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How the smartphones of tomorrow will improve their photo partition

What will be the photo partition of high-end terminals in 2024/2025? Difficult to answer you being 100% sure! But if the exercise is difficult, it is not totally impossible: the regularity of the improvements (enlargement of the sensors), the rocking of the technical choices of the industry (increase in the native definition) or even technological leaps (sliding zooms ) make it possible to establish the axes of future improvements of the three pillars of digital imaging: the sensor, the optics and the image processing chip.

Sensors: ever larger, ever denser

The trend is clear on the sensor side: they are constantly growing. From the Mi Pro 11 (1/1.12”) via the Leica / Sharp to the Xperia Pro-I (1 inch), to Samsung’s announcements and its future ISOCELL CNG (1/1.3”), all the industry is developing and integrating increasingly large sensors. The trend towards this growth is a continuous movement in the world of smartphones, a movement which has accelerated over the past three years.

Read also: Top 10 best smartphones in photos (July 2021)

The size increases and with it, the density of photodiodes (improperly called pixels). Until now, there were two schools. Some advocated large photodiodes, but fewer. Others smaller photodiodes… in greater numbers.

The Android camp has mostly slipped into this camp and according to the rumors around the future iPhone 14 next September, Apple would fall into line with an even larger sensor than the previous generation, but composed of 48 Mpix, putting an end to years native definition in 12 Mpix. The term “native” is important here, because if the “native” definition of the sensors peaks at 108 Mpix, the “useful” definition remains stable at 12 Mpix on almost the entire spectrum.

Optics: moderate sliding zooms, but of better quality

With its new Xperia 1 Mark IV, Sony ushers in what could be the future of zoom design in smartphones. Currently, most terminals have three modules on board: ultra-wide-angle, wide-angle (main module that lights up by default) and more or less powerful telephoto.

In its Xperia 1 Mark IV, Sony has developed a very moderate sliding optical zoom: an 85-125mm f/2.3-2.8 Dual Pixel OIS equivalent. A design that avoids the high light loss (and rapid quality degradation) of zoom lenses, while providing a wider optical range.

Extended to all camera modules, this technology could offer a real full optical zoom (and not digital zooms / cropping with focal jump), without sacrificing too much brightness or image quality. It remains to be seen whether the industry will take hold of it… In particular, it is necessary to assess the possibility of applying this design to ultra-wide-angles.

Processor: towards more and more dedicated chips

Google had been the initiator with its Pixel 3 and its PVC chip in 2018, but it is Oppo which is relaunching the machine in 2022. Anxious to stand out in image processing, as the head of the photo division explained to us Simon Liu, the Chinese manufacturer has developed a chip dedicated to image processing, the MariSilicon X, which we have already told you about in detail.

Read also: Oppo Unveils MariSiliconX, Its First AI-Powered Image Processor to Rule the Camera (2021)

Adding to the onboard Qualcomm chip’s Spectra ISP (Snapdragon 8 Gen 1), the MariSilicon X is a signal processing gem, tasked with running AI algorithms more efficiently than Qualcomm’s onboard chip. And above all, it allows Oppo to “take control” over colorimetry, sampling, compression, etc. This horde of details that are under the control of Qualcomm. And which make the difference in output.

Read also: Interview: diving into the heart of Oppo’s photo vision, with Simon Liu, its eccentric director (2022)

Can we decree a trend for all that? At least one “wind of change”: between Google, which has developed its own SoC (and therefore its own ISP) in its Whitechapel chip in its Pixel 6, Oppo and its Marisilicon X, Apple and its so special photo partition or even, once , Huawei’s ISPs, we can at least say that to be a champion of photography, you have to have your hands dirty at least.

And that is valid in chips as well as in sensors or optics. To this is obviously added the software, a veritable black box for manufacturers. And “black cat” journalists like us, condemned never to have precise information in this field from them.

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