Editors Desk

One of the major trends in smartphones in the past year has been the rise of computational photography — using the vast computing power of modern phones to get better pictures from the tiny lenses and sensors in our devices. However wrong Vic Gundotra was in his recent tirade against Android cameras, he was basically right in saying that improvements in software processing were arguably more important than any recent breakthroughs in phone camera hardware.

The Google Pixel is a great example of this. If you follow this stuff, you know Google's 2016 handsets as, among other things, phones with famously good cameras. Yet on paper, the Pixels' cameras are inferior to the HTC 10. The reason we're still talking about the Pixel cameras a year on, and not HTC's, is HDR+. This is enabled by default in the Pixel's camera software, and its history can be traced back to the "GCam" project, which began as Google looked for ways to improve image quality from Glass's tiny cameras. After years of iterations on Nexus phones, HDR+ is one of the major pillars of the Pixel experience.

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And that makes it fascinating to see the results of someone porting it to other Snapdragon 820, 821 and 835 devices. As reported by XDA this past week, forum user B-S-G was able to re-engineer the Android O (developer preview) Google Camera app to any device with the Hexagon 680 ISP — including HDR+.

And the results have been fascinating to see. Having played around with HDR+ on the OnePlus 5, HTC U11 and LG G6 (my GS8, alas, is the Exynos model), I've come away convinced that Google's post-processing is the best out there — though it obviously isn't perfectly tuned for all phone hardware.

First, a few quicks takeaways:

  • The hacked APK doesn't work reliably on all devices. Of the phones I've tried, the U11 has been the most stable, with no crashes so far. It's been most crashy on the OnePlus 5. (And naturally, you can forget using the secondary lens on dual-camera phones like the OnePlus 5 and G6, nor save to your SD card on any devices.)
  • Results vary wildly between devices, and often there isn't a huge quality difference between the Pixel camera app and the stock camera, particularly in daylight.
  • However, where we see the greatest difference is in low-light or very high dynamic range shots.
  • Just like it does on the Pixel itself, the HDR+ camera app favors color detail over fine detail, so images often appear softer.
  • On the G6, low-light shots are sometimes better, but on other occasions, images appear blown out and noisy.
  • In daylight, the OnePlus 5 tends towards overexposing shots when using the Pixel camera app.

Now for the fun bit: Some sample shots to give you an idea of how HDR+ works on the camera hardware of 2017. This isn't an exhaustive comparison by any means, but the selection of side-by-side comparison shots here is pretty interesting. (Note: I've captured many images where the stock camera app and Pixel camera app images are identical, so instead I'm highlighting shots where there is a clear difference between the two.)

HTC U11: A skyline scene at dusk, overlooking Taipei City from Bishanyan Kaizhang Shengwang Temple. The stock camera app image looks about the same as the "HDR+ Auto" from the Pixel camera app, but with HDR+ forced on, the Pixel app produces far more color detail with less noise, though in a softer image overall.

HTC U11: A daylight shot across a suspension bridge. The shot from the HTC app has a small amount of motion blur. Meanwhile, it's clear the Pixel camera app has kicked HDR+ into high great to bring out more shadow detail in the landscape.

HTC U11: Temple rooftops. The Pixel app gives us a brighter, more vibrant image, though with some halo effects around the edge of the building. The HTC app produces a sharper, but darker image.

HTC U11: Another landscape shot and a similar story. The Pixel camera app does a better job of giving us an evenly-exposed image with less noise.

OnePlus 5: Mobile Nations Editor-at-Very-Large Simon Sage poses in a dark Taipei bar. The Pixel camera gives us a brighter image with more color detail, but struggles to keep the subject in focus. The stock OnePlus camera app produces a darker, but sharper image.

OnePlus 5: Another low-light shot. Unfortunately these two shots aren't perfectly aligned, nevertheless, you can see the Pixel camera producing a brighter image with more shadow detail, and more color detail in some areas — for example, through the window on the right.

OnePlus 5: A street scene at night. The Pixel camera app has a telltale "HDR+" look to it, with a softness throughout the entire shot. The Pixel app produces an almost blurry image here, but with superior color detail compared to the stock OnePlus camera app. That said, OnePlus's photo shows more fine detail when cropping in.

OnePlus 5: This shot is typical of the OnePlus 5 using the HDR+ camera app in daylight — a tendency towards overexposure, and a weird checkerboard pattern when you zoom in closely. The stock camera app produces the better photo here.

LG G6: The G6's HDR+ performance falls broadly in line with the other phones I've tested, but this example deserves some special attention. The stock G6 camera app struggles to bring out any shadow detail in this night shot. Meanwhile, the Pixel camera app produces a brighter, but much softer photo.

LG G6: Finally, a full-size crop showing the difference in fine detail and sharpness between the LG and Pixel camera apps.

So there you go, some early findings from using HDR+ on three current, non-Pixel Android phones over the past week or so. (I've posted others on Twitter in recent days.) It's worth remembering that the HDR+ camera app isn't designed for use with any of the cameras here, so perhaps it's unsurprising that it seems to work best with the HTC U11 — the phone with camera hardware closest to that of the Pixel.

In most cases, you're still going to get the best results out of the camera app that ships on your phone. Still, seeing Google's HDR+ magic running on other hardware is a fascinating, and shows that we're nowhere near the ceiling in terms of computational photography on phone cameras.

Other odds and ends for a lazy August morning:

  • Android 8.0 goes official on Monday, and the name will almost certainly be Oreo, in partnership with Nabisco. Despite attempts to walk back the Google+ snafu which apparently prematurely revealed the name, it seems far more likely that this wasn't an intentional goof, considering the fallout it was handled. (I can 100% believe that Google itself has forgotten that image filenames are preserved when posting to Google+.)
  • Keep it locked to Android Central Dot Com on Monday for some hot launch day content!
  • I poked fun at the LG V30 a few days back for basically apeing the GS8's front design wholesale — which it absolutely does. But hey, it actually looks good, and there are worse places to start. The V30 looks set to be the highlight of the show in terms of Android phone launches at IFA, a big deal for LG.
  • I played with the ASUS ZenFone 4 at the Asia-Pacific launch event in Taipei a few days back. They're nice! (the ZenFone 4 range actually consists of six phones right now.) ASUS's software is getting better, and the cameras are great. But the external hardware doesn't particularly stand out next to contemporary flagships particularly the bezel-free kind.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, the Essential Phone is extremely interesting to the phone nerd in me, but many of the issues I went over in my previous Editor's Desk still apply. As a regular consumer, I don't really have any particular interest in this phone. (Oh hey, camera issues!) Were I a normal person with $700 to put towards a phone, I'd very quickly start to look elsewhere.
  • I have a hard time reacting to leaks of the upcoming Sony XZ1 phones with anything but annoyed boredom. Sony has been making basically this exact same phone since 2013's Xperia Z, almost five years ago.
  • IFA is a week and a half away at this point, but the Mobile Nations team will start arriving in Berlin in just over a week. I made a video about what's coming.
  • Oh, and I guess Samsung is also doing a thing on Tuesday.

That's it for me for a few weeks. Have a great Sunday!