For many people, the most important part of a phone is its camera. Phone makers know this and go out of their way to convince you that the cameras in their products are the best, and they’re usually followed by a list of hardware that makes it possible. Here’s a secret – even the most expensive and expensive camera sensor and lens small enough to fit inside a phone sucks.
It’s true that some suck more than others and you can get better results using the best hardware. However, that’s only if you pay the same attention to the things that are more important when it comes to creating a good photo from your phone’s camera.
The things you can’t see
The most important parts of the chain when it comes to taking a good photo with your phone are things you can’t see.
Lenses and sensors only exist to collect data – when you push the button, tiny parts collect light of different wavelengths and mix that data to process it and turn it into photography. Every digital camera works the same way. Where the phone’s cameras are different is how much the software powering those parts comes into play. Yes, that means more algorithms.
Inside your phone’s chip is a part called ISP. It stands for “Image Signal Processor”, and it does almost all the heavy lifting when turning that sensor data into a good image. To do this, phones depend on algorithms tuned to perform specific tasks, and the general term for all of this is called computational photography.
Every company that makes chips for smartphones uses a high-quality ISP, and you can get a good shot of any smartphone made in the last five years. That doesn’t mean you can always get good photos from every phone, though. Usually, for this to happen, you have to spend a lot of money on an expensive phone.
That’s not always the case, however, and we’ve seen Google’s budget A-series phones consistently ranked among the best Android cameras since they were first released. And they do it while using years-old low-megapixel sensors and mediocre lenses.
Google is better at software than hardware
Google relies on what it does best when taking a photo: software. The Google Tensor has a decent ISP, but it’s no better or worse than Qualcomm’s ISP offerings, or what we’re seeing from Samsung or MediaTek. It exists to run software on the collected data.
That’s not to say that ISP hardware isn’t important. It needs to be fast and consistent, like every other link in the photo assembly chain. I’m just saying they’re all more than enough, and the real differentiator is the software algorithm(s). Google is really very good when used to create a great photo.
I hate writing about algorithms almost as much as you hate reading about them. The whole concept is hard to explain without writing a bazillion words, and even then it’s hard to describe how computer code can possibly make decisions without our help. But they can, although we don’t all understand how.
That’s where the Pixel 6a comes in (pun haha). This $450 phone takes better photos than any other $450 phone and often takes better photos than any $1,000 phone. And it uses tired old hardware to do it.
What’s more important is that it takes consistently good photos. You can take any phone, put it on a tripod in the best light and get an amazing shot. What’s important is that you can take your phone out of your pocket, just press a button, and the shot is good.
It won’t happen every time, but it will happen more often with a Pixel phone – even the cheapest Pixel phone – than with any other brand, including an iThing.
There is always a way to improve
None of this means that Google can not use better camera hardware. Maybe it should – imagine a 100X zoom, adjustable apertures, Carl Zeiss lenses or any of the other expensive camera features we’ve seen over the years, combined with Google’s dark magic. Google should tweak its core algorithms to compensate for all of this, but the multi-billion dollar company should be able to do just that.
I don’t think it will, because doing it cheaply saves costs. You and me could be a smartphone
nerd enthusiasts who want to pump the very latest hardware into our veins, but Google knows price is what most people are looking at. Sure, I act like Google really cares about selling phones, but I don’t think that’s the case. Maybe he does it with cheap hardware just because he can.
Google could and should start working on making better videos. Pixel phones lag the competition when it comes to taking video for the same reasons they lead when it comes to taking photos – the steps between the lens of the camera and your screen.
You can get great videos with your Pixel, and I do it all the time. It’s just not as consistent as what you see from other brands. Maybe the Pixel 7 can change that. Maybe not.
Either way, knowing that you can buy the best smartphone camera and only spend $450 on it is awesome. If the camera is what’s most important to you and it’s time to buy a new phone, look beyond the Apples and Samsungs and maybe look for something in the budget section.
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