It would be overkill to claim Samsung has changed the name of the smartphone game with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, because photography has already emerged as one of the most important features for flagship phones. What Samsung has done with its huge specs and bold claims about the Galaxy S20's Ultra's photography advances is changing the conversation about what's possible (and what's not) for the best camera phones.
So where does Samsung's archrival, Apple, go from here with the iPhone 12? Where do other Android phone makers go? To find out, the first thing we need to do is separate the S20 Ultra's real specs from the marketing hype, consider what the trade-offs of each camera feature might be and think about where computational photography is going in the near future.
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What's marketing and what's real
One myth keeps reappearing across the history of digital cameras: that more megapixels are better. While cameras with eye-popping megapixel specs seem better on first glance — it's human nature, we're also impressed that 5G has one more G than 4G — it doesn't mean anything in reality. Cameras with much smaller megapixel counts can produce much better photos than ones with the biggest numbers, because optics, sensor size, sensor quality and image-processing algorithms really do matter.
Similarly, large multipliers for digital zooms don't really mean anything. A digital zoom is just a crop of the maximum optical zoom of a camera. What has the real impact on a camera's quality and usability is the size of the device's available optical zoom.
That's why I'm skeptical about many of Samsung's specs, like 108 megapixels and a 100x digital "Space Zoom." These sorts of claims don't have any meaning in terms of the overall quality of the resulting images. It's all in the details.
Where Samsung impresses
Perhaps the most important feature of the Galaxy S20 Ultra camera is the "periscope lens" that tries to counteract the ultimate limitation of smartphone optics: the thinness of the phones. To improve image quality and optical zoom, you need space. Samsung finds that space by twisting the light coming into one of its cameras so that it's using the width of the phone to capture light. Samsung isn't the first phone-maker to do this, but this is still a rare feature — and Samsung has much higher-quality image sensors than most of its competitors.
Speaking of sensors, the quality of Samsung's sensor is why the company's claim of a 10x "hybrid" zoom might actually make sense. The company is capturing light across multiple pixels of a very high-resolution sensor and then processing it to create an effect that (Samsung claims) is the equivalent of an optical zoom. The reviewers and customers will have to be the final judges.
What's most clear is that Samsung is committed to pushing camera technology forward, and it's throwing optics, sensors and software into the mix in doing so. This is the truth of the current state of smartphone photography: Everyone knows this stuff is important and valuable to potential buyers, so manufacturers are all turning over rocks trying to find other ways to make these incredibly limited cameras less limited.
Where Apple can counter
It seems highly unlikely that Apple will announce an iPhone camera with an enormous megapixel count and dubious picture quality when the company unveils the iPhone 12 this fall. It's just not the game the company plays. Traditionally, Apple has always been conservative with expanding the megapixel count of its camera sensors, instead preferring to include better sensors and to upgrade camera optics so that iPhones produce better pictures.
Current iPhone 12 rumors suggest that Apple will add a depth-sensing time-of-flight sensor to two of this fall's models, which should lead to improved portrait shots. Apple's also filed a patent on a periscope-like lens of its own to boost the zoom range and fit more lenses in a smaller space. And future iPhones may turn to sensor-shift image stabilization to improve photos shot by shaky hands.
Whatever features ultimately find their way into the iPhone 12, it's indisputable that Apple will continue to pull all the levers it can to improve smartphone images. Apple's biggest advantages right now come in its big lead in smartphone chip design and its control over the processor roadmap, with the ability to prioritize for the iPhone's specific needs. So expect future iPhones to ramp up the machine-learning-focused enhancements to Apple's A-series processors and include ever-more-sophisticated digital signal processors.
At the same time, Apple is likely to remain quite conservative about rolling out more gimmicky features. (Sorry, Samsung, but a lot of your features are gimmicks — and always have been.) This can harm Apple, which was very late to the Night Mode camera game, but in general, it's a disposition that leads to iPhone pictures looking more natural and professional.
The smartphone camera arms race
That Apple's powers include making processors and writing its own operating system makes it an eternal threat in the smartphone arms race, even though it doesn't make its own image sensors! That tells you everything you need to know about the current state of affairs in smartphone photography.
It's now a game about clever algorithms, machine learning and processing as much as optics. If you think Samsung's current moves are intriguing, just wait for the algorithms that multiply image resolution by taking multiple images while your hand shakes slightly and then merging them together. Apple's already capturing very high-resolution video and then using algorithms to smooth that video out so that it looks like it was shot with image-stabilization hardware. It keeps going on.
In these confusing times, don't believe any specs you read. Samsung's phone looks extremely promising, but anytime I read about digital zooms and enormous megapixel counts I get suspicious. No matter how many clever tricks and machine-learning algorithms are applied to an image, in the end, it's not the numbers or specs or claims that matter. The pictures, as ever, are worth a thousand words — and a thousand spec claims. This will always be true, even as the smartphone camera war rages over the next few years.