Photography remains ones of the primary considerations for a large contingent of smartphone consumers. Along with battery life and display quality, smartphone consumers in virtually every market segment consistently rank camera/photo quality high on their short list of “must-haves” when shopping for a new device. This is one of the reasons the camera arrays integrated into almost every new generation of smartphone is upgraded or augmented in some significant way versus its predecessors. This is especially true of Android devices, which have received innovative camera updates in recent years. As such, it is now common for even mainstream Android devices to have multiple purpose-built shooters, with many features borrowed from professional camera systems, like phase-detect autofocus and optical image stabilization. Today’s smartphones also have unmatched computational photography capabilities, thanks to processors like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon mobile platform, which has a significant amount of silicon resources dedicated specifically for image and video processing.
While sensor size and megapixel counts are key differentiators that play a role in a camera system’s ultimate quality, they are less relevant than consumers are often led to believe. This is particularly true with smartphone photography. The fact is, smartphones typically do not have the physical capacity to accommodate large sensors and a sensor’s pixel density can only be so high before image quality is degraded, particularly in challenging lighting conditions. Although there are other factors to consider, generally speaking, smaller pixels on a camera sensor gather less light than larger pixels, which will negatively impact image quality, especially in sub-optimal lighting conditions. The physics can’t be ignored. On a related note, many of today’s smartphones that tout ultra-high megapixel ratings also use something called “pixel-binning”, which essentially uses multiple pixels on the sensor to gather data that’s “binned” together to produce a single pixel of a certain color. For example, a 64MP smartphone camera may actually output 16MP images by default, because it is using quad-pixel binning. This is one way to mitigate the light-gathering capability of small sensor pixels, which results in more accurate color captures and less noise, but outputs an image that is only ¼ the resolution of the sensor.
Today’s Smartphones Require Significant Processing Power
To further mitigate the inherent limitations of relatively small camera sensors, smartphones designed with high-quality photography in mind usually leverage complex image processing techniques, high-quality optics, and a myriad of computational photography technologies to capture as much image data as possible and produce high-quality photographs and video. Image processing and computational photography are what the Qualcomm Spectra Image Signal Processor featured in Snapdragon mobile platforms is all about.
Qualcomm has consistently and methodically enhanced its Snapdragon platforms over the years with image processing and computational photography features that lead the industry. Although Qualcomm’s partners don’t typically enable every possible photography or videography-related feature available in the latest Snapdragon mobile platforms, those that do tend to produce capable devices of capturing photos and videos that clearly surpass previous-gen or less-capable products from their rivals Device partners that put in the effort to use modern sensors and high-quality optics, alongside the bleeding-edge processing features available in the Snapdragon’s Spectra Image Signal Processor are rewarded with some of the best image output currently available in mobile devices.
The current-gen Spectra Image Signal Processor featured in the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 has triple image signal processors, or what Qualcomm calls its Triple ISP, capable of processing a whopping 3.2 gigapixels per second. The Triple ISP allows devices to leverage up to three independent cameras at the same time and enables useful features like triple simultaneous image capture (up to 36MP each), smooth zooming between the different cameras, multi-capture HDR composites, and up to 200 Megapixel photo capture, among a plethora of other features.
With each generation of Snapdragon-powered smartphones, photography chops have consistently been improved. However, it’s the recently released Honor Magic4 Ultimate that is currently the king of the hill. The Snapdragon 8-powered Honor Magic4 Ultimate features the best smartphone camera in the world, per the experts at DXOMark Image Labs, where the Honor Magic4 Ultimate has earned a score of 146 DXOMarks, besting the Huawei P50 Pro which has held the title since July of last year. For the uninitiated, DXOMark Image Labs is a firm that specializes in the measurement of audio, display, battery and camera quality for a wide variety of consumer electronic devices, including professional grade cameras and smartphones. DXO also produces professional image editing and AI-enhanced photo manipulation software.
Exploring The Best Smartphone Camera In The World
The Honor Magic4 Ultimate’s rear camera specifications don’t seem to stand out amongst some of today’s flagship Android devices, but its combination of features and technology culminate in a powerful photographic tool. The primary camera in the Honor Magic4 Ultimate uses a big 50 MP (1/1.12”) sensor with relatively large 1.4μm pixels. It’s companion optics result in a 23mm equivalent focal length, with f/1.6-aperture lens, and it features OIS (optical image stabilization), PDAF (phase-detect autofocus), and Laser-AF. The ultra-wide and telephoto shooters are also high-resolution. The ultra-wide camera uses a 64MP sensor (1/2.0”) with 0.7μm pixels, and it has an 11mm equivalent focal length with f/2.2-aperture and support for PDAF (Phase Detect Auto Focus). The telephoto shooter has a 64MP (1/2.0”) sensor with 0.7μm pixels as well, but with a 90mm equivalent focal length and f/3.5-aperture, with OIS and PDAF. The Honor Magic4 Ultimate is also outfitted with an LED flash, a Flicker sensor, and a Spectrum-enhanced sensor. The Spectrum-enhanced sensor allows the Honor Magic4 Ultimate to capture additional light information in the near-infrared spectrum, which is used to enhance clarity and dynamic range of photos captured in outdoor lighting conditions.
Qualcomm worked with Huawei to optimize the cameras, camera software and image/video processing algorithms on the Honor Magic4 Ultimate (and other devices in the Honor4 series) to best utilize the Spectra ISP’s features and capabilities. Although its camera app doesn’t stray too far from other Android devices in terms of its interface and general user experiences, the Honor Magic4 Ultimate leverages an array of computational photography techniques behind the scenes to produce industry-leading image quality. Common computational photography features, like Night Mode, Portrait Mode, HDR and AI Zoom are also present. AI Zoom is an interesting, and quite useful feature that gives smartphone photographers the ability to seamlessly zoom from the widest angle all the way to 100x zoom, spanning three different shooters, by simply pinching and zooming or using an on-screen slider. There’s no need to manually switch between the ultra-wide, standard, or telephoto camera, or to figure out which one is best to compose a particular shot.
An ancillary benefit of all the focus put on the photography features in the Honor Magic4 Ultimate is that the device offers a quality user experience in general. The device is exceptionally fast, it has a multitude of photo and video-related features, autofocus is quick and accurate, and it captures realistic tones and textures. Noise performance with both photos and videos on the Honor Magic4 Ultimate is also very good. In fact, the Honor Magic4 Ultimate is ranked in the top 10 worldwide on DXOMark for its video quality as well.
The Honor Magic4 Ultimate’s camera application is similar to what you’ll find on devices running “pure” Android, though there are some interface customizations required to give users access to some of the device’s special features like High-Res shot mode and Super Macro. Users of any skill level, however, should be able to navigate its menu system and manipulate camera settings or quickly navigate between modes. Although there are a multitude of options available to tailor image quality to a user’s liking, auto-mode takes phenomenal shots. If you’re not the type to go in and manually configure aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, don’t fret — the Honor Magic4 Ultimate captures great images in its default photo mode.
The Honor Magic4 Ultimate Takes Fantastic Pics
There is a reason DXO has ranked the Honor Magic4 Ultimate’s camera system the best in the world (at least currently). When there is adequate lighting, the phone is of capturing excellent detail, with accurate colors, without the over-sharpening that’s typical of many smartphones, which is to say images to don’t look artificially over-saturated or processed.
Without the right processing, handling wide dynamic range lighting situations can be challenging for the relatively small sensors in a smartphone, but even with window backlighting with the sun shining brightly, the Honor Magic4 Ultimate’s camera performed well. Colors and tones of the main subjects are visible and detail is good, when normally they’d be silhouetted on lesser cameras that can’t handle this kind of lighting.
The Honor Magic4 Ultimate also handles Portrait mode well. The blurred background bokeh is smooth, subtle and not overdone. Portrait Mode can often introduce unwanted artifacts in the fine details around the subject’s edges, but the Honor Magic4 Ultimate does a better job than most in this regard.
The Honor Magic4 Ultimate also stands out with close-up Macro photography. Even when its ultra-wide camera is effectively touching the subject, as it was in this case, the camera – when using Super Macro Mode — is able to focus properly and capture fine detail. Individual grains of pollen are visible in the example below.
In terms of video recording, the Honor Magic4 Ultimate also performs well. Slow motion, normal, and time lapse recording are available (along with adjustments for each mode). Video quality is on par with or better than most other smartphones currently on the market (again, DXO ranks its video quality in the top 10). Users also have a wide array of control over which video modes they’d like to use. The Honor Magic4 Ultimate is capable of capturing video at resolutions up to 4K30, with various Full HD and HD modes available too.
With camera performance being such an important consideration for smartphones, many consumers search for the best quality possible when shopping for a new device. And according to the experts that quantify smartphone photo image quality, Snapdragon-powered devices are where it’s at. The Honor Magic4 Ultimate may hold the top spot currently, but many of the top Android devices are also using Qualcomm’s processors to capture and render great shots on the go.