History of large camera sensors for smartphones

Eric Zeman / Android Commission

The first smartphones were not the photo behemoths that became today’s primary devices. Then, if you are concerned about the quality of the image, you should look around with a dedicated camera with your smartphone. Not anymore. Any smartphone today will provide decent images, and some, like the Google Pixel 6 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S22 Series, perform well even in the most challenging situations. But while computational photography often receives all the attention, larger image sensors deserve more value.

Not all megapixels are equal: why sensor size is important

Google Pixel 6 has a channel that shows the camera usage

Jimmy Westenberg / Android Commission

Over the years, many of us have looked at the resolution (or megapixel count) of the camera to evaluate image quality. In fact, it was a semi-reliable measurement for a few years in the early 2000s – the 5MP camera would definitely deliver better results than the VGA one. However, it is no longer possible to evaluate a camera’s imaging performance based on its resolution. We have seen that smartphones with 12MP and 16MP cameras are now more successful than 108MP behemoths in many cases.

See also: The Best Android Camera Phones You Can Buy

Beyond a certain point, an increase in clarity will not provide significant improvements – unless you want to carve. Many mid-range smartphones offer high-resolution cameras, but often give better and worse results than DSLR cameras with lower megapixel counts. This is because smartphones are physically controlled by space and use smaller image sensors than high-end cameras.

Simply put, a small image sensor collects low light. This directly translates to poor image quality, especially in low light conditions. Conversely, larger sensors can achieve better dynamic range and exposure levels without resorting to solutions such as increased ISO or digital sharpening. Large sensors are the drivers of the best image quality.

Read more: Why camera sensor size is more important than high megapixels

Considering the benefits of the large sensor, it is not surprising to see smartphone manufacturers focusing on improvements in this area year after year. Although some phones, including the Sony Ericsson Chateau and Samsung Pixen 12, offered larger camera sensors as early as 2009, most handsets did not arrive in the bandwagon until relatively recently. With that in mind, let’s explore how the big camera sensors in modern smartphones came about and where the industry is headed next.

Nokia N8 and 808 PureView: The first major smartphone sensors

Nokia 808 PureView camera sensor

Nokia 808 Pureview

In the early 2010s it was hard to escape or ignore the hype surrounding Nokia’s N8 and 808 PureView smartphones. With 12MP resolution and a 1 / 1.83-inch sensor, the Nokia N8 delivers better specifications than many point-and-shoot cameras of 2010. Nokia also produced a seven-minute short film featuring some of Hollywood’s best to highlight the N8. – Impressive 720p video recording capabilities.

In terms of environment, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S3 of the same year had a remarkably small 1/3-inch camera sensor. The iPhone 5’s sensor, meanwhile, was even smaller at 1 / 3.2 inches. In fact, it was common for smartphones to feature small sub-1cm sensors. One inch sensors for DSLRs and professional cameras only.

With larger sensors, the Nokia 808 advanced beyond its time in computational photography within the PureView.

Despite being a pioneer than the N8 competition, Nokia did not stand by it. In 2012, the company released the 808 PureView, which features an even larger 41MP 1 / 1.2-inch sensor. Improvements in processing power enabled the hyper-model, which involves combining neighboring pixels together for better light sensitivity. As it turns out, today’s smartphones have the same technology called pixel pinning. Back then, Nokia’s computational photo game was far ahead of its curve.

Large camera sensors on smartphones for many years

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra 18 rear view camera module.

Luke Pollock / Android Commission

Although the Nokia 808 PureView was a technological advancement, the smartphone industry has not responded since. A key exception is the 2014 Panasonic Lumix smart camera CM1. It even had a larger one-inch sensor. However, compared to the Android smartphones in practice at the time, it came at a huge overall physical cost.

In the main segment, however, improvements to sensor levels did not occur until the late 2010s. Most manufacturers continued to send smartphones with sensors in the 1/3 to 1/2 inch range. Even Samsung’s camera-centric smartphones – the Galaxy S4 Zoom and Galaxy K Zoom – have a 1 / 2.3-inch sensor, much smaller by modern standards. This was even larger than their non-zoom 1 / 3.06-inch sensor. In fact, recently in the Galaxy S10 and Pixel 5 series, ~ 1 / 2.5-inch sensors were the norm.

Chinese brands such as Huawei and Xiaomi have finally surpassed the 1/2-inch range. The 2018 Huawei Mate 20 Pro, for example, featured a 1 / 1.7-inch sensor – much larger than other smartphones at the time. Combined with a large f / 1.8 aperture, Hawaii delivered better night-time image quality than most matches. In fact, the increased light-gathering capabilities of the Mate 20 Pro allowed it to compete with Pixel’s then-unbeaten night-sight feature.

A decade later, Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra has finally surpassed the giant sensor of the Nokia 808 PureView.

By 2020, most flagship smartphones – including the Oppo Find X2 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – will offer at least 1 / 1.5-inch full sensors. A year later, Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra 1 / 1.12-inch sensor broke the record, finally surpassing the Nokia 808 PureView and revealing the current era of large image sensors in smartphones.

Related: 15 Best Camera Apps For Android

What does the future hold for smartphone sensors?

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

Robert Trix / Android Authority

Smartphones with larger camera sensors have become more common in 2022. This is especially true in the primary segment, where even holdouts like Google and Apple have now adopted this trend. In 2021, the Pixel 6 will be replaced by a 1 / 1.31-inch primary sensor, which will outperform most of the competition. The iPhone 13, meanwhile, has been replaced with a 1 / 1.9-inch sensor – significantly larger than its predecessor’s 1 / 2.55-inch sensor.

When smartphone image sensors creep up to an inch, manufacturers have to compromise elsewhere – usually in the form of a larger camera pump.

Some manufacturers, such as Sony and Sharp, have even pressed on an inch sensor. However, it is worth noting that large camera sensors often come with their own problems.

Sony’s Xperia Pro-I, for example, has an inch sensor that looks beautiful on paper. However, due to the limited physical dimensions of the smartphone, Sony can only fit a lens large enough to use about 60% of the sensor. Finally, the Xperia Pro-I has light-gathering capabilities like the iPhone 13 or Pixel 6, despite the large sensor on the paper. The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra surpassed this limit with a larger camera pump.

For this reason, most smartphones do not have sensors larger than an inch at any given time. We have already heard rumors that the 1 / 1.1-inch sensor manufactured by Sony will be released with the Xiaomi 12 Ultra after 2022. Only time will tell whether we are starting to see lower returns or manufacturers. One can find a way to fit and use one inch image sensors.

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