Now that we’ve seen the HTC One camera announcement, I think it’s worth going over why this is something very exciting from an imaging standpoint, and also a huge risk for properly messaging to consumers.

With the One, HTC has chosen to go against the prevailing trend for this upcoming generation of devices by going to a 1/3.0" CMOS with 2.0 micron pixels, for a resulting 4 MP (2688 × 1520) 16:9 native image size. That’s right, the HTC One is 16:9 natively, not 4:3. In addition the HTC One includes optical image stabilization on two axes, with +/- 1 degree of accommodation and a sampling/correction rate of 2 kHz on the onboard gyro. Just like the previous HTC cameras, the One has an impressively fast F/2.0 aperture and 5P (5 plastic element) optical system. From what I can tell, this is roughly the same 3.82 mm (~28mm in 35mm effective) focal length, slightly different from the 3.63 mm of the previous One camera. HTC also has included a new generation of ImageChip 2 ISP, though this is of course still used in conjunction with the ISP onboard the SoC, and HTC claims it’s able to do full lens shading correction for vignetting and color, in addition to even better noise reduction, and realtime HDR video. Autofocus is around 200ms for a full scan, I was always impressed with AF speed the previous cameras had, this is even faster. When it comes to video HTC apparently has taken some feedback to heart and finally maxed out the encoder capabilities for the APQ8064/8064Pro/8960 SoC, which is 20 Mbps H.264 high profile.

HTC One Camera Specifications
Device HTC One
Sensor Size and Type 1/3" BSI CMOS
Resolution 4.0 MP 16:9 Aspect Ratio (2688 x 1520)
Focal Length 3.82mm
F/# F/2.0
Optical System 5P
OIS 2-axis +/- 1 degree, 2 kHz sampling
Max Capture Rate 8 FPS continual full res capture
Video Capture 1080p30, 720p60, 720p30, 1080p28 HDR, 768x432 96FPS
H.264 High Profile, 20 Mbps

The previous generation of high end smartphones shipped 1.4 micron pixels and a CMOS size of generally 1/3.2“ for 8 MP effective resolution. This year it seems as though most OEMs will go to 1.1 micron pixels on the same 1/3.2” size CMOS and thus get 13 MP of resolution, or choose to stay at 8 MP and absorb the difference with a smaller 1/4" CMOS and thinner optical system. This would give HTC an even bigger difference (1.1 micron vs 2.0 micron) in pixel size and thus sensitivity. It remains to be seen whether other major OEMs will also include OIS or faster optical systems this generation, I suspect we’ll see faster (lower F/#) systems from Samsung this time, some rumored images showed EXIF data of F/2.2 but nothing else insightful. Of course, Nokia is the other major OEM pushing camera, but even they haven’t quite gone backwards in pixel size yet, but they’ve effectively been in a different category for a while. We’ve already seen some handset makers go to binning (combining a 2x2 grid of pixels into one effective larger pixel) but this really only helps increase SNR and average out some noise rather than fundamentally increase sensitivity.

The side by sides that I took with the HTC One alongside a One X so far have been impressive, even without final tuning for the HTC One. I don’t have any sample images I can share, but what I have seen has gotten me excited about the HTC One in a way that only a few other devices (PureView 808, N8, HTC One X) have so far. Both the preview and captured image were visibly brighter and had more dynamic range in the highlights and shadows. So far adding HDR to smartphones has focused not so much on making images very HDR-ey but rather as a mitigation to recover some dynamic range and make smartphone images look more like what you’d expect from a higher end camera. Moreover, not having to use flash in low light situations is a real positive, something which currently adds a false color cast if you’re using a device with an LED.

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  • JaPeL - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    Well, I don't care about mpx, or the buzzwords, as long as they deliever what they promise, anyway, by looking at the samples so far, I'm a little dissapointed, I was hoping something better than the lumia, but it doesn't seem to be the case so far.
  • MonkeyPaw - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    No kidding. I've used a tablet before with a camera that was totally useless. MP aren't everything, and I think that as long as people give the One a chance while shopping, actual use will make all the difference. I'm sure the sales folk will be asked to promote it as well.
  • Johnmcl7 - Friday, February 22, 2013 - link

    For a while it was believed that high number of pixels were destroying image quality and if someone produced a low resolution sensor it would produce far better image quality. However since then there's been several very high resolution sensors which have pretty much put that to bed as they've been able to surpass their predecessors. The most obvious example is the D800 which uses a 36MP Sony sensor and is the highest resolution full frame sensor there is currently offering triple the resolution of the older 12MP D700. Despite the much smaller pixels though the D800 surpasses the D700 for high iso and dynamic range plus of course obliterates it in resolution putting it at the top of DxO's chart, ahead of the lower resolution Canon 5D mk III.

    Nokia then went several steps further and packed 41MP into the Pureview 808, admittedly its sensor was far larger than phone cameras and in fact larger than most compact cameras but still despite the huge resolution it offered image quality that it looks like other camera phones won't be able to match for a long time.

    So I'm not convinced about HTC's approach now, we'll need to see how it fares against new high resolution sensors in upcoming smartphones.

  • UpSpin - Saturday, February 23, 2013 - link

    If you take a picture with a smartphone and
    - you share it online, the software will reduce the image size drastically. So a 8MP or even 12MP does make no sense, because you never make a use of it.
    - you keep it for yourself or print it as a photo and take a closer look, zooming to 100% in a 12MP smartphone image, shows that the 12MP don't add any information, except noise, over a 8MP image.

    You mentioned it already with the Pureview, it's not just the MP count, you have to consider the full package. If you reduce MP count but also reduce sensor size, you gained nothing. But HTC reduced MP size and slightly increased sensor size. HTC also added an OIS.
    If you increase the pixel count to maybe 12MP but don't improve the optics, you gain nothing, because physical limitations occur which don't allow the sensor to capture 12MP at all.
    The Pureview sensor is huge and so is the whole smartphone, because you need larger optics if you use a larger sensor. Thus, this camera will always be better, but it's not practical (too huge body and too expensive).

    12MP just does make no sense in a smartphone, because you never use those 12MP.
    A 4MP image is, in print quality (300DPI) 22cmx12cm large. So why do you need a higher resolution out of a smartphone right now?

    I like the idea of integrating a same sized 4MP sensor with an OIS.
  • ydoucare - Tuesday, March 12, 2013 - link

    You have no idea what you're talking about if you think there's no difference in print quality between 4 MP and 12 MP. No sensor in existence outputs a sharp image at full native resolution. The downsizing of the 12 MP image to 4 MP would result in a much sharper image than the native 4 MP image. At 4 MP, you'd be printing a blurry 6"x8". A 12 MP image would print tack-sharp downsized to 6"x8".
  • eugk - Wednesday, March 13, 2013 - link

    You're assuming the 12MP image has 12MP of actual detail rather than NR'ed watercolor-effect detail.
  • Wieland - Saturday, February 23, 2013 - link

    The key arguement that HTC is making is that the pixels on high end smartphones are too small, and that a lower density sensor will produce better pictures. That isn't the same as saying that higher resolution sensors are necessarily bad. Neither the D800 nor the Pureview 808 are evidence to the contrary because both have sensors with much larger pixels than even the HTC One.
  • Manabu - Saturday, February 23, 2013 - link

    You should compare the D800 with the 16MP D4, that have the same sensor technology, differing only on mega pixel count. Or the NEX-7 vs NEX-5N:

    That said, the main factors in camera performance are the sensor size, sensor technology, and optics quality. But pixel density also plays a role:

    Quote: "Major factors in limiting the maximum number electrons captured in a semiconductor image sensor are

    1) Absorption length and electron densities -

    It ranges from about 1 micron for blue light to over 7 microns for red light. RX100 has pixel size of 2.4 microns. The absorption length will also limit the image detail, especially toward red colors, and it also can contribute to photons several pixels away from the target pixel. Dense sensors with small areas per pixel, no matter how many MP they have, are at disadvantage.

    2) Fill factor -

    The trend is down with smaller pixel size because the non-sensitive portion between pixels becomes a greater part of the pixel area. Even with gapless microlenses, light will be lost at the gap due to scattering. Dense sensors with small areas per pixel will gather less light with increase in MP count.

    3) Another factor that affects low light IQ is Read noise (electronics noise) -

    Read noise per pixel has little dependence on pixel size. Because all sensors have finite read noise, when one adds pixels together, the total read noise increases. In low light conditions read noise will play much bigger role than photon noise and will degrade the IQ in the sensors that have smaller pixel size."
  • Yojimbo - Saturday, February 23, 2013 - link

    Just an aside, I think you mean all pixels have positive read noise, not finite read noise. Negative numbers and zero are still finite numbers, so a finite value could be added to another finite value such that the sum is not bigger than the latter value.
  • Randomoneh - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    "The most obvious example is the D800 which uses a 36MP Sony sensor and is the highest resolution full frame sensor there is currently offering triple the resolution of the older 12MP D700."
    36MP image has pixel count that is 300% larger than 12MP image but resolution (in the spirit of the word) difference is only up to 73% (sqrt(36/12)).

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