Are Ultrapixels the Future of Mobile Photography or Just Marketing Buzz Words?

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Camera quality is just one of the many metrics we use to gauge the overall capacity of a smartphone. Alongside performance, battery life, display quality, storage capacity, memory and a host of connectivity and sensors, the camera is one of the more important qualities of a smartphone.

Specifications and performance are quickly approaching a threshold where reasonable and modest have been replaced with exceptional and excessive … in a good way. Only two areas are in dire need of improvement: battery life and image sensing.

Battery life has met its fair share of hurdles over the years. Luckily, manufacturers have finally figured out a way to cram more capacity in less space, creating a nice temporary solution.

Smartphone cameras, in truth, aren’t all that bad either. When you take into consideration that the image sensors themselves are hardly bigger than a pin prick, it’s easy to be overly critical. The fact that the pinhole-sized sensors currently rival the much larger sensors found in dedicated point-and-shoot cameras is quite amazing.

To be fair, most point-and-shoot cameras blow smartphone cameras out of the water in terms of capability, output resolution, color reproduction, and functionality (aperture, optical zoom, etc.). But that gap is quickly closing. The 808 PureView and Lumia 920 by Nokia serve as a testament to that. The convenience factor – carrying a phone in your pocket that also doubles as a suitable camera – outweighs the minor shortcomings in picture quality.

The frustrating part is that it’s no secret smartphone cameras can be better. Much better.

The iPhone 5 currently has one of the best smartphone cameras around.

Apple proved that with its iPhone for the last three years, showing that small image sensors can still pack a punch. The iPhone 4 and 4S were two of the most favorable smartphone cameras during their prime, and the iPhone 5 is one of the best smartphone cameras today. Nokia is no stranger to great smartphone cameras either. The Lumia 920 and 808 PureView are the best at what they were designed to do – night shots for the Lumia and lossless zoom for the 808. The Nokia N8 was once regarded as one of the best mobile shooter ever, too.

Yet many smartphone cameras continue to disappoint. The BlackBerry Z10, as our own Michael Fisher explains, is “no stranger to mediocrity“. And the Nexus 4 that resides in my pocket on most days is simply pathetic in some situations.

The result of all this is a metaphorical land grab for the next big thing in smartphone cameras. The point-and-shoot industry is waning, and smartphones with great cameras are thriving. One company that aims to be at the forefront of mobile image sensing is HTC.

The highly-anticipated One (or M7 for disambiguation) was first said to be shipping with a 13-megapixel camera. More recent rumors, however, suggest the One will feature a 4.3-Ultrapixel camera.

HTC is set to unveil a “new sound and camera experience in 2013.”

What are these so-called “Ultrapixels“, you ask? From the source of the leak, Stuart Miles of Pocket-lint explains:

“The new camera will instead be made up of three 4.3-megapixel sensor layers combined to give a resulting single image. Three lots of 4.3 may add up to around 13-megapixels, but images from HTC’s latest won’t be output at that larger size.

The technique, similar to that used by Sigma in the Foveon X3 sensor, means that three lots of data can represent one final pixel. All that extra data can be intelligently ‘combined’ to generate a crisper, cleaner image and – in the case of the Foveon sensor – better colour accuracy.”

If this description is accurate, the 4.3-Ultrapixel camera on the HTC One could be fantastic … and awful at the same time.

Let’s assume Miles’ explanation is accurate. At first, you might feel yourself wanting to cringe as a knee-jerk reaction to the thought of an output resolution of only 4.3-megapixels. For all intents and purposes of a smartphone camera (i.e.: dumbing down quality and resolution for Instagram), 4.3-megapxiels is more than enough.

You have to first overcome the mentality that megapixels are the most important factor in a camera’s quality.

Megapixels are nothing more than the output resolution of a sensor. They are very (very) loosely related to the quality of an image. The output resolution of the 8-megapixel HTC DROID DNA is 3,264 by 2,448 pixels. At 4.3-megapixels, the output image would be somewhere in the ballpark of 2,240 by 1,680 pixels. That’s a high enough resolution to yield a decent-quality 16-inch by 20-inch print. But how often do you find yourself wanting to print the pictures you take anyway?

At 2,240 by 1,680 pixels (give or take), the images would still be scaled down in most use cases, especially on the Web, meaning you won’t likely be missing much, unless you find yourself cropping images often.

Again, this is only based upon the premise that three sensor layers will be stacked and work in tandem. Lauren Crabbe of Digital Photography Review, however, has her own theory as to what these Ultrapixels will entail. Crabbe says:

“We wonder if the story comes from a translation error of Sony’s ‘Stacked CMOS’ technology – which is used in a 13MP Exmor RS sensor. This Sony sensor appears to be the standard for 2013’s top-of-the-line smartphones. This leaves open the posibility [sic] of HTC using a Nokia 808-style pixel combination system to give images with 4.3m super pixel made up from a 13MP whole.”

Crabbe also explains a possible pitfall of the stacked theory. Aside from the fact that you cannot “simply ‘stack’ three on top of one another,” Crabbe says Sigma’s Faveon sensors struggle with noise. Factor that in with the extra tiny size of smartphone camera sensors, which also suffer from large amounts of noise (often even in well-lit situations), and the end result may be noticeably more noise than your run-of-the-mill 8-megapixel sensor.

I’m placing my bet that Crabbe is right – that this was a translation error and the HTC One will feature the same sensor other current, high-end smartphones are using. It’s tough to say, though. There is a ton of speculation and virtually no true insight other than from an anonymous source. Grain of salt, anyone?

Unless the HTC One ships with superior camera technology to basically all other smartphone cameras out there, I imagine “Ultrapixels” will be another marketing term we forget about by this time next year (if not before) since it doesn’t actually carry an actual meaning. Either way, we’ll know next week as HTC’s New York press event is scheduled for the February 19.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+