Are two decent cameras really better than one great camera?
Rumors of the purported successor to the HTC One, the M8, are only heating up and growing in number. They’re becoming marginally more revealing and helpful. Still, we’re missing a few pieces of important information.
If you’ve ever tried to put together a giant puzzle without all the pieces, you know at some point, the only thing left to do is to fill the gaps and holes with your imagination. And when it comes to technology, the imagination is in constant danger of distorting the facts and adding extra digits where they don’t belong. Some of the most recent tidbits of information on the M8 have left us in this exact predicament.
A report from Bloomberg last week claimed the 2014 HTC One would come with an improved camera, by way of twin rear image sensors. Working in synchronization, the two sensors are said to provide improved focus, image quality, and depth of field.
As outlandish as the rumor may sound, both multiple pictures of an alleged M8 protective case and one of the back housing seem to corroborate the rumor, with a hole positioned directly above the primary camera sensor.
This new dual-sensor setup is said to be phase two of HTC’s UltraPixel push. But that statement, as well as the rumor itself, is still largely unconfirmed. Also a mystery is the actual resolution of the two sensors.
If we had our way, we’d opt for 8-megapixel sensors, at the very least. In the day and age where most high-end smartphones ship with 1080p displays and 4K is rapidly approaching the mass consumer market, 4-megapixels in a flagship camera simply doesn’t cut it.
At this point, however, it’s possible HTC will continue its mantra from 2013: pixel size trumps the actual number of pixels. And for more than one reason, two 4-megapixel sensors is very likely. More on that in a bit.
First, we must ask more important questions about the unique sensor setup. What sort of trade-offs would a second sensor have? Are the suggested benefits worth the possible problems?
This is hardly the first time we’ve seen a multi-sensor setup. HTC itself has even used a dual-sensor rig for the HTC EVO 3D. Professional video cameras also use an array of three sensors, one for each color. And on the more extreme side of things, Pelican Imaging’s 16-lens array for smartphones will offer a multitude of benefits over the run-of-the-mill smartphone camera, such as refocusing (not unlike light-field cameras), 3D depth, and better low-light performance.
Size and weight, however, are primary concerns when it comes to squeezing yet another camera rig into the M8’s chassis. Remember that the HTC One’s 4-megapixel sensor was actually the same size as most other flagships’ sensors: 1/3-inch for a 2.0 micrometer pixel size. For comparison, 1/3-inch sensors at 8- and 13-megapixels offer 1.4 and 1.1 micrometer pixels, respectively.
Point being, in order to increase the pixel resolution while maintaining the size of the pixels, the sensor size must be increased … substantially. That alone poses a problem, but increasing the sensor size and fitting yet another one inside the phone makes that notably more difficult.
On top of that, judging by the location of the secondary sensor in the images, the second camera would reside directly behind the top BoomSound speaker. This could affect the position and speaker size of the top BoomSound speaker. It could also affect the earpiece speaker and even battery size.
Further, how does the second sensor come into play for the end user? Does it potentially pose a confusing end user experience?
The answer is likely no. Practical application is that the two cameras work together and the end user never sees the input from the secondary camera. The second sensor is most likely for gathering additional information and combining that data down into a single JPEG. This could offer things such as noise reduction, refocusing in post-editing, or simply better depth of field. It’s likely the end user will never directly interact with the secondary sensor, similarly to the 3D camera on the HTC EVO 3D.
That doesn’t mean this dual-camera setup is an instant winner, however. UltraPixel was never quite as impressive in practice as it was on paper, and adding a second sensor doesn’t instantly make the technology work better or produce better images.
We’ve seen time and time again how much effort mobile OEMs have put into image sensing technology for it to prove unimpressive and overhyped. UltraPixel was a perfect example of just that, as was Sony’s 20-megapixel Xperia Z1. Oh, and lest we forget the Moto X’s ClearPixel camera.
In fact, some of the only fruitful image sensing breakthroughs for mobile we’ve seen of late have been from Nokia.
By no means am I suggesting HTC shouldn’t experiment in new camera technology. But I have no qualms questioning if a dual-sensor setup is the best approach. Apple, Samsung, and LG have managed to pack impressive shooters in extremely slim packages without overcomplicating the issue. And Nokia has crammed a mind-blowing image sensor in a slightly thicker package. The trade-off here is sensor size over the output, and without knowing exact specifications, it’s difficult to judge how things will turn out for the M8. HTC doesn’t exactly have the best track record with camera quality either.
I’m hopeful for the M8 and HTC’s future. The company is capable of making some of the best mobile hardware around, and its software situation has improved ten-fold since 2012. The two outstanding issues HTC faces are battery life and camera quality. My biggest concern is that image sensing will take precedence over stamina this next flagship. Instead of focusing on battery technology and performance, HTC will ensure “improved battery life” through some gimmicky software toggle while only moderately improving the camera performance with an over-engineered technology, which still falls short of the competition.
Call me jaded, but I’ve been burned by high expectations for HTC and image sensing more than once. I’m not holding my breath for the M8 or its supposed dual-camera outfit.