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Apple's Next iPhone Needs More Megapixels (Op-Ed)

No smartphone is the subject of more rumors than the iPhone, and those rumors are increasingly about future iPhone cameras. The latest rumors are about a possible jump from 8 to 12 megapixels for the main (rear) camera, and possibly technologies for better low-light performance. If the rumors are true, it's a good move on Apple's part to catch up to the quality of rivals, especially the Samsung Galaxy S6 (and S6 Edge).

While more megapixels aren't inherently better, our comparison between the Galaxy S6 and the iPhone 6 shows that the 16-MP rear camera in the Galaxy S6 captures notably sharper images than the iPhone 6. And Apple's reason for fewer megapixels — that they are larger and thus absorb low light — no longer holds up, as the S6 delivers significantly better low-light results. (Click the image at the top of this article for a larger version that illustrates the differences.)

It's also time for Apple to increase the resolution of its front camera (currently just 1.2MP), as selfies are becoming one of the most popular kinds of photo. 

Increasing pixel size isn't the only way to get good low-light shots. One is a larger aperture that lets more light into the camera. Each of the front and rear cameras in the iPhone 6 (and 6 Plus) each have an f/2.2 aperture. That's better than what many point-and-shoot cameras or the entry-level lenses on DSLRs offer. But because smartphone camera sensors are so tiny, they need a lot of light to take good pictures. The Galaxy S6 has an f/1.9 aperture and the LG G4's is f/1.8. To put that in perspective, each of those two cameras can let in about 30 percent more light.

MORE: Camera Clash: LG G4 vs. Samsung S6 vs. iPhone 6 Plus 

None of the current rumors mentions a larger aperture, but an intriguing new one talks about a new kind of sensor for low light — made by Sony — that adds a white pixel to the red, green and blue that are typical for a camera. Without a color filter covering it, the photosite (pixel) can capture a lot more light. That brightness information could help the phone render brighter and less-grainy photos overall.

A better processor can also clean up low-light shots. The biggest problem with a small amount of light is noise — grain that appears because the weak light signal gets overwhelmed by the electrical fluctuations (noise) on the chip. Most photos would be positively ugly were it not for a camera processor's ability to recognize noise and remove it when producing a final photo. Apple's next smartphones, likely called iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, are expected to pack a new A9 processor, and better photo cleanup could be part of the design. 

None of that, however, will help improve what's becoming the most popular kind of photo — the selfie (or wefie, if friends join in). Geezers can pooh-pooh the selfie as the latest silly crazy — just as they did with Twitter, Facebook, online dating and every other newfangled sensation that is now a fixture of daily life. (I recently saw a woman, likely in her 60s, standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge with a selfie stick.)

All but the cheapest smartphones offer higher-resolution front cameras than the iPhone 6's paltry 1.2MP, which is not even enough for full-HD 1080p video, despite Apple's big advocacy of FaceTime video calling.

The Galaxy S6 has a 5-MP front camera, the G4 has an 8-MP shooter and the HTC Desire Eye has a 13-MP cam -- the same as its rear "main" camera. And the results, especially in the case of the Desire Eye, are gorgeous. Today, Sony announced the Xperia Z+, that has not only a 5MP camera, but better low-light technology (though not the rumored white pixels). The only thing that distinguishes this phone from the current Xperia Z is the selfie cam, which Sony thinks is enough of an incentive.

The good news for Apple fans is that the company has a good record of producing great cameras, so it has promising prospects for catching up with an iPhone 6s or iPhone 7. 

Sean Captain is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. Follow him @seancaptain. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.