The camera is one of the most important features of a smartphone, particularly at the high end. As we see other areas of mobile hardware are starting to plateau, there's still a lot of space for the already great cameras of today to improve. In years past we've seen a push towards higher resolution sensors alongside new-fangled technologies like three-axis OIS, phase detection autofocus and laser-assisted autofocus. But this year, Samsung, one of the strongest phone makers in the area of digital imaging, might stop chasing megapixels and focus on other areas.
The rumor mill suggests that the Samsung Galaxy S7 will include a main camera with "only" a 12-megapixel sensor, the lowest resolution in a Samsung flagship since 2012's Galaxy S3. But to focus on resolution alone is to miss the big picture. There are some good reasons for Samsung to go with fewer pixels — here's why and how they might do it in 2016.
We can't say for sure that the GS7 won't use BRITECELL, but there's a strong case against it.
Back in November at its 2015 Investor Forum, Samsung showed off BRITECELL, its latest image sensor tech for smartphones. BRITECELL is designed to cram ever tinier pixels onto image sensors without sacrificing low-light capabilities. Traditionally, smaller pixels mean less surface area for soaking up photons, and thus poorer low-light performance. BRITECELL sensors reportedly measure in at just 1.0μm, down from the 1.12μm pixels of the Galaxy S6's Sony IMX240 sensor, with resolutions of up to 20 megapixels. BRITECELL sensors at 1.0μm have low-light capabilities comparable to a traditional RGB sensor with 1.12μm pixels, according to Samsung's slides.
But if the reports of a 12-megapixel sensor in the Galaxy S7 are true, it would appear Samsung is taking a more traditional path to improving low-light performance. That's not to say the sensor definitely isn't a BRITECELL unit, but if Samsung was using this technology, it would probably go for a higher resolution part. (Otherwise a 12-megapixel BRITECELL sensor with the low-light capabilities of a regular 1.12μm-pixel sensor might actually be a downgrade compared to the GS6.)
Instead, a good parallel for what we might find in the Galaxy S7 is the sensor from the Nexus 6P and 5X, Sony's IMX377. This 12-megapixel part boasts larger, 1.55μm pixels, which is why the 6P and 5X can get away with taking decent low-light shots even without optical stabilization. A similar (and, by high-end Android standards, comparatively low) camera resolution in the Galaxy S7 might suggest a focus on low light performance, especially if it's paired with optical stabilization and the rumored f/1.7 lens.
To put it simply: When you're taking in more light through a wider aperture, and soaking up more of that light on larger pixels, your low-light pics are going to look better.
Samsung's cameras don't need to get any better in daylight — low light is where high-end phones will differentiate themselves in 2016.
Samsung's phone cameras don't need to get any better in daylight — they already perform spectacularly well in well-lit conditions. Low light is where phones will differentiate themselves in the high-end market of 2016. So perhaps it's worth taking a small hit to your display resolution if it means you're able to take the best photos in the dark.
So why develop BRITECELL if your flagship phone isn't going to use it? Well, Samsung is a huge conglomerate, and its imaging arm also makes sensors for firms which compete with its mobile division in the smartphone world. Samsung's smartphone arm — like any phone maker — is also free to choose the best components from any vendor. This is why we've seen Galaxy flagships use CPUs from Qualcomm, not Samsung, and image sensors from Sony, not Samsung, in previous years.
Samsung will use whatever internal hardware makes sense — whether it's a Samsung part or not.
For this reason it's also short-sighted to think that BRITECELL (or any other Samsung technology) exists just to be used in the next Galaxy S or Galaxy Note. Samsung debuted its homegrown ISOCELL technology in the Galaxy S5, but most of its successors eschewed this in favor of Sony's rival IMX240. Having in-house options for sensors and processors means Samsung can be vertically integrated where it makes sense, but product considerations will always come first.
The bottom line? If the rumors are to be believed, we can expect the Galaxy S7 to blow its predecessors out of the water in low-light photography. A 12-megapixel sensor, probably with much larger pixels than the GS6 or Note 5, combined with a bright f/1.7 lens and optical stabilization, could turn out to be one of the best smartphone cameras of 2016. And just because BRITECELL exists, doesn't mean it's coming to the next Galaxy flagship.
But as always, nothing's final until it's announced, boxed up and put on store shelves. We'll know more when the Galaxy S7 lands, likely at Mobile World Congress this February.
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