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The future of smartphone camera technology: Q&A with Samsung Semiconductor
Samsung Semiconductor is one of the most important players in the mobile photography space right now, joining Sony and Omnivision as the three biggest image sensor suppliers in the smartphone industry.
The company is currently riding the multi-camera wave while also upping the ante in a big way with 108MP sensors. So, what’s next for the image sensor firm, and what does it expect to see in 2021? Android Authority interviewed Jinhyun Kwon, VP and head of sensor marketing at Samsung Semiconductor to find out.
Bigger pixels or more megapixels?
Samsung just announced a brand-new line-up of camera sensors, all featuring tiny 0.7 micron pixels and high-resolution sensors. From the 32MP Isocell JD1 to the 108MP Isocell HM2, the latest crop of sensors all embrace more megapixels at the expense of pixel size.
Conversely, the South Korean giant has previously offered sensors like the 50MP Isocell Bright GN1 which are roughly the same size as its 108MP sensors while offering larger pixels. So what’s the right approach then?
“Samsung’s thinking on the matter is simple — both approaches have their own merits and as a semiconductor solutions provider, our goal is to have the best solutions in either, ultra-high resolution with smaller pixels and relatively lower resolution with bigger pixels, available to our customers,” Kwon explains.
Samsung is taking two approaches to its image sensors, with upsides and downsides to each.
The executive also points to the advantages of each approach, saying that ultra-high resolution sensors enable zooming in or cropping without losing image quality. Meanwhile, Kwon says big-pixel image sensors fill a gap in the market for consumers who prefer brighter images. But they also offer another benefit.
“Big-pixel image sensors may not offer super-high resolutions of 100+MP, but are able to offer ultra-fast auto-focusing using Dual Pixel technology and brighter results,” he says, adding that these sensors might therefore be ideal for those taking quick snapshots.
Samsung still seems intent to pursue ever-higher megapixel counts, and Kwon says that there’s no set limit on how far the megapixel race will go. However, he adds that the highest achievable figure will depend on factors like pixel size and camera module optics.
“With more pixels, opportunities for new use cases should emerge. Sensor technologies, including pixel size and pixel resolution, will advance accordingly to meet the diverse needs of manufacturer and users. After all, the resolution of the human eye is about 500MP and that would be the ultimate milestone for the industry at large.”
The future of video
8K video recording is arguably the biggest camera trend of 2020, as the likes of Samsung, Xiaomi, LG, and several other brands have adopted the recording standard for their smartphones. We usually see mid-range phones adopt these standards after a while, but we might be in for a wait yet.
Kwon explains that 48MP+ sensors capable of 8K recording have been around since 2018 and have landed on mid-range devices since last year. There’s more to 8K recording than having a compatible sensor though. On the topic, he says, “…from a market point of view, the 8K market is still in the early stages and will take some time for the feature to expand to mid-range. While image sensors with 8K capabilities may currently be available, other relevant components such as mid-range mobile processors need to be ready, too.”
We’ve also seen 4K evolve to offer enhanced features like HDR and more, and here’s what Kwon thinks will happen in the future:
We expect 8K will take a similar path as 4K did, offering 60fps and HDR. For high resolution videos, at least 60fps is necessary for smooth and seamless motion, and HDR to record scenes in various lighting environments without loss of image information.
Kwon cites HDR in particular as one of the biggest challenges for video on mobile, citing power consumption, image artifacts, and other trade-offs:
Though there have been various solutions and mobile processors supporting HDR well within an affordable power budget for still shots, video HDR requires a longer time and larger power budget, making it more challenging to implement. Thus the key to 8K with HDR would be power consumption control.
4K isn’t going anywhere either, as the recording standard has been available on even mid-range phones for the past few years, going back to 2018/2019 phones such as the Nokia 7 Plus and Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite. Samsung Semiconductor sees 4K slow-mo being another area of development.
“Currently FHD 240fps is becoming a common feature on devices and there are products that can support FHD resolution at up to 480fps or 960fps, allowing super slow motion shots. While we may not see 4K featuring 480fps or 960fps any time soon, due to high cost and power consumption, 4K 240fps could be something we can expect for the time being,” Kwon states.
We haven’t seen 4K 240fps just yet, but ASUS is one of the first brands to offer 4K at 120fps on it Zenfone 7 series, allowing for sharper slow-motion images. Signs point to OnePlus preparing an 8K/960fps option too, but we’re almost 100% certain that this is a software-enhanced solution rather than native 8K/960fps video.
What else is next for mobile photography?
Samsung confirmed back in 2018 that it was working on in-display selfie camera technology, and we’ve since seen ZTE offer the first phone with this tech in the A20 5G. However, the Samsung representative echoes previous industry sentiment regarding challenges for the technology, such as the “amount and quality” of light getting through to the selfie camera. More specifically, Kwon says transparency, light diffraction, and color distortion are all challenges OEMs have to face with this tech.
Kwon also cautions that we’ll have to wait and see how polished the first phones with in-display selfie cameras are. And with the likes of Xiaomi holding off on the feature until 2021, we hope many brands are taking the time to get it right instead of rushing to be first.
The Samsung Semiconductor team also gave us a general idea of what to expect in 2021 in terms of mobile photography:
While the photo and video quality would definitely improve in 2021, the basic setup of multi-cameras with wide, ultra-wide and tele-lenses would probably be similar to that of this year’s flagship devices.
The team adds that mobile processors are offering more powerful NPUs and multi-frame noise reduction technologies. These enhancements could enable phones to deliver better results under extreme log-light conditions and “enhanced AI-assisted solutions” for a better experience.
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