History of large camera sensors for smartphones

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs. Sony Xperia Pro I Sony Top

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

The first smartphones were not like photography which has become today’s flagship device. Then, if you care about image quality, you need to look around your smartphone as well as a dedicated camera. No more. Today almost any smartphone will give decent pictures, and some, like the Google Pixel 6 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S22 series, perform well even in the most challenging situations. But while computational photography often gets all the attention, large image sensors deserve just as much credit.

Not all megapixels are the same: why the size of the sensor is important

The Google Pixel 6 shows the camera app in an alley

Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

Over the years, many of us have looked at camera resolutions (or megapixel counts) to estimate image quality. In fact, it was a semi-reliable metric for a few years in the early 2000s – a 5MP camera would certainly deliver better results than a VGA. However, it is no longer possible to judge the imaging performance of a camera based solely on its resolution. We’ve seen smartphones with 12MP and 16MP cameras outperform 108MP behemoths on several occasions.

See more: The best Android camera phone you can buy

Beyond a certain point, an increase in resolution doesn’t make a significant improvement – unless you want to crop. Many mid-range smartphones offer high-resolution cameras but often give more and worse results than DSLR cameras with much lower megapixel counts. This is largely due to the fact that smartphones are limited by physical space and use smaller image sensors than high-end cameras.

Simply put, a small image sensor collects less light. This directly translates into poor image quality, especially in low light conditions. Conversely, larger sensors can achieve better dynamic range and exposure levels without resorting to tasks such as increasing ISO or digital sharpening. Large sensors are good image quality drivers.

Read more: Why camera sensor size is more important than megapixels

Then in terms of the benefits of a larger sensor, it’s no surprise that we see smartphone makers focusing on improvements in this area year after year. That said, while some phones – including the Sony Ericsson Satio and Samsung Pixon 12 – offered larger camera sensors in early 2009, most handsets haven’t moved to the bandwagon until recently. With that in mind, let’s explore how big camera sensors have come into modern smartphones and where the industry is heading.

Nokia N8 and 808 PureView: The first large smartphone sensor

Nokia 808 PureView camera sensor

Nokia 808 PureView

The hype surrounding Nokia’s N8 and 808 PureView smartphones in the early 2010’s was hard to ignore. With a 12MP resolution and 1 / 1.83-inch sensor size, the Nokia N8 provided better specs than many point-and-shoot cameras in 2010. Nokia even made a seven-minute short film starring some of the best in Hollywood that highlighted the N8. – Impressive 720p video recording capability.

Incidentally, the same year Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S3 had a significantly smaller 1/3-inch camera sensor. The iPhone 5’s sensor, meanwhile, was even smaller at 1 / 3.2 inches. In fact, smartphones at the time featured small sub-1cm sensors. The one-inch sensor was exclusive to DSLRs and professional cameras.

In addition to the larger sensors, Nokia was ahead of its time in computational photography within the 808 PureView.

Although the N8 was well ahead of the competition, Nokia did not stop there. In 2012, the company released the 808 PureView, which features a larger 41MP 1 / 1.2-inch sensor. Advances in processing power have also enabled oversampling, including the integration of neighboring pixels for better light sensitivity. If it sounds familiar, today’s smartphones have a similar technology called pixel binning. Then, though, Nokia’s computational photography game was far ahead of the curve.

Large camera sensors on smartphones for years

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra 18 showing rear view camera module.

Luke Polak / Android Authority

Although the Nokia 808 PureView was a technological advancement, the smartphone industry did not respond until much later. A notable exception was the 2014 Panasonic Lumix smart camera CM1. It included a larger one-inch sensor. However, it came at a huge overall body cost compared to the conventional Android smartphones at the time.

In the mainstream segment, however, the improvement in sensor size will not come until the late 2010s. Most manufacturers start shipping smartphones with sensors in the range of 1/3 to 1/2 inch. Even Samsung’s camera-centric smartphones – the Galaxy S4 Zoom and the Galaxy K Zoom – have a 1 / 2.3-inch sensor bundle, fairly small by modern standards. That said, it was still larger than their non-zoom opponent’s 1 / 3.06-inch sensor. In fact, like the recent Galaxy S10 and Pixel 5 series, ~ 1 / 2.5-inch sensors were ideal.

Chinese brands like Huawei and Xiaomi were the first to finally cross the 1/2-inch threshold. The 2018 Huawei Mate 20 Pro, for example, features a 1 / 1.7-inch sensor – much larger than other smartphones at the time. Combined with a large f / 1.8 aperture, Huawei improves night-time image quality compared to most competitors. In fact, the enhanced light-assembly capabilities of the Mate 20 Pro allow it to compete with Pixel’s then-undefeated NightSite feature.

A decade later, Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra has finally surpassed the Nokia 808 PureView’s giant sensor

By 2020, most flagship smartphones – including the Oppo Find X2 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – will offer sensors across at least 1/5 inch. A year later, Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra has a record-breaking 1 / 1.12-inch sensor that has finally surpassed the Nokia 808 PureView and ushered in an ongoing era of large image sensors on smartphones.

Related: 15 Best Camera Apps for Android

What does the future hold for smartphone sensors?

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

By 2022, smartphones with large camera sensors have become much more common This is especially true in the flagship segment, where even holdouts like Google and Apple have now embraced the trend. In 2021, the Pixel 6 moved to a 1 / 1.31-inch primary sensor, well ahead of the competition. The iPhone 13, meanwhile, has moved to a 1 / 1.9-inch sensor – significantly larger than its predecessor’s 1 / 2.55-inch sensor.

Because smartphone image sensors are constantly up to the one-inch mark, manufacturers have to compromise elsewhere – usually in the form of a large camera bump.

Some manufacturers like Sony and Sharp have even pressed on an inch sensor. However, it is noteworthy that large camera sensors often bring their own problems.

Sony’s Xperia Pro-Eye, for example, has a one-inch sensor that looks great on paper. However, the limited physical dimensions of the smartphone mean that Sony alone can fit a lens large enough to take advantage of about 60% of the sensor. After all, despite the large sensors on the paper, the Xperia Pro-I has the same light-capturing capabilities as the iPhone 13 or Pixel 6. Xiaomi has overcome this limitation with its huge camera bump on the Mi 11 Ultra.

For this reason, most smartphones will probably not have a sensor larger than an inch anytime soon. Having said that, we’ve already heard rumors of a Sony-built 1 / 1.1-inch sensor to be released with the potential Xiaomi 12 Ultra after 2022. Only time will tell whether we are starting to see lower returns or whether manufacturers can find a way to fit and take advantage of the one-inch image sensor.

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