Cameras are the new battleground, as phone makers don’t have much innovation headroom elsewhere
With specs remaining largely consistent across most phones, it is how the camera optics and software deliver photos that is proving to be a differentiating factor
The dynamics in the smartphone ecosystem have changed. There is only so much of the “wow” factor that phone makers can add to new phones that arrive like clockwork. For instance, the new Samsung Galaxy S9. It has a new camera setup, which we are yet to fully test, and yes, it has a token processor update as well. Beyond that, it doesn’t have much that we already didn’t see in last year’s Samsung Galaxy S8—the same display, the same battery capacity and largely the same customizations wrapped around Android. That really doesn’t leave phone makers with much choice, but to focus on the camera and to try to convince buyers that it is “the” critical feature. But is it, really?
Late last year, the Apple iPhone X and the Google Pixel 2 pretty much redefined photography quality when using a smartphone and set the benchmark for upcoming rivals to follow. Both phones followed fairly different paths—the iPhone X used dual cameras, while the Google Pixel 2 retained the single camera mechanism but relied heavily on software processing.
As the year was winding to a close, right on cue, OnePlus launched the OnePlus 5T smartphone. The successor to the OnePlus 5, this updated itself with a larger display with the 18:9 aspect ratio, and as expected, better cameras. One of the features that this dual camera setup included is something known as “Intelligent Pixel Technology”, which kicks in when the detected ambient light is lower than the 10-lux threshold and combines the data from 4 pixels into a single pixel—this is supposed to help improve detailing as well as exposure of low-light photos, which may otherwise have been a darkened mess.
In February 2018, Google opened up its Visual Core chipset in its Pixel 2 as well, allowing it to work with third-party apps such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook. Earlier, photos taken through those apps did not look as good as the photos taken separately using the camera, since these apps couldn’t access the extra post-processing and HDR+ via the Visual Core API.
Sony’s upcoming Xperia XZ2 packs in a 19-megapixel camera with a memory-stacked image sensor for faster and more vibrant still images. This is also the first phone in the world that will be able to record 4K HDR videos. And one thing that Sony pioneered before anyone else—the 960fps slow motion videos—makes this ideal for video recording too. Apart from the camera, you do get a slight redesign in line with a taller display, the additional features baked into Android remain largely the same and you get the processor update to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip as well as wireless charging.
Samsung, the brand that wants to be seen taking on the Apple iPhone X with the new Galaxy S9, has made a big change this time around in the camera system in the S9 and the S9+. The S9 has a single camera while the S9+ has a dual camera. The S9 is the first flagship phone from Samsung that features a mechanically adjustable aperture which can switch between f/1.5 for low-light situations and f/2.4 for better-lit environments. Till now, the LG V30 had the widest aperture in a smartphone thus far, with its glass lens capable of f/1.6 aperture. This, Samsung claims, lets in 28% more light than the S8’s f/1.7 aperture. The S9’s 12-megapixel camera sensor also has a new dual pixel autofocus technology called Super Speed Dual Pixel, which is faster and locks focus more reliably, reduces noise and distortions and can record up to 960 frames per second of slow motion video—something that is straight out of Sony’s Xperia camera handbook. Incidentally, image quality ratings website DxOMark gives the Galaxy S9’s camera a slightly higher rating than the Pixel 2, which is regarded as perhaps the best Android phone camera by far. However, we would take these ratings with a pinch of salt, because this is the same ratings website which last year gave the OnePlus 5 a DxOMark score of 87, higher than the Apple iPhone 7 (86) and the LG G6 (84) at the time—the OnePlus 5 required so many updates to sort out the camera issues such as inconsistent detailing and poor low-light photos, in the weeks and months after launch, which tend to make us sit up and wonder how DxOMark was able to rate the camera so highly in the first place. Perhaps, we can look at the latest Galaxy 9’s camera ratings with some suspicion too?
While innovation has slowed down considerably in other aspects, at least smartphone cameras are seeing some upgrades that make a genuine difference, most of the time. And that may continue.
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