The 4-megapixel UltraPixel camera on the HTC One explained
HTC has really rattled a hornet’s nest with the One. It not only takes cues from Apple in terms of industrial design, it has a feature called BlinkFeed that seems a couple of steps ahead of the live tiles on Windows Phone and to just rub it in it has now taken the imaging battle to Nokia, with its new UltraPixel Zoe camera. On the face of it, there are only 4-megapixels, but HTC says that it will deliver a wildly better photography experience than any competing 8-megapixel or 13-megapixel camera phone can. We have broken down the technology to its bare bones, so read on and find out.
Just to start things off a resolution of 4-megapixels is more than ample, unless you want to print posters for hoardings. So the unusually low megapixel count is not a big deal. OEMs just prefer to tout the higher megapixel count as an advantage as the consumers believe in the higher megapixel myth. Unfortunately, this will be a problem HTC has to resolve at the retail level with the One.
Bigger, better more useful pixels
HTC makes a big deal about the UltraPixel technology on the One. It states that pixels on the One are 2 microns, while competing 8-megapixel cameras are generally 1.4 microns and that number further goes down to 1.1 microns on 13-megapixel camera phones. Considering the limitations of smartphone cameras, especially in terms of optics it impossible to coax the maximum out of all these small tiny pixels. But if one increases the pixel size rather than count, then resolution remains lower, but the camera is more sensitive to light and dynamic in term produces better images.
This is similar to what Nokia does on the PureView 808 where 7 pixels are joined to construct one super pixel, which helps the 41-megapixel camera produce high quality 5-megapixel images. But Nokia was also trying to attain lossless zoom hence it had the massive 41-megapixel resolution. And because of the incredibly high resolution even the PureView 808 had an average pixel size of 1.4 microns in spite of the 1/1.2-inch sensor. The HTC One manages to pack in an average pixel size of 2 microns via its 1/3-inch sensor, which has an effective resolution of 4-megapixels. Essentially, in a way HTC has decided to focus on bigger and more effective pixels and unlike the Nokia PureView 808 it does not focus on lossless zoom so it does not need the insane 41-megapixel resolution, which requires a massive sensor, hence also does not affect the industrial design of the device.
Better low light performance with Optical Image Stabilization
Of course the big pixels help sensitivity and dynamic range of the camera, but when you couple that with a f/2.0 aperture and Optical Image stabilization that works across two axis’ with 2000 cycles per second eliminating handshake, then users get to focus on an object longer. This means users will be able to have impressive low-light images. Of course the phone that touts this feature the most is the Nokia Lumia 920 that comes with a 8.7-megapixel camera with Optical Image Stabilization, but it does not have the large UltraPixels of the HTC One. Technically speaking, the HTC One should have an advantage in this regard, we will wait to see real world examples of the same to pass a judgement.
Just for the sake of comparison, the PureView 808 has a f/2.4 aperture, the iPhone 5 has a f/2.4 aperture, the Galaxy S III has a f/2.6 aperture and the Nokia Lumia 920 has a f/2.0 aperture. So even in this regard, the HTC One is up to scratch.
HTC still has not forgotten its ImageSense chip that was introduced with the One X and even the One packs it. It can shoot HDR video and stills on the fly, just like the Sony Xperia Z. It can shoot 8 images per second in burst mode and has a gamut of new features that are similar to TimeShot, Smart Shot and Best Photo seen on BlackBerry, Nokia and Samsung devices. It also has a new feature called the Zoe mode that shoots a few second of 1080p video while shooting a still image which becomes a part of a new gallery mode that creates a short highlight reel of sorts. The videos will be hosted on HTC servers for 180 days.
This is just the beginning of the imaging battle. Nokia is rumored to launch a new device at MWC that will combine the capabilities of both the PureView branded smartphones and the Samsung Galaxy S IV is expected to flaunt a new 13-megapixel camera. And we have no clue at the moment what spells the wizards at Cupertino are casting right now for the next-gen iPhone. It will be interesting to see which company walks away with the camera phone crown.