Google needs to keep improving the Pixel camera hardware


Google needs to keep improving the Pixel camera hardware

It’s hard to argue that Google’s camera efforts have held up over the past few years, despite its insistence on an aging Sony IMX363 sensor. However, the move to a larger, more capable 50-megapixel main shooter has made it clear that the Pixel series needs to keep up with the rest of the industry to offer the best possible camera experience.

Video – Why Google needs to keep up with more regular Pixel camera upgrades

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The flagship camera puzzle

A flagship smartphone should have an excellent camera setup, and since its inception, the Pixel series has proudly topped the camera charts thanks to a combination of solid camera hardware and industry-leading software processing. Google’s lead was almost insurmountable for a while, and that statement held up at least until the release of the Pixel 4 series in late 2019.

Things were fine until the Pixel 5 arrived, and while it has a good camera, it was certainly starting to lose sight of the industry’s biggest players. By 2020, many OEMs had caught the Pixel series camera, and a select few had even surpassed it.

Processing alone can only go so far. And so, with the release of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, Google has clearly shown that an improved camera sensor and lens setup is a necessity to compete with the best in the business. As the size and quality of smartphone camera sensors increase year on year, it is therefore important that the Pixel series keeps up. That means more frequent sensor updates.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that Google tries to make major changes with each and every device release. That wouldn’t make sense considering the Pixel camera’s “secret ingredient” is all-important post-processing. It only matters that camera sensor upgrades are treated the same as the SoC. This is especially important as there’s an even greater focus on flagship Pixel devices thanks to the Tensor chip and the processing improvements it brings to the device.

Software can only go so far

It’s undeniable that one of the Pixel series’ key selling points is its clean, unobtrusive software. While you could argue that the Pixel A series proves otherwise, software can only take you so far. Hardware is particularly important.

Proof of this is the change from a 12.2 megapixel Sony IMX363 sensor to a Samsung ISOCELL GN1 50 megapixel sensor. There’s a noticeable difference right away, but that alone isn’t really the whole story.

Despite the massive sensor size upgrade, Google still uses pixel binning to achieve 12-megapixel final images. Without arguing for a dedicated Pro mode, the tuning required on the older flagship Pixel phones has indeed impacted the current-gen – and as a result, could hold the next-gen back.

Because the Sony IMX363 sensor is relatively small and the software adds a bit of sharpening during the post-processing phase, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro have intermittent issues with over-sharpening. The issue has been almost entirely resolved with updates to the Google Camera app, but this would not be a necessary camera processing step as long as higher resolution sensors are used.

With a larger sensor, you effectively get more data points to tune and tweak as you see fit. More data points mean more data to process. This probably explains the reintroduction and integration of the dedicated Pixel Neural Core into the Tensor chip for faster image processing. As Pixel Neural Core improves over time, larger sensors shouldn’t be a problem. One could easily read this as a move by Google to ensure there are no issues if this is the case.

As we all know, Google likes data. This helps with the extra effects, functions, and features we’ve all come to know and love. The results aren’t always immediately obvious when comparing the Pixel 6 camera side-by-side with the Pixel 5. Look a little closer, however, and the differences become clearer.

Once impressive features like Night Sight have become ubiquitous in the mobile space. A larger sensor also helps collect light. This, in turn, means less time is needed to improve long-exposure night photos. Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo and others have simply increased their smartphone camera sensor size and the result is arguably better low-light images with less processing required. This means less performance hit for the CPU and all the potential battery boosts that come with less processing on the device.

The importance of optics

Pixel 3 camera

Not only the sensor of the pixel camera has to be continuously developed and improved. We need to see the optical progress. In recent years, the addition of a dedicated ultra-wide lens has been a solid inclusion. Especially since it is almost impossible to recreate a wide-angle field of view with software alone.

But if you look directly at the introduction of a dedicated periscope zoom lens on the Pixel 6 Pro, it’s easy to see how this addition has fundamentally changed the Pixel camera in ways previous generations could never hope for.

In the past, Super Res Zoom has offered a pretty good solution to optical and sensory limitations without significantly increasing the cost. It’s hard to argue that vastly improved optics are an essential feature of a high-end smartphone today – and will continue to be so in the future.

While Oppo and Huawei pioneered hybrid digital zoom functionality on smartphones, Samsung has overtaken them all with near-unrivaled zoom capabilities and quality. To a point, the Pixel 6 Pro can compete head-to-head with the Galaxy S21 Ultra and S22 Ultra. However, a 4x hybrid zoom system is far inferior to the 10x hybrid capabilities of Samsung’s best-in-class.

We are in a phase where smartphone camera sensors are becoming increasingly important. It’s the optics where the biggest changes are made. Zoom is one of the last frontiers of mobile photography, and Google can capitalize on a fusion of Super Res Zoom and a bit of hardware to really challenge Samsung… and the rest.

Very good for videos

pixel camera

There’s a big ripple effect that’s often overlooked when we, as the tech media, discuss smartphone camera upgrades and capabilities. Video recording on Android lags far behind iPhone.

It’s certainly true that the gap has narrowed in recent years, but for whatever reason, the iPhone is still unmatched when it comes to raw video capture quality. It’s almost out of the question when you see the end results side-by-side. The Pixel line has actually done well, thanks to impressive Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) and Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), and you’ll certainly get enjoyable video clips without the need for a dedicated camera system, but class-leading? Not quite.

Google has traditionally impressed with still images and only competed with video capabilities. Case in point, it wasn’t until the Pixel 5 added 4K 60fps capture that many other OEMs started adding 8K capture options and more features than you can imagine.

Live HDR for every video frame courtesy of HDRNet is the biggest change, and the result is processing at 498 million pixels per second. A larger sensor means higher resolution recordings are possible. It also has other benefits that you might not even know about. Because the sensor is larger, it means the digital cropping applied when switching to video – something required for EIS to work effectively – isn’t quite as pronounced. The end result is higher fidelity without major sacrifices in quality.

Video is an essential part at the moment and with the best combination of sensor and lenses, plus some magic from Google’s software, there’s no reason we can’t get the perfect pocket-sized companion for filming.

Unintended Consequences: Separation of the A series

You might be wondering where the Pixel A-series fits into this scenario, as the upcoming Pixel 6a will ditch the massive 50-megapixel sensor upgrade and inherit the tried-and-true setup found on the Pixel 4a 5G through the Pixel 5a.

From a purely marketing perspective, this could be a way to really differentiate between the flagship Pixel lines and mid-range efforts. At least until the end of 2021, buying an A-Series device simply removed some of the nice features like a high refresh rate display, wireless charging, and an IP certification – that last point notwithstanding on the Pixel 5a.

A confusing lineup isn’t a strong look, and the fact that the A-Series offers much of what the flagship Pixel can do is both a huge plus and minus. Positive as we as buyers are getting an excellent mid-ranger that belies its price. A downside for Google as you would no doubt choose the cheaper model as it offers 90% of the “Pixel” experience but at a significantly reduced price.

By using a slightly inferior camera sensor, one could easily create a clear line in the sand between objective “best” and mid-range. Google could capitalize on this by using older sensors on the mid-ranger if or when there is an upgrade to the flagship camera system. Not only would that mean great camera results, but buyers wouldn’t feel changed quite so short. Refined camera tuning isn’t lost either, as you’re getting a classic pixel camera experience, if you will.

As much as I’d love to see the Pixel A series continue to offer the “flagship” Pixel experience without the price tag that comes with it, given the change in direction, there was bound to be a split in the lineup at some point if that came down to the camera is due, then it would certainly be justified.

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