HTC One camera

It's all about balancing sensor size, pixel size and file size, says HTC's Symon Whitehorn

One of the more controversial engineering decisions made in the new HTC One was the choice to go with a 4-megapixel rear camera, but with advanced optics and larger individual pixels. After all, we've been conditioned to see the overall megapixel count as a rough way of judging camera quality. But as HTC's been keen to hammer home since the phone's announcement, pixel count isn't the be-all and end-all of digital imaging.

In an interview with ComputerWorld, HTC's director of special projects Symon Whitehorn -- a former Kodak executive in charge of the manufacturer's imaging efforts -- goes into more detail about the benefits of HTC's new "UltraPixel" sensor, consisting of four million, 2-micron wide pixels.

It's really [a matter of] becoming very rational about the megapixel count rather than using it as a marketing metric, which people have been doing before. Lots of megapixels have their place -- usually in a bigger device. The price the industry is starting to pay by cramming more and more megapixels into a smaller and smaller sensor is loads of added noise and all-over performance.

For 99 percent of what people do with their images, they actually don't need the high megapixel count. We'd rather give them the sort of performance that is real-world usable.

Whitehorn says one of those benefits is improved low light performance, something we highlighted in our review of the HTC One. But it turns out one of the HTC One's other main camera features is reliant on the smaller image size -- namely HTC Zoe.

The by-product of [a 4-megapixel sensor] was looking at what people are really doing with their images and how many megapixels they really need. In 90 percent of the cases, four megapixels is more than enough.

That also gives us a super manageable file size, which lets us do lots of cool things with Zoe. We couldn't do the dual-path encoding we're doing now, shooting video and stills at the same time, with a very large file size. If it was a 14 megapixel sensor, you'd end up just choking the whole system.

Whitehorn's comments suggest that the HTC One's 4-megapixel sensor isn't just an arbitrary hardware decision, but a choice based on HTC's suite of camera software too. Like all hardware decisions, the HTC One's rear camera setup is a compromise between cost, practicality and physical limits. Many of the year's other leading smartphones will be opting for 13-megapixel image sensors, and we'll be eager to see how they stack up against the HTC One in the months ahead.

Further insight into the brains behind the "UltraPixel" camera can be found over at the source link.

Source: ComputerWorld


Reader comments

Imaging head explains HTC's 4-megapixel decision


I'm sorry, but I disagree with HTC. I've seen several comparisons between other phones and the HTC One. Except for dark and low light photos, the 4 "UltraPixel" photos are not that great. Also, these photos have very little zoom. Yes, I know, digital zoom isn't always a great option, but its nice to have it there. With the HTC One, forget it. Overall, photo buffs should stay far away from the HTC One.

But then they're sure spending a lot of time and money to raise the importance and justification of their decision for people who don't care... So I disagree. I think that there's really only one of two realities here:
1) They *ARE* trying to aim this phone at people who want better pictures. SUBSTANTIALLY better pictures.
2) They found, obviously, that a couple 4MP sensors is still cheaper than a brand spanking new 13MP sensor, so they did this to give you comparable quality at a far cheaper price.

I don't take macros and 90% of the time upload my pictures to facebook or send to friends via snapchat or text. As long as the image is clear and good in low light, I don't think that it would matter if I didn't have 8mp+ provided the image quality is the same yet a bit smaller. The problem with the 4pm camera on the galaxy nexus was that it took blurry photos, not that you couldn't blow them up to poster size. I am interested to see the camera first hand.

coming from a D1 with a 5mp and getting the Gnex with a 5 mp, the picture quality is about 10 percent better, I'm guessing because of software, I have not tried the new photo sphere yet, but I'd guess it will be a bit better again.

HTC is just bullshitting there justification for a cheaper camera and telling you it is better than an 8 or 13, which it is not. If I want amazing photos, I'll by a real camera, but I do want a quality shot since the hardware is there. I will say that the 1080 video capture is amazing and most of the time I'll record video than take pictures with my GNex.

In general photo buffs have DSLRs or 4/3 mirror less systems in tow.

The phone well is just 'ok' for just in time shots.

Agree with you on the overall output from the HTC One, there should be an option for RAW files. Let us decide on how to process it instead of going nuts with the options in JPEG.

Why would a photo buff choose a phone as their camera? The optics in a decent digital camera blows away anything available in a phone. My phone is for quick pics to share. If I'm taking a pic I want to blow up for print I use my camera.

Why wouldn't a photo buff want good phone camera? It's not practical to carry around huge professional cameras with a bunch of different lenses and flashes everywhere you go. A true photo buff is always looking for a good shot, regardless of which camera he has. What if inspiration happens to strike in the middle of a crowded shopping mall, or during the commute to work? Chances are, he won't have his pro equipment, but he'll have his phone. The phone should be able to meet his needs when he needs it.

What if inspiration happens to strike when its dark? I mean, its dark for 33% of the day (estimated average). Chances are you want to take a significantly better picture when its dark, instead of taking a marginally better picture when the sun is shining.

@gettysburg11s In harmony with your comment, Whitehorn spoke about the 90% of people who take pictures...the same 90% of people dont care about the tech n thought that was put into the camera. When the average consumer goes into whatever store and asks the only question they have come to care about:"how many megapixels?" The answer will be 4. And then comes the disappointment.

Not that I'm some HTC apologist, but most of the less desirable HTC One shots SEEM to be either user error, or can easily be corrected by HTC in software.

Many shots seem to simply be poorly executed - the operator was moving their hand, or the subject matter is guaranteed to deliver poor results.

The software itself seems to have just a bit too aggressive noise reduction, followed by excessive sharpening, both of which can be adjusted via software and from what I've read HTC has already made several adjustments in this area.

Didn't HTC just come out and say all prior pics were from pre-production software and it has since been fixed with an update that will be on the phone before people get them? I have seen some pretty bad shots on different sites of the HTC One camera so I know where your coming from, but, I have also seen some amazing shots on sites too.

I will find out on the 19th when my pre-order comes in and let you know.

Good for them. Someone had to be the first to stop the megapixel madness and at least they offered something instead that made it worthwhile.

I don't even care much for 8MP pics because I don't think the quality is there for needing them that size. 13MP is even worse since the sensors haven't changed. Samsung is very good at cramming shit that isn't a better feature just to have it as a bullet point, and most people are dumb enough to buy into it.

I hope this works for them, and if it doesn't, I still hope other manufacturers start to differentiate on quality rather than being the idiot that has a poor quality 15MP phone camera

I agree as well. I would go no higher that 5-6MB.

I hope Google is paying attention, I'd like them to adopt this philosophy with the rear camera on their next phone too.

Exactly, if you need to blow up an image to print you shouldn't be shooting with a phone anyway. The optics are good enough.

I can honestly tell you that my brand new Optimus G(Sprint) with it's 13mp camera SUCKS!! It simply cannot focus right because there is not enough detail getting to the sensor because the optics don't match.

So far I feel that my Epic 4G Touch's 8mp camera did better, as long as I held still.

I believe they made the decision they made because they think it will help with sales and help them market this phone somehow better than if they went with the higher pixel count. They make decisions to sell phones not because it will be better for the consumer.

I really couldn't care less about the camera. All I need is a 2 megpixel camera for sending MMS to my wife asking if a new pair of shoes looks stupid or not or other similar situations. It is all I use my camera for and I believe my messaging app compresses it to 2mp before sending.

You need your wife's opinion before buying a pair of shoes? I'm sorry but you have other issues besides phone camera quality.

The camera was built for today's smartphone consumer. A couple of cool features to show off to your friends & family. Pictures perfect for bars/clubs. If you want evidence of this scroll thru Instagram, there are plenty of pictures which aren't intended to be portraits.

Very nice observation about bars. It all makes sense when you think about the low-light condition on these places be either day or night.

While HTC is certainly correct that megapixels aren't the best way to judge photo quality, and it's true that many cell phones have gone so far in the "more is better" that they've started to lose quality, it seems HTC may have gone too far in the other direction.

Based on some of the image comparisons floating around the web, the lack of detail and sharpness in the HTC images is apparent even on facebook-sized images. And the low-light quality of the HTC doesn't really seem much better than existing 8 to 12 MP cameras.

4MP *should* be plenty for small web images, so I'm not sure if the problems with the HTC's images are hardware related (poor lens quality, problems with OIS, focus problems, sensor issues other than pixel count) or software (jpeg conversion routines). If it's software, it's fixable. If it's hardware, an awful lot of people who buy the One because of it's supposedly superior camera are going to be awfully disappointed, because the images I've seen from the One are definitely lacking in sharpness and detail.

I think it is a mistake on HTCs part. Sure, 4MP may be fine MOST of the time. But it has a some negatives. One negative is simply that it looks bad in the numbers game. That will hurt them. Not sure when they want to hurt themselves. Second, though I simply use mine for quick point and shoot snaps and don't expect a lot, I do occasionally rely on digital zoom and cropping. 4MP is going to look pretty bad pretty quickly when zoomed.
I used to prefer HTC, but with the non-removable batteries, no SD card slot, now this, they are moving farther down on the list.

It will only be a mistake if they don't pour in the advertising to make it known to the consumer that the MP race is just a numbers game.

The biggest, and by biggest I mean, BIG FUCKING mistake, was when they accidentally released the HTC one with unfinalized firmware. They were touting their higher quality camera, yet the only thing the majority of android fans know of is the blurry details compared to its competitors. Too late now that the firmware is finalized and the solution fixed, you already screwed up HTC and unless you start issuing new phones to reviewers, this idea that your details are blurred compared to your competition will persist.

All in all, I'd rather have a lower MP camera with higher quality than huge image files with shitty quality.

Any way you slice it HTC is marketing the hell out of camera on the HTC One. If this is one of "selling point" features it better deliver. PERIOD! Ultra pixel, mega pixel however you spin it doesn't matter if it doesn't perform.

In my opinion HTC picked the right technology to solve the Low(er) Light issues that plague smart phones. The problem is that they implemented it in a half-a$$ed fashion. They should have simply consulted some camera geeks and got their dang software dialed in.

Android is begging for a high-end phone with a high-end camera. Megapixels aren't solving the problems we face. I had hoped this was it. It is still good but I'm surprised its not the ONE. They certainly have marketed it as the most amazing camera ever though.

The ultra-pixels are great. Just get the images sharper. 8MP or 13MP with ultra-pixels will probably be the standard in 2014.

"Bigger pixel"? What's that mean? "Pixel" stands for "picture element", I believe. It's one dot on your screen. To have a "bigger pixel" means you have a crappier screen.

Sure, ten and twelve mega-pixel cameras are unnecessary if the actual quality of the picture is garbage when blown up, like most are.

They're referring to the size of the pixels on the sensor, not on the screen. Digital cameras have sensors which create a digital signal from incident photons. The sensors are composed of many pixels which will determine the eventual digital pixels composing the image. The HTC One's sensor has 4 Megapixels, each of which has a surface area of 4 square microns, compared to ~1.3 for most higher-megapixel-count sensors. The sensor itself (to my knowledge) is roughly the same size as these other sensors, but each pixel is larger, meaning each pixel takes in more light and is thus somewhat less noisy. The final image, then, is composed of pixels whose data is clearer, but the image size (when you look at it on a screen next to an image taken with a higher-mexapixel sensor) is smaller because there are fewer of these pixels.

I am interested to know how large I can blow up a photo from my HTC ONE camera. I am using "A Smart Camera" app as I've found this app the best, especially for MACRO and HDR mode shots. Can someone please help me. I don't want to sacrifice quality, detail and resolution so what is a safe size to blow up a photo with a 4mp HTC ONE camera.