The megapixel war among smartphones is entering a new phase in 2023. And it will be all about flexing the 200-megapixel lenses. The jury is out on whether this is going to be good or bad for the user, but one thing is for sure—it’s a trend whose time has come, especially when perhaps the most coveted Android phone, the arch nemesis of the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, is rumoured to be getting one of these sensors.
The same trend continued when smartphones started displacing the digital camera for the average customer. It first started with the pre-iPhone period, when Nokia and Sony Ericsson often battled for the top honours. Then the iPhone came along in 2007. By 2009, Android, with its armada of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), was redefining what a smartphone should be. But in those early days, neither the iPhone nor Android had good cameras.
Even though people desired phones with Android, iOS, or Blackberry OS, Nokia still had the camera feature as its trump card. But that started to shift when Apple launched the iPhone 4 in 2010 with a 5-megapixel camera that Steve Jobs described as the “closest kin of a vintage Leica camera.”
Even in the early 2010s, Nokia’s N8 and the 808 PureView continued to have the best cameras. The PureView 808 debuted with a 41-megapixel camera, which was even unheard of in DSLRs in 2012. Effectively, that phone only shot images at 5 megapixels using a trick called “pixel binning.”
As we enter 2023, 50-megapixel camera systems have become commonplace on smartphones. Since 2020, 108-megapixel cameras have also become quite common. The year 2022 was also the period when Apple joined the party with a 48-megapixel camera on the iPhone 14 Pro models. But the same year, we also saw a few models that launched with a 200-megapixel camera, a resolution that’s not excessive but ridiculous by any metric. My last column for ThePrint is about the Redmi Note 12 Pro+, which also has a 200-megapixel camera.
Also read: Samsung Smart TV, AMD processors—all that debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show this week
Samsung’s 200-megapixel gambit
Samsung is expected to announce Galaxy S23 Ultra on 1 February at a Galaxy Unpacked event. When a high-profile product integrates such technology, it’s a sign of validation. The industry usually follows suit.
Samsung went from 12-megapixel cameras on its flagship Galaxy S line of phones in 2019 to 108-megapixel sensors in 2020. It took Samsung two more years to perfect its 108-megapixel camera system. According to DXOMark, the Galaxy S22 Ultra, with its score of 135, has the 13th-best camera system on a smartphone. Samsung has some catching up to do.
Since 2021, its imaging division has come up with 200-megapixel sensors. HP1 and HP3 mobile camera sensors have already been used by Xiaomi and Motorola. As Samsung’s camera business is the 2nd largest supplier of camera sensors in the smartphone industry, its technology is bound to show up in several gadgets.
Also read: Becoming disabled-friendly is what makes phones truly smart. Manufacturers are listening
Samsung ISOCELL HP series
HP1 was announced in 2021, though it showed up first on phones like the Motorola Edge 30 Ultra and the Xiaomi 12T Pro in 2022. In June, Samsung introduced HP3, which has now found its way onto the new Xiaomi Redmi Note 12 Pro+. As highlighted in my column, I found the camera performance to be excellent for a phone in the sub-Rs 30,000 category. I also noted that the Google Pixel 6A comes with a humble 12-megapixel snapper that provides superior still photography chops.
With these high-resolution sensors, Samsung is trying to bend the laws of physics using “pixel binning.” It’s a technique that combines adjoining sub-pixels within a camera sensor to create a superpixel. The idea here isn’t to shoot 200-megapixel photographs in most situations.
Smartphone cameras are tiny. The higher the resolution, vis-à-vis the size of the sensor, the individual sub-pixels become smaller and hence are less light sensitive. On phones, the sensor size is more important than the overall megapixels. Even the size of the aperture is more important than the megapixel count.
On Redmi Note 12 Pro+, the 1/1.4-inch sensor divided by 200 megapixels provides 0.56um sub-pixels that may not be effective in low light. Therefore, 200 megapixels is overkill for any scenario, apart from exaggerated cropping for lossless photos at a lower resolution.
Usually, HP3 shoots 50-megapixel photos using “pixel binning” with 1.12um sub-pixels. Users can also shoot at 12.5 megapixels, with the sub-pixel size again doubling. The iPhone had a 12-megapixel camera until 2021, and the Galaxy S10 was similar until 2019. The 12.5-megapixel photos captured with 2.24um sub-pixels are very light-sensitive. That’s why the Redmi Note 12 Pro+ has excellent low-light performance.
It should be noted that HP3 probably isn’t the new sensor for flagship phones. Its biggest pitch over HP1 is that it retains the 200-megapixel resolution in a sensor that’s 20 per cent smaller. It means that HP3 is adept for slim phones that are affordable and that it could show up in many other sub-Rs 30,000 phones.
HP1 has 200 megapixels with a 1/1.22-inch sensor, one that’s bigger than the iPhone 14 Pro (1/1.28-inches), but also has larger 0.64um sub-pixels than HP3. The larger sensor, when paired with more capable silicon, would capture better images. But it could have a successor.
Also read: In Nothing brand, art in sync with tech. The competitors are listening
ISOCELL HP2 for Galaxy S23 Ultra
Rumours suggest that Samsung has an ISOCELL HP2 sensor up its sleeve that could debut in the Galaxy S23 Ultra. This sensor could be larger than the 1/1.4-inch sensor on HP3, even if it is not as large as HP1. It could be as big as HM3 1/1.33-inch sensor on the current Galaxy S22 Ultra.
There is also chatter that it could implement “pixel binning” in a way that it takes 35-megapixel resolution photos, a number needed for 8K video. Of course, Samsung’s phones have had 8K videos for the last couple of years, but the footage hasn’t been very usable.
But the S23 Ultra could make that a reality. Would that mean much to the end user? Not much. 4K is plenty good. This sensor could help with better 4K video, an area in which Android phones have lagged behind the iPhone for a decade.
Samsung is already teasing some of the new capabilities of the S23 camera system. It is hinting at an astrophotography mode which will need a camera that is exceptional in the dark so that it can expose the galactic core in the night skyline.
So this new sensor could have a superior camera system to the S22 Ultra.
But don’t hold your breath on this type of camera showing up on an iPhone. Apple likes to use bespoke sensors made by Sony just for the iPhone. Sony doesn’t make a 200-megapixel mobile sensor.
Sahil Mohan Gupta is a Delhi-based technology journalist. He tweets @DigitallyBones. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)