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100-megapixel mobile image sensors coming this year, but 192-megapixel will take years: Qualcomm

Qualcomm says smartphone makers are trying to surpass full-frame DSLR cameras with new image sensors and computational photography.

Nokia 9 Pureview Qualcomm Camera main

Early this month, Qualcomm tweaked the specifications of its mobile platform, and added support for up to 192-megapixel single camera. The new specification sheet suggested that future devices powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon mobile platform would come with a 192-megapixel camera setup. Now, the San Diego-based semiconductor company has clarified that smartphone with 192-megapixel camera is not coming anytime soon. The clarification from Qualcomm shows how the smartphone industry is trying to paint a rosy picture about mobile photography when, it may not yield a big change.

During a call with media last week, Judd Heape, Senior Director of Product Management, Qualcomm Technologies Inc, confirmed that smartphones with 192-megapixel image sensors are not launching immediately and notes that smartphone makers see sensors with high megapixel count producing high resolution images in bright light conditions. He further added that by the end of this year, we might be able to see smartphones with 64-megapixel, and slightly over 100-megapixel image sensor. When asked if that means that sensors with double the megapixel count will arrive next year, Heape dismissed and said that the company has added support but that does not mean that such a sensor is on the horizon. “We won’t see that big jump immediately,” Heape said during the call.

Watch: Nokia 9 Pureview First Look

Qualcomm’s mobile platform is broken down into Snapdragon 800 series, Snapdragon 700 series, Snapdragon 600 series, Snapdragon 400 series, and Snapdragon 200 series. The company updated data sheet of Snapdragon 855, Snapdragon 845, Snapdragon 710, Snapdragon 675 and Snapdragon 670, to reflect 192-megapixel support. The key detail that got lost in the specification sheet is zero shutter lag and 30 frames per second support. Heape told media that the above-mentioned mobile platforms supported 192-megapixel for some time, but the company did not add it to the data sheet since it used a different method to conclude support.

“ISPs have always been capable of 192-megapixel but we are specifying it for the first time”

Before reaching the number of megapixels supported by its mobile platform, Qualcomm considers factors such as multi-frame noise reduction, zero shutter lag, and 30 frames per second support. Based on that, Qualcomm says that its current flagship mobile platform, Snapdragon 855, can support up to 48-megapixel single camera and 22-megapixel dual camera. “A lot of customers are willing to take large megapixel images without maintaining the 30 frames per second support for zero shutter lag,” explains Heape. This has allowed Qualcomm to reach a number equivalent to 192-megapixel, but the company has not tested since such a sensor is not yet available in the market.

In a nutshell, 192-megapixel is now the default Qualcomm Snapdragon ISP limitation that smartphone makers will have to work with, whenever they build new devices. Heape was also quick to point out that no OEM partner is working to launch a phone with 192-megapixel camera support.

Qualcomm says that twice the image size will result in twice the time need to process it. Heape says that Qualcomm does not see a need to go above 64-megapixels and yet maintain the 30 frames per second criteria for zero shutter lag. With its top-tier and mid-tier mobile platforms, Qualcomm says 192-megapixel will remain without any frames per second count. In fact, Qualcomm recently updated Snapdragon 660 specification sheet to reflect support for 48-megapixel camera, as seen in the Chinese variant of Xiaomi Redmi Note 7. Heape explains that the 48-megapixel support comes with a compromise on zero shutter lag while the old specification of up to 25-megapixel single camera remains in place. Qualcomm says it works closely with OEM partners who bring their own requirement to help them different from rivals.

Smartphones across price point have reached a stage where there is not much to differentiate between a mid-range device and a flagship offering. As you climb up in smartphone pricing, the real difference can be seen in camera performance. Most flagship devices use a 12-megapixel sensor for main camera but lately, mid-range premium devices have started using a high resolution 48-megapixel sensor. Sony is the leader here with its IMX 586 sensor, which is claimed to have a native resolution of 48 million pixels but there is also Samsung’s 48-megapixel ISOCELL sensor called GM1.

It is a known fact that increase in megapixel count comes at a cost and it is observed mainly in the pixel size. The pixel size of a typical 12-megapixel sensor could be anywhere between 1.4 micron and 1.7 micron but the 48-megapixel sensor has a pixel size of 0.8 micron, which results in lower sensitivity to light. Heape says he is personally not going to be hung up on the megapixel count. He says consumers should look for features such as depth support, software features and overall color profile while choosing the right camera smartphone. Professional photographers tend to stick with their Nikon or Canon for decades since they get accustomed to a color profile produced by these cameras. In the smartphone world, Apple iPhone tends to stick closer to natural lighting while Google Pixel and Samsung’s Galaxy prefer a bit more saturation, adding more zeal to the images.

Smartphone cameras have effectively replaced the work of point and shoot cameras, but the goal is much bigger. “The industry goal is to surpass full-frame DSLR camera with smartphone image sensor,” Judd Heape said. He adds that the only way to get there is by adding more image sensors to the devices. More cameras doing different things can bring better imaging experience to smartphones. He says dedicated sensors such 3D ToF, depth camera and IR sensors could be used for improving dynamic range, enhancing background blur and lower noise in low-light conditions.

“The industry goal is to surpass full-frame DSLR camera with smartphone image sensor”

Heape as the lead of Qualcomm’s Imaging product division says that the smartphone industry should collectively look at having sensors with bigger pixels that capture more light as opposed to focusing entirely on higher megapixel count. At Mobile World Congress 2019 last month, smartphone makers such as Oppo, Nokia showcased their vision to launch devices that offer better zoom and improved bokeh effect respectively. Oppo showed a prototype device capable of 10x lossless zoom while HMD Global launched Nokia 9 Pureview with penta-camera setup to enable improved depth effect and up to 240-megapixel images. The Nokia 9 Pureview, which packs a dedicated Light-made chip, is still considerably slow to process images. Heape says Qualcomm is working on building future generation of ISPs that will be able to process high resolution images faster but increase in megapixel count will continue to affect processing time of images.

Qualcomm is also planning to standardize HDR+ for video recording, a feature currently available only on Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S10 smartphones. Heape said that Qualcomm is working on metadata for HDR10+ standard and the next flagship mobile platform from the company, which could be called the Snapdragon 865, will bring the feature. He believes that it will take some time for the feature to become de-facto standard on mobile devices. Qualcomm has added support for a high-resolution image sensor to its mobile platform but Heape believes the real progress should happen in computational photography, where Samsung struggles and Google looks like the industry leader.

  • Published Date: March 21, 2019 11:19 AM IST