It’s difficult to contest that Google’s camera efforts in recent years have been successful despite continuing to use an outdated Sony IMX363 sensor. To give the finest photography experience possible, the Pixel series must keep up with the rest of the industry, which has been underscored by the switch to a larger, more powerful 50-megapixel main sensor.
Video Why Google needs to keep pace with more regular Pixel camera upgrades The flagship camera conundrum Software can only go so far The importance of optics Very good for video Unintended consequences: A-series separation GOOGLE NEEDS TO KEEP UP WITH MORE REGULAR PIXEL CAMERA UPGRADES, IN THIS VIDEO Subscribe to 9to5Google on YouTube for more videos
CONUNDRUM WITH THE FLAGSHIP CAMERA A flagship smartphone should have a top-notch camera setup, and the Pixel series has consistently topped the charts since its release thanks to a combination of reliable camera hardware and cutting-edge software processing. For a while, Google’s dominance seemed invincible, and that assertion held true at least until the debut of the Pixel 4 series in late-2019.
Prior to the Pixel 5’s arrival, everything was in order. Despite having a superb camera, it quickly lost the attention of the major competitors in the market. By 2020, a significant number of OEMs had caught up to and even outperformed the Pixel series camera.
Processing by itself is only so effective. Thus, Google has categorically demonstrated with the launch of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro that an updated camera sensor and lens arrangement is required to compete with the finest in the industry. It’s crucial for the Pixel series to keep up with the yearly increases in smartphone camera sensor size and quality. Thus, sensor updates will happen more often.
I’m not necessarily advocating that Google make significant changes with each new gadget. Given that the crucial post-processing is the secret ingredient of the Pixel camera, that wouldn’t make sense. Simply put, it’s critical that camera sensor improvements receive the same consideration as SoC changes. That’s particularly crucial considering the increased attention paid to flagship Pixel devices as a result of the Tensor processor and related advancements in on-device computing.
THE LIMITS OF SOFTWARE
Undoubtedly, the simple, inconspicuous software is one of the main selling aspects of the Pixel series. Although you may counter that the Pixel A-series demonstrates the opposite, software can only do so much. Hardware is particularly crucial.
The change from a 12.2-megapixel Sony IMX363 sensor to a Samsung ISOCELL GN1 50-megapixel sensor is evidence of this. There is an obvious difference right away, but that doesn’t tell the whole tale.
Despite the significant sensor size boost, Google still uses pixel-binning to produce final photographs with a 12-megapixel resolution. Without arguing in favor of a separate Pro mode, the tuning necessary with the older flagship Pixel phones has already had an impact on the current generation and may do so again in the future.
The Sony IMX363 sensor is somewhat small, therefore the software adds some sharpening during the post-processing stage. This causes sporadic over-sharpening difficulties with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Google Camera app updates have almost completely rectified the issue, but as long as higher resolution sensors are used, this wouldn’t be a necessary camera processing step.
In essence, a larger sensor gives you more data points to tune and alter as necessary. To handle more data, there must be more data points. This explains why the specialized Pixel Neural Core was reintroduced and integrated into the Tensor chip to speed up picture processing. Larger sensors shouldn’t pose a problem as long as the Pixel Neural Core keeps getting better. This may be seen to mean that Google is taking steps to prevent issues, should that be the case.
We all know that Google enjoys data. This aids in the additional effects, features, and capabilities that we have all grown accustomed to and appreciate. When contrasting the Pixel 6 and Pixel 5 cameras, the outcomes are not always immediately apparent. However, if you dig a bit deeper, the disparities start to stand out.
Features like Night Sight, which were once stunning, are now commonplace in the mobile world. Light gathering is also facilitated by a bigger sensor. Thus, it will take less time to enhance long-exposure night images. Simply increasing the size of their smartphone camera sensors has allowed manufacturers like Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, and others to produce photographs in low light that are arguably better and require less processing. As a result, the CPU will see less of a performance penalty, and less on-device processing will potentially result in greater battery life.
THE NEED FOR OPTICS
Not just the Pixel camera sensor needs to be upgraded and changed throughout time. We must observe advancement in optics. A dedicated ultra-wide angle lens has been a great addition in recent years. Particularly considering how difficult it is to simulate a wide-angle field of view with only software.
But when examining the dedicated periscope zoom lens that was added to the Pixel 6 Pro directly, it is simple to understand how this upgrade has profoundly altered the Pixel camera in ways that earlier iterations could never hope to achieve.
Super Res Zoom has in the past offered a decently nice compromise to optical and sensor constraints without significantly raising cost. It’s difficult to contest the fact that significantly better optics are a necessary component of a high-end smartphone both now and in the future.
Samsung has surpassed everyone with nearly unmatched zoom capabilities and sharpness, but Oppo and Huawei were the first to introduce the hybrid digital zoom capability on smartphones. The Pixel 6 Pro can go head-to-head with the Galaxy S21 Ultra and S22 Ultra up to a point. However, compared to Samsung’s best in class 10x hybrid capabilities, a 4x hybrid zoom technology is drastically inferior.
We are at a point where improvements in smartphone camera sensors are becoming more noticeable. The biggest changes are being made in optics. One of the last unexplored areas in mobile photography is zoom, and Google can take advantage of it by combining Super Res Zoom with a little amount of technology to seriously compete with Samsung and the others.
VIDEO IS VERY GOOD
When we, as members of the tech media, talk about improvements to smartphone cameras, there is a significant side effect that frequently goes unmentioned. For a very long time, Android has trailed behind the iPhone in terms of video recording.
While there is no doubt that the difference has closed in recent years, for whatever reason, the iPhone continues to dominate in terms of pure video recording quality. When comparing the final findings side by side, there is absolutely no room for argument. You can acquire enjoyable video clips without the need for a dedicated camera system thanks to the Pixel line’s superb electronic image stabilization (EIS) and optical image stabilization (OIS), but class-leading? Not exactly.
In the past, Google has excelled in still photography and barely competed in its video capabilities. For instance, when many other OEMs started introducing 8K recording options and more capabilities than you can shake a stick at, it took the Pixel 5 to offer 4K 60fps recording.
The major difference is live HDR for every video frame thanks to HDRNet, which requires processing 498 million pixels per second. Higher resolution recording is possible with a bigger sensor. You might not even be aware of the additional advantages it offers. Because the sensor is bigger, the digital crop that is used when transitioning to video—which is necessary for EIS to function—is not quite as noticeable. Higher fidelity without significant quality compromises is the eventual outcome.
Video is essential at the moment, and there’s no reason why the ideal pocket filmmaking companion can’t be created with the best sensor and lens combination, as well as some Google software magic.
A-SERIES SEPARATION: UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES Given that the incoming Pixel 6a will forego the significant 50-megapixel sensor improvement and instead use the tried-and-true configuration found on the Pixel 4a 5G through the Pixel 5a, you may be asking how the Pixel A-series fits into this situation.
From a purely marketing standpoint, this might be a method to distinguish clearly between the premium Pixel lines and mid-range endeavors. Purchasing an A-series device merely eliminated a few of the nice-to-have features like a high-refresh-rate display, wireless charging, and an IP certification—the Pixel 5a with the exception of that last one—at least until late 2021.
A jumbled selection is not appealing, and it is both a significant plus and a drawback that the A-series has largely provided what the flagship Pixel can. a benefit since we, the customers, receive a top-notch midranger that outperforms its pricing. A drawback for Google because you would surely pick the less expensive model given that it offers 90% of the Pixel experience but at a far lower cost.
By using a somewhat less capable camera sensor, it would be simple to draw a clear distinction between the best and the mid-range. If or when an upgrade is made to the flagship camera system, Google may be able to take advantage of this by putting older sensors on the mid-ranger. In addition to producing excellent camera results, this would also prevent purchasers from feeling as cheated. You receive a classic Pixel camera experience, if you will, so all of the fine-tuned camera tweaking is not wasted.
As much as I’d like the Pixel A-series to continue offering the flagship Pixel experience without the price tag that goes along with it, given the direction the company has taken, a split in the product lineup was inevitable at some point. If it happens because of the camera, it would be more than justified.