It’s hard to argue that Google’s camera efforts in recent years have held up despite the persistence of an aging Sony IMX363 sensor. That said, the move to a larger and more capable 50-megapixel main shooter has highlighted that the Pixel series needs to keep pace with the rest of the industry to deliver the best camera experience possible.
Video – Why Google needs to keep pace with more regular Pixel Camera upgrades
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The enigma of the flagship camera
A flagship smartphone should have a great camera setup and since its inception, the Pixel series has proudly risen to the top of the camera charts thanks to a combination of solid camera hardware and cutting-edge software processing. Google’s lead was almost insurmountable for quite some time and that statement certainly held up until at least the release of the Pixel 4 series in late 2019.
Things were going well until the Pixel 5 arrived and while it had a good camera, it certainly started to lose sight of the biggest players in the industry. In 2020, many OEMs had caught the Pixel series camera, moreover, a few had passed it.
Treatment alone cannot go further. So with the release of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, Google has shown unequivocally that an improved camera sensor and lens setup is a necessity to compete with the best in the business. As the size and quality of smartphone camera sensors increase year on year, it is therefore important that the Pixel series keep pace. This means more frequent sensor updates.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that Google tries to make major changes with every device version. That wouldn’t make sense given that the ‘secret sauce’ of the Pixel camera is this all-important post-processing. It’s just important that camera sensor upgrades are treated the same as the SoC. This is particularly important given that there is even more focus on flagship Pixel devices thanks to the Tensor chip and associated processing improvements on the device.
Software can’t go that far
There’s no denying that one of the main selling points of the Pixel series is the clean and unobtrusive software. While you could argue the Pixel A series proves otherwise, the software can only take you so far. Hardware is especially important.
Proof of this is the switch from a 12.2 megapixel Sony IMX363 sensor to a 50 megapixel Samsung ISOCELL GN1 sensor. There’s immediately a noticeable difference, but that alone isn’t really the full story.
Despite the massive upgrade in sensor size, Google continues to use pixel binning to achieve final 12-megapixel images. Without arguing for a dedicated Pro mode, the setting required with older flagship Pixel phones has actually affected the current generation – and could hold the next generation back as a result.
Because the Sony IMX363 sensor is relatively small, the software adds some sharpening during the post-processing phase, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro suffered from intermittent over-sharpening issues. The issue has been almost completely resolved with updates to the Google Camera app, but this would not be a necessary camera processing step as long as higher resolution sensors are used.
This is because with a larger sensor, you have more data points to set and adjust as you see fit. More data points equals more data to process. This probably explains the reintroduction and integration of the dedicated Pixel Neural Core into the Tensor chip for faster image processing. If the Pixel Neural Core improves over time, larger sensors shouldn’t be a problem. One could easily read this as a decision by Google to ensure that problems are not encountered if this were true.
As we all know, Google loves data. It helps with those extra effects, functions, and features that we all know and love. The results aren’t always immediately obvious when comparing the Pixel 6 camera side-by-side with the Pixel 5. That said, look a little deeper and the differences start to become more apparent.
Previously impressive features like Night Sight have become ubiquitous in the mobile space. A larger sensor also helps gather light. This, in turn, means less time needed to enhance long exposure night shots. Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo and many others have simply increased the size of their smartphone camera sensors and the result is arguably better low-light images with less processing required. This means less impact on CPU performance and all the potential battery boosts that come with less on-device processing.
The importance of optics
It’s not just the Pixel camera sensor that needs to continually evolve and improve. We need to see the progression of optics. In recent years, the addition of a dedicated ultra-wide-angle lens has been a solid inclusion. Especially since it is almost impossible to reproduce a wide-angle field of view using only software.
But looking directly at the introduction of a dedicated periscope zoom lens on the Pixel 6 Pro and it’s easy to see how this addition has fundamentally changed the Pixel camera in ways previous generations could never hope for. .
In the past, Super Res Zoom has provided quite an attractive solution to optical and sensor limitations without significantly increasing the cost. It’s hard to argue that generally improved optics are an essential feature of a high-end smartphone today – and in the future.
While Oppo and Huawei pioneered the hybrid digital zoom feature on smartphones, Samsung has surpassed everyone else with nearly unparalleled zoom capabilities and quality. Up to a point, the Pixel 6 Pro can directly compete with the Galaxy S21 Ultra and S22 Ultra. However, a 4x hybrid zoom system falls far short of the 10x hybrid capabilities of Samsung’s best.
We’re at a stage where smartphone camera sensors are making further gains. This is the lens where the biggest changes are made. Zoom is one of the latest frontiers in mobile photography and Google can capitalize with a fusion of Super Res Zoom and a bit of hardware to really challenge Samsung… and the rest.
Great for video
There is a major ripple effect that is often overlooked when we as tech media discuss smartphone camera upgrades and capabilities. Video recording on Android is long behind the iPhone.
It’s certainly true that the gap has narrowed in recent years, but for some reason the iPhone is still supreme when it comes to pure video recording quality. It’s almost no debating when you see the end results side by side. The Pixel line actually did well thanks to impressive electronic image stabilization (EIS) and optical image stabilization (OIS), and you’ll definitely get enjoyable video clips without the need for a camera system. dedicated, but class-leading? Not enough.
Google has traditionally impressed with stills and simply competed in video capabilities. A prime example: it wasn’t until the Pixel 5 added 4K recording at 60fps when many other OEMs started adding 8K recording options and more features than you can handle.
Live HDR for every video frame thanks to HDRNet is the biggest change, and the result is processing 498 million pixels per second. A larger sensor means higher resolution recording is possible. It also has other benefits that you might not even be aware of. Because the sensor is larger, it means the digital cropping applied when switching to video – which is necessary for the EIS to work effectively – isn’t as pronounced. The end result is greater fidelity without major sacrifices in quality.
Video is huge right now and with the best combination of sensor and lenses plus a bit of Google software wizardry, there’s no reason we can’t get the perfect pocket-sized filming companion. .
Unintended consequences: Serie A split
You might be wondering where the Pixel A series fits into this scenario, as the upcoming Pixel 6a is expected to forego the massive 50-megapixel sensor upgrade and adopt the tried-and-true setup found on the Pixel 4a. 5G through the Pixel. 5a.
From a purely marketing standpoint, this could be a way to really differentiate flagship Pixel lines and midrange efforts. At least until the end of 2021, buying an A-series device simply took away some of the nice features like a high refresh rate display, wireless charging and IP certification – the Pixel 5a notwithstanding this last point.
A confusing lineup isn’t a strong look and the fact that the A-Series offered so much of what the flagship Pixel can be both a major plus and a major minus. A plus as we as buyers are getting a great looking mid-ranger that belies its price. A negative point for Google, because you would undoubtedly choose the cheaper model given that it offers 90% of the “Pixel” experience but at a considerably reduced price.
Creating a distinct line in the sand between the “best” lens and the mid-range could easily be done with the use of a slightly inferior camera sensor. Google could take advantage of this by using older sensors on the mid-range if or when an upgrade has been made to the flagship camera system. Not only would that mean great camera results, but buyers wouldn’t feel as short-changed. None of the fine-tuned camera settings are lost either, as you get a classic Pixel camera experience if you want it.
As much as I wish the Pixel A series would continue to deliver the “flagship” Pixel experience without the associated price tag, given the change in direction, a product line schism was bound to occur at some point if that came due of the camera, then it would certainly be justified.
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