Pursuing DSLR-Level Imaging in Smartphones

Samsung’s new sensor reaches for the stars

For the past decade, major smartphone makers have spoken of their lofty goal of elevating the quality of handset cameras to DSLR-level. The trailblazer for this effort was Nokia’s charismatic Anssi Vanjoki, who was ridiculed in 2010 when he suggested imaging quality on smartphones would approach that of DSLR cameras. At the time, he said that “there will be no need to carry around those heavy lenses”. In other words, professional and bulky photographic equipment would be replicated in thin mobile devices, assisted by processors and connectivity.

There’s no doubt that the camera market has been affected by vastly improved and increasingly impressive mobile photography. However, DSLR equipment, powered by dedicated and bulky hardware, is still in a different league. But as smartphones no longer stand apart in their design, manufacturers have been turning to imaging as a main differentiator for their devices. This has sparked a resurgence of the megapixel arms race and brought new competition as manufacturers pack more cameras into their smartphones.

For Samsung, imaging has been one of the hottest features of its flagship smartphones. Now the South Korean company is looking to push the envelope further, with its components team producing a new camera sensor that aims to raise the bar for smartphone photography.

Samsung has introduced the Isocell GN1, a new 50-megapixel sensor with large 1.2-micron pixels, sacrificing resolution for bigger pixels. It’s the first image sensor to offer Samsung’s Dual Pixel and Tetracell technologies. According to the company, the Isocell GN1 promises “DSLR-level autofocus speeds” even in dimly lit environments. Samsung also claims that, the sensor, coupled with its software algorithm, will be able to capture photos at a resolution equivalent to 100 megapixels.

Thanks to Samsung’s Tetracell pixel-binning technology, the new sensor can absorb more light and produce brighter shots. Pixel-binning is a technique that’s being widely adopted in a swathe of high-end smartphones. It ensures that the camera sensor can offer quick autofocus to capture a subject even in low-light conditions. Tetracell technology enhances the low-light imaging capabilities of the sensor by merging four adjacent pixels into one, doubling the pixel size to 2.4 micron. In Samsung’s sensor, the technology increases light sensitivity fourfold by cutting output resolution to 12.5-megapixel images. The Isocell GN1 also comes equipped with a Smart-ISO feature that can capture images in multiple exposures.

When Samsung launched its Galaxy S20 Ultra smartphone, it faced complaints about the autofocus capability of its 108-megapixel sensor. Its latest invention is expected to help the company avoid any repetition of these problems. Samsung’s announcement puts the spotlight on its new sensor’s faster autofocus. This is clearly an acknowledgment from the company that upgrades will continue to build on the lessons it has learned from the camera design of its flagship Galaxy S20 devices.

If Samsung’s specifications for the Isocell GN1 live up to the company’s promises, it could lead to another round of improvements to the already impressive range of Galaxy imaging capabilities.