A Multidimensional Imaging Race

Camera Count Joins Megapixels as a Smartphone Metric

Sony recently announced the upcoming release of its IMX586 stacked CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) image sensor for smartphone cameras. The sensor is capable of delivering 48 effective megapixels, which the company claims is the “industry’s highest pixel count” to date for a smartphone camera sensor.

According to Sony, this new sensor can create pixels of 0.8 micrometres — one micrometre is one millionth of a metre. As a point of comparison, the width of a common human hair is between 20 and 150 micrometres. These would be small pixels. In addition to high resolution, Sony says its sensor delivers high sensitivity and can capture detail even in low-light conditions.

To its credit, Sony isn’t a top seller of smartphones compared with brands like Apple and Samsung, but it is a leading supplier of imaging components to the handset and camera markets. This could be a significant development.

It was tempting to believe the megapixel race was a thing of the past, with smartphone makers tending to concentrate on imaging features other than pure megapixel count. Consumers began to learn that it could be misleading to assess a phone lens by the number of megapixels, which could have an inconsistent correlation with picture quality.

Makers of flagship smartphones could begin to adopt Sony’s IMX586 sensor if it proves its worth in boosting the quality of still images as well as video, potentially offering customers a reason to upgrade their handsets. But this would join another top trend in smartphone imaging: camera count.

Earlier in 2018, Huawei launched its top-of-the-line P20 Pro, an Android smartphone with three cameras on the back. It sports one 40-megapixel RGB imaging sensor for high-resolution photos, supplemented with a 20-megapixel black-and-white lens for depth perception, which can reduce imaging noise and is also useful for the bokeh effect. Finally, a third rear sensor of eight megapixels is used for zoomed shots. The P20 Pro uses a neural processing engine to tie the specialised talents together. In addition, the phone also features a front-facing 24-megapixel lens.

We think Huawei has set a trend with its P20 Pro phone. Megapixels could become a source of differentiation once again, along with the number of cameras packed into a smartphone. A double-camera set-up has become almost standard for flagship smartphones and we expect more handset makers to follow Huawei in adding another lens and more megapixels.

It’s difficult to argue against numbers. Three is more than two and 40 is more than 12. But consumers do their research these days, particularly when it comes to spending up to $1,000, which raises the question: does the device I’m about to buy take pictures worth a thousand dollars?

For a long period of time, smartphone makers were eager to boast about their devices offering more megapixels than their rivals. But now camera count has added another angle. The imaging race is going multidimensional.