It’s hard to argue that Google’s camera efforts have held up over the years despite retaining an outdated Sony IMX363 sensor. That said, the move to a larger, more capable 50-megapixel main camera has made it clear that the Pixel series needs to keep up with the rest of the industry to deliver the best camera experience possible.
Video — Why Google needs to keep up with more regular Pixel camera upgrades
The riddle of the flagship camera
A flagship smartphone should have an excellent camera setup, and since its inception, the Pixel series has proudly stood at the top of the camera charts thanks to a combination of solid camera hardware and industry-leading software processing. Google’s lead was almost insurmountable for a while, and that statement certainly held up until the release of the Pixel 4 series in late 2019.
Things were good until the Pixel 5 arrived and while it has a good camera, it certainly started to lose sight of the biggest players in the industry. By 2020, many OEMs had caught on to the Pixel-series camera, and even more, a few had surpassed it.
Processing alone can only go so far. And so, with the release of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, Google has unequivocally demonstrated that an improved camera sensor and lens configuration is a necessity to compete with the best in the industry. As the size and quality of smartphone camera sensors increase year on year, it is therefore important that the Pixel series keep up. That means more frequent sensor updates.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that Google tries to make big changes with every release of a device. That wouldn’t make sense, since the Pixel’s camera’s “secret sauce” is that all-important post-processing. It is only important that camera sensor upgrades are treated in the same way as the SoC. That’s especially important as there’s even more focus on flagship Pixel devices thanks to the Tensor chip and its associated processing improvements on the device.
Software can only go so far
There’s no denying that one of the main selling points of the Pixel series is the clean, unobtrusive software† While you could argue that the Pixel A series proves otherwise, software can only take you so far. Especially hardware is important.
Evidence of this is the switch from a 12.2-megapixel Sony IMX363 sensor to a Samsung ISOCELL GN1 50-megapixel sensor† There is a noticeable difference right away, but that alone is not really the full story.
Despite the massive upgrade in sensor size, Google continues to use pixel binning to create final 12-megapixel images. Without advocating a dedicated Pro mode, the tuning needed with the older flagship Pixel phones actually affected the current generation — and could hold back the next generation as a result.
Since the Sony IMX363 sensor is relatively small, the software adds a little bit of sharpening during the post-processing phase, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro suffer from oversharpening from time to time. 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.
In fact, with a larger sensor, you get more data points to tune 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 in the Tensor chip for faster image processing. If Pixel Neural Core improves over time, bigger sensors shouldn’t be an issue. You could easily read this as a move by Google to make sure no issues arise if that’s true.
As we all know, Google loves data. This helps with those added effects, features, and functions that we’ve all come to know and love. The results aren’t always immediately apparent when the Pixel 6’s camera is compared 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 in collecting light. This, in turn, means less time is needed to enhance long-exposure night photos. Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo and more have simply increased the sensor sizes of their smartphone camera and the result is arguably better low-light images with less processing. This means less performance loss for the CPU and all the potential battery improvements that come with less processing on the device.
The importance of optics
It’s not just the Pixel’s camera sensor that needs to constantly evolve and improve. We need to see the optics progression. In recent years, the addition of a dedicated ultra-wide angle lens has been a solid addition. Especially since it’s nearly impossible to replicate a wide-angle image using software alone.
But if you look directly at the introduction of a dedicated periscope zoom on the Pixel 6 Pro, it’s easy to see how this addition has fundamentally changed the Pixel’s camera in ways previous generations could never have hoped for.
In the past, Super Res Zoom has provided a fairly nice solution to optical and sensor limitations without hugely increasing costs. It’s hard to argue that vastly improved optics are an essential feature on a high-end smartphone today — and in the future.
While Oppo and Huawei pioneered the hybrid digital zoom on smartphones, Samsung has surpassed everyone else with almost unparalleled zoom capabilities and quality. To some extent, the Pixel 6 Pro can compete directly with the Galaxy S21 Ultra and S22 Ultra† However, a 4x hybrid zoom system is vastly inferior to the 10x hybrid capabilities of Samsung’s best-in-class.
We are in a phase where smartphone camera sensors are increasingly profitable. It is the optic where the biggest changes are made. Zoom is one of the last frontiers of mobile photography, and Google can take advantage of a fusion of Super Res Zoom and a bit of hardware to really challenge Samsung… and the rest.
Very good for video
There is a major knock-on effect that is often overlooked when we, as tech media, discuss the upgrades and capabilities of smartphone cameras. Video recording on Android has lagged behind iPhone for a long time.
It’s certainly true that the gap has narrowed in recent years, but for whatever reason, the iPhone is still supreme when it comes to pure video recording quality. It is almost not up for discussion when you see the end results side by side. The Pixel line has done well thanks to its impressive Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) and Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), and you’re sure to get enjoyable video clips without needing a dedicated camera system, but class-leading? Not quite.
Google has traditionally stunned photos and only competed in video capabilities. Case in point: It took until the Pixel 5 to add 4K 60fps recording when many other OEMs started adding 8K recording options and more features than you can shake a stick at.
Live HDR for every video frame courtesy of HDRNet is the biggest change, and the result is processing at 498 million pixels per second. A larger sensor means higher resolution shooting is possible. It also has other benefits that you may not even be aware of. Because the sensor is larger, that means the digital crop applied when switching to video — something necessary for EIS to work effectively — isn’t as pronounced. The end result is higher reliability without major quality sacrifices.
Video is an integral part right now, and with the best combination of sensor and lenses plus some magic from Google software, there’s no reason we can’t get the perfect pocket movie companion.
Unintended Consequences: A Series Divorce
You may be wondering where the Pixel A series fits into this scenario, as the upcoming Pixel 6a is set to forgo the massive 50-megapixel sensor upgrade and adopt the tried-and-true setup found on the Pixel 4a 5G over the Pixel 5a.
From a purely marketing perspective, this could be a way to really differentiate between the flagship Pixel lines and mid-range efforts. At least until the end of 2021, buying an A-series device simply removed some of the nice features, such as a high refresh rate screen, wireless charging and an IP certification – the Despite Pixel 5a on that last point.
A confusing setup isn’t a strong look and the fact that the A Series has offered much of what the flagship Pixel can do is both a big positive and a negative. A positive point, since we, as buyers, get an excellent mid-range car that belies its price tag. A minus for Google, since you would undoubtedly opt for the cheaper model given provides 90% of the “Pixel” experience but at a significantly reduced price.
Creating a clear 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 capitalize on this by using older sensors on the midrange if or when an upgrade to the flagship camera system is made. Not only would that mean great camera results, but buyers wouldn’t feel so short-changed either. None of the fine-tuned camera tuning is lost either, as you get a classic Pixel camera experience if you want.
As much as I’d love the Pixel A series to continue providing the “flagship” Pixel experience without the associated price, given the change in direction, there would be a schism in the product line at some point if that’s due to the camera , then it would certainly be justified.
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