testing the iPhone 5 prototype with an A5X chip, which is the quad-core graphics processor used to power the Retina Display in the new iPad. But why would Apple need such a powerful chip for an iPhone? Given that the A5X chip is a graphics powerhouse, if Apple doesn't drastically change the physical size of the screen to 4.6 inches, it may be changing the display's overall quality.

Apple has plenty of money to afford OLED screens in an iPhone-sized display, and it would make sense for Apple to ask Samsung to help build its iPhone 5 displays. Samsung knows how to build big, beautiful screens for any size device: Just imagine what Samsung could do with Apple's Retina technology implemented into an OLED. Apple would effectively put distance between the iPhone and all other smartphone competitors for another five years, at the very least.

3D Photography. While existing 3D cameras and video recorders can gather three-dimensional information from objects, they're generally incapable of getting detailed enough information in relation to the shapes, surfaces and depth of the objects. Apple's solution involves a series of systems, tools and methods to capture a 3D image by using multiple sensors and cameras. One sensor would capture a polarizing image, while two other sensors would capture two different non-polarizing images, and Apple's system would combine the images into a composite.

3D Object Recognition. On May 10, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a series of Apple patents relating to 3D face and object recognition technology. Apple's system involves taking a picture -- either with a front or rear camera -- and the 3D recognition software would distinguish between the two-dimensional projection of the image and the three-dimensional shape of the objects in the image. The process would be fully automatic, which would help for identifying faces in a group of objects, or even identifying objects in X-ray images.

NFC. Near-Field Communication is nothing new. In fact, many current smartphones have the chip built-in so owners can use mobile payments solutions like Google Pay. Apple has held off on implementing NFC technology into its iPhone, but a slew of recently granted patents seem to suggest that will change with the sixth-generation model. Two of the major features said to use NFC rather heavily are the iWallet, and iTunes Gifting.

The iWallet. Apple won a major patent on March 6 for a piece of technology called the iWallet, which is a digital system that gives users complete control over their subsidiary financial accounts on their iPhones, and also leverages Near-Field Communication technology to complete credit card transactions directly on the phone as well. The iWallet has many different features, including giving users the ability to see their entire credit card profiles, view statements and messages from their banks, and even set parental controls for their children, should they also want to use their iPhones as digital wallets. Outside of the iPhone, users can keep track of their payments and statements within the iTunes billing system, which keeps credit card information and records safe and secure. There's a possibility that iWallet could also work with other Apple utilities, which could allow users to buy things like movie tickets directly within the apps, but only time will tell with that one.

iTunes Gifting. While downloading and storing digital media with online service providers has become commonplace -- more so than purchasing DVDs and CDs at physical retail stores -- it's not very easy to transfer digital files from one individual to another, usually because of copyright laws. Apple believes it has a solution to this issue: A gift-giving platform where users have a standardized way for buying, sending and receiving media files from a media provider (iTunes) between multiple electronic devices (iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices). The process is simply called, Gifting.

One method for gifting requires the sender to authorize a gift charge to their iTunes account, which is then transmitted from the sender's device to the receiver's device -- via tapping, or as long as they're nearby -- thanks to the NFC chip. If the recipient of the gift isn't nearby -- or you want it to be a surprise -- the gift-giver may submit an official request with iTunes, which then processes the request and charges the initiator's account for the given file. The patent also allows for multiple gifts to be sent in a single transaction, as well as certain customization options for the gifts -- including voice greetings and custom gift images, likely to conceal the gift's identity before the receipient opens it.

Apple Avatars. If you want to buy movies, apps, or any content through Apple's iTunes Store or App Store, Apple requires you have an Apple ID. Your Apple ID sticks with you in the company's Game Center, which keeps track of a user's achievements across purchased and downloaded games. But if this recently granted patent has any bearing on the immediate future, Apple users may soon get to make customizable Apple Avatars, which users would use to represent themselves within potential online or gaming environments. Apple users could create a 3D model of themselves, customizing features like hair, eyes, nose, and eyebrows, as well as other features and accessories. While avatars seem to be geared towards kids, it would actually help give users a source of identity while making the Apple brand -- and identification procedures -- a little more fun. Don't be surprised if Apple had Pixar's help on this one: Just look at the eyes.

Multi-Player Gaming. The iPhone 5 might also be the first phone to feature a new piece of software for multi-player gaming. On March 15, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that describes a system for multi-player gaming, which allows groups of people to play the same game together and even see it from different perspectives according to the devices' physical relation to one another. The system actually mimics that of the Find My Friends app, in which a user's device detects other nearby devices that it recognizes as friends, and invites them all to join a common application. The technology also determines the relative position of those devices, so some games -- like turn-based role-playing games or card games -- can be played in a specific order.

Micro SIM Connector: It may not be the sexiest feature, but if Apple decides to include this patented micro SIM connector in the iPhone 5, you won't be unhappy. Apple usually doesn't like people tinkering inside its devices, but the company's micro SIM solution is described as easily removed and replaced, as well as resistant to damage by an improper insertion of a SIM card, and may provide reliable mechanical performance.

Apple has been battling Nokia over the design of mini SIM cards for mobile devices, but Apple's SIM solution would allow the iPhone 5 to connect into other Apple devices, such as the MacBook Pro and iPod Touch, as well as TV monitors, which would be useful if Apple ever invented a television. Apple's innovation is also flexible, so if nano SIM cards become the future, the patent has Apple covered.

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Are you looking forward to the iPhone 5? Would you be disappointed with only a slightly-improved camera, or are you happy with the 8-megapixel camera from the iPhone 4S? Let us know in the comments section below.