By John P. Mello Jr.
Aug 13, 2019 10:39 AM PT

Samsung and Xiaomi on Monday announced a new sensor for smartphone cameras comparable to those used in high-end DSLR shutterboxes.

The new Isocell Bright HMX packs 108 megapixels on a three-quarter-inch sensor, similar to the sensors found in digital cameras that use interchangeable lenses.

Samsung ISOCELL Bright HMX 108 megapixel mobile image sensor

Samsung ISOCELL Bright HMX

“If this new sensor performs as Samsung claims, it will enable smartphones to capture images that rival DSLR cameras,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, a technology advisory firm in Hayward, California.

Despite the HMX’s powerful potential, the sensor probably won’t impact the high-end camera market.

“Serious amateur and professional photographers will remain the main audience for DSLRs,” King told TechNewsWorld.

However, it could further erode the tenuous hold compact cameras have on their market.

“We’re starting to see smartphones take on some of the advantages that compact cameras have had in the past,” said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, a consumer technology advisory firm in New York City.

“Smartphone cameras now have better waterproofing and optical zooms with digitally enhanced 5x and 10x zooms offering much better results than they have in the past,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“I have all kinds of non-interchageable lens compact cameras,” added David D. Busch, creative director of the David Busch photography guides.

“Half the time I just use my phone and get what I consider really good pictures — and I’m a photo enthusiast,” he told TechNewsWorld. “For most people, who are not curious photographers, their phones now have everything they need.”

Pixel Binning

The HMX’s large 1/1.33-inch sensor size allows it to capture more light than smaller sensors so it’s able to produce sharp photos with rich details even in low-light conditions, according to Samsung.

It’s able to do that through a process called “pixel binning.” That allows the sensor to combine pixels so four pixels act as a single larger pixel. The process reduces the pixel size of a photo from 108MP to 27MP, but improves low-light performance.

The idea isn’t new. Several cameras already use the technology, such as LG G7, Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 series, Xiaomi Mi 9, Honor View 20, Huawei Nova 4, Vivo V15 Pro and the ZTE Blade V10. What is different is the HMX has 108MP to play with, not the 16MP to 50MP of those other cameras.

“The smaller the pixels are, the less light they gather, which makes them not as good under low light,” Busch explained.

“In this case, they can combine four pixels for 27 megapixels of resolution. That should improve low light performance, but I’d have to see it to know how good it is because even 27 megapixels is a small area for grabbing light,” he pointed out.

“I don’t know if the 108 megapixels is a marketing thing or not,” Busch added. “I think most people will default to 27-megapixel mode.”

Low Light Grail

Smartphone companies have been focusing a lot of resources on improving the low-light performance of their cameras, Reticle’s Rubin noted.

“Sometimes, that can come at the expense of resolution. What Samsung and Xiaomi claim to have done is to have extraordinarily high resolution and very good low light performance,” he explained.

“Smartphone cameras today can do an incredible job of capturing photos in very little light, but it requires capturing multiple images and applying a lot of processing power to make the image look natural,” Rubin continued.

“With this sensor, we could presumably get a lot closer to those kinds of results or perhaps even exceed them without having to rely on digital enhancement. You can also apply it to video, which is something you can’t do with current low-light enhancement techniques,” he added.

The sensor may also reduce the need for zoom optics in the phone.

“Instead of having a zoom lens or multiple lenses on the phone, with 108 megapixels, you can simulate zoom settings with cropping,” Busch observed.

Smart ISO

While it is historically true that trying to cram a ton of pixels in a small area once had a negative effect on image quality, that has changed in the era of “computational photography,” noted Stan Horaczek, technology editor at Popular Science magazine.

“So, sure, individual images may have more noise in them, but if the camera is taking several pictures every time you push the button, it can do a lot to mitigate those ill effects,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Features like Googles Night Sight can do some fairly incredible things by relying heavily on processing power.”

However, “you can’t really tell what the quality of a sensor is going to look like anymore just judging by its hardware,” Horaczek said. “Smartphone makers are doing so much processing on each image that you can get drastically different results than you’d expect from a standard image capture.”

The HMX also has a feature called “Smart-ISO.” It intelligently selects the level of amplifier gains based on the illumination of an environment for optimal light-to-electric signal conversion.

In bright light, it will switch to a low ISO to improve pixel saturation and produce vivid photographs. In low light, the mechanism uses a high ISO, which helps reduce noise and produces clearer pictures.

For advanced filming, the HMX supports video recording without losses in field-of-view at resolutions up to 6K (6016 x 3384) and 30-frames-per-second, Samsung noted.

Megapixel Wars Revival?

Touting the pixel count in a sensor evokes deja vu.

“Massive pixel count has been tried in the smartphone industry by both Nokia and Sony in the past. Neither were overly successful,” recalled David McQueen, a research director at ABI Research, a technology advisory company headquartered in Oyster Bay, New York.

“I don’t think numbers of pixels is as important in smartphones as it once was, when consumers were lead to believe that more pixels meant a better camera,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“I think those days have gone, but perhaps this latest sensor could alter that perception. It will be interesting to see how the sensor, with the largest number of pixels of any other smartphone camera, and its functionality will be marketed,” McQueen mused.

“It will obviously provide ultra-high resolution images, producing exceptional photos even in extreme lighting conditions, and this will help those models carrying the sensor to stand out from the crowd,” he continued.

“Differentiation is becoming more and more difficult to achieve in the smartphone market as many vendors already offer devices with cameras that allow for advanced camera features,” McQueen pointed out.

Cameras are a clear differentiator for smartphones, especially at the high end of market where AI capabilities, multi-lens setups and larger sensors are fully deployed, observed Gerrit Schneemann, a senior analyst with IHS Markit, a research, analysis, and advisory firm headquartered in London.

“They’re also important in the mid-range,” he told TechNewsWorld, “because they drive new user experiences and features previously not available, leading to upgrade sales.”

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.