Do future Microsoft smartphones need 41-megapixel cameras?

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Yesterday, our own Adam Doud made the case for 41-megapixel PureView image sensors in future Microsoft (Nokia) smartphones.

For his full take, you’ll have to head on over to his editorial from yesterday, but the gist is that great smartphone cameras are quickly becoming synonymous with Windows Phone. The 41-megapixel sensor on the Lumia 1020 was one of Windows Phone’s biggest differentiators. Without such a massive (and measurable) lead over the competition, Windows Phone loses a considerable amount of luster.

While that’s somewhat true, I don’t entirely agree with Adam’s sentiments.

I mean, I do. I love the 1020’s PureView camera. Who doesn’t? So I have to play the part of devil’s advocate for just a moment.

I’d love to see a new 1020 iteration this year, but the more practical me knows Microsoft and Windows Phone can do just fine without 41-megapixels sensors. Here’s why.

 

Megapixels matter

m8-camera

HTC has done its best to convince us megapixels don’t matter. And, for what it’s worth, the point is completely valid.

Its last two flagships have shipped with 4- and 4.1-megapixel sensors, both of which are capable of capturing beautiful images. The lower resolution on the same size sensor its competition uses means the camera on both HTC’s One smartphones are capable of capturing more light in the same amount of time. And HTC’s color reproduction is fantastic, though the cameras have the tendency to overexpose frequently.

To my very own surprise, I’ve taken some pictures with the One M8 that I’ve rather impressed by.

However, HTC’s point is also flawed. Megapixels don’t matter. But they do. We live in an age where 1080p is not all that impressive anymore. Smartphone displays will soon come in 2K, 4K televisions are becoming increasingly common, and 8K is on the horizon.

My MacBook Pro with Retina display has a display resolution of 2880×1800. I can’t take a picture with my One M8 and use it as a wallpaper on my computer (as I often did with the Lumia 1020) without it being fuzzy, simply because it’s stretched a few hundred pixels in each direction.

That’s a very niche use case, but the point stands. There isn’t much you can do with 4-megapixels after you snap the shot. You can’t zoom without losing important detail and you have very little room to crop.

Megapixels matter.

 

Megapixels don’t matter

lumia-icon-review-2

However, at a certain point, the number of pixels on a sensor begin to matter less and less.

Most other flagships come with anywhere from 8- to 21-megapixel cameras. As proven by the iPhone 4, iPhone 5, and iPhone 5S, 8-megapixels is often plenty. I’ve taken some amazing pictures with iPhones over the years with plenty of room to crop, zoom, and post edit without issue. By the same token, I’ve seen some pretty horrendous 13- and 21-megapixel cameras.

I recently took a closer look at Oppo’s neat software feature on the Find 7a, Super Zoom (or Ultra HD). The Find 7a comes with a 13-megapixel camera fixed to its backside, but using a method very similar to the “shift and add” method astronomers use to take pictures of distant stars, the camera is capable of taking 50-megapixel images. Believe it or not, those 50-megapixel images actually look better.

In the case of the Lumia 1020, it snaps a maximum of 38-megapixel images and automatically resizes the output image to an oversampled 5-megapixel image. The result is fantastic. You can zoom, crop, and reframe images after they’re taken without losing detail. And pictures taken with the 1020 are often leaps and bounds better than those of its competitors.

That said, we learned in our time with the Lumia Icon that it, too, was capable of taking stellar images with room to crop or reframe in post. The Icon comes with just a 20-megapixel camera, which is almost as impressive as the 1020’s imaging chops.

Do megapixels really matter?

 

That hump, though

switch-for-1020

Megapixels matter to a certain degree, more so now than ever. After a certain point, though, they’re excessive, unnecessary. The 1020’s 41-megapixel sensor, though used to its fullest capabilities, is excessive. And one side-effect of the PureView camera led to a less-than-desirable hardware feature: an oreo-like camera hump around back.

While distinguishing, it’s unattractive and makes holding the phone somewhat uncomfortable. The phone doesn’t lay flat on a table, which makes it rock around when you try use it without picking it up.

It’s not a deal-breaker for many, but it’s one of the main reasons I stopped using and carrying the phone. It’s a personal preference, but I would rather see the Lumia 1020 successor come with no hump and a 20-megapixel camera (if Microsoft can’t manage to squeeze the 41-megapixel sensor deeper into the housing, that is).

 

Image quality trumps all

Casper's 1020_20130727_16_06_42_Pro

This is an unedited photo taken with the Lumia 1020.

At the end of the day, I really don’t care about megapixels all that much, so long as the image quality is great and resolution is high enough to work with after you take a picture or high enough to use as a desktop background.

In the case of the One M8, I’m left wanting more pixels, more space to work with. In the case of the Lumia 1020, it was function over form, great pictures over the physical design, which a bit chunky for my tastes.

The Lumia Icon is the perfect middle ground – enough resolution to still take great photos without being bulky. It’s not too far to one extreme or another, it’s the middle ground which, ultimately, appeals to more people.

I’m not saying it would be a bad move for Microsoft to keep pushing PureView to the tune of 41-megapixels. I am, however, confident that it can and will do just fine if it improves the 20-megapixel camera in the Lumia Icon. It’s easy to forget that more pixels don’t directly translate to better image quality. It does in this particular case, but what you do with the megapixels you have, however, is most important. HTC, for one, makes the absolute most of a low-res camera. Oppo pushes its 13-megapixels to the max. And I’m positive Nokia and Microsoft, together, can manage to wow us with what it can do with 20-megapixels.

 

What say you, ladies and gents? Would you like to see another 41-megapixel camera on the next iteration of the 1020? Or would you like to see Microsoft take the impressive 20-megapixel shooter from the Lumia Icon and create an impressive middle ground? Sound off below!

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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+