Can a 48 Megapixel Phone Actually Take Better Photos?

The new year is almost upon us, and it looks like the most important number, at least in the cameraphone world, will be 48. Why? That’s the latest milestone we’ve reached in cameraphone megapixel counts.

Honor has announced that next year’s Honor View 20 phone will use Sony’s IMX586 CMOS sensor, which will enable images at 48 megapixels. There are also hints from fellow Chinese brand Xiaomi that it has a similar spec phone in the pipeline.

In short, the megapixel wars have never been hotter. The question is, when it comes to megapixel counts, does bigger mean better? And why should we care about megapixels anyway?

The Megapixel Race

There’s been an arms race in the digital photography space for years when it comes to megapixels. While the ‘Mp’ count can feel like a good indicator for how good you can expect a camera to be, it simply doesn’t tell the whole story.

The earliest consumer digital cameras had tiny pixel counts, and produced images that were blocky, grainy and generally pretty poor. But it was a different time, and the fact that it could be done at all seemed like witchcraft to most.

When the first cameraphones emerged, the picture quality wasn’t there, but the convenience made up for it. By the end of 2003, 80 million had been sold worldwide. Models like the Sprint PM-8920, with its impressive (for the time) 1.3Mp camera, helped sell the cameraphone as the must-have accessory.

The initial fervour for the cameraphone was soon replaced with higher expectations for better picture quality.

Yes, a grainy photo of your cat was fun on your 2-inch mobile screen, but the problem came when you tried to print it out. Even blown up to a standard photo size of 6×4, it looked atrocious. Remember, we’re talking about a time before social media had a stranglehold on our images, and people were used to owning physical copies of snaps they’d taken.

Enter our old friend, Mr Megapixel. It was true, initially, that the more megapixels, the higher the quality. And this message was conveyed to the public through advertising. Soon enough, even your Gran knew what a megapixel was and that you wanted a bigger number of them.

The original iPhone boasted a 2Mp camera

Megapixel count quickly became advertising shorthand for image quality. That’s how we now find ourselves imminently looking at phones with 48Mp cameras. It’s a long cry from the original iPhone’s 2Mp camera.

Incidentally, we’re talking the rear camera here. The front-facing selfie camera traditionally has a much lower pixel count. There’s an entirely separate arms race going on when it comes to selfie cameras.

So, Do More Megapixels Mean Better Quality?

The Honor View 20 is making mega (pixel) claims

Yes. And no.

While megapixels mean, in theory, more detail, there’s a lot more to consider. A photo with a high megapixel count will let you digitally crop and zoom, or print to a large size without sacrificing detail. But there’s a lot more to image quality than this.

More important than the megapixel count is a decent quality lens, a large sensor, wide aperture, physical zoom, image processing…there’s a myriad number of features that all work together to bring you that perfect holiday snap.

The quality of the sensor really can’t be overstated. It’s the sensor’s job to capture the light in your photo. The bigger the sensor, the more light it’s able to absorb, leading to clear, noise-free images (even in low light). The size of the sensor itself is important – as they’re collecting light, the bigger the better.

Interestingly, cramming more megapixels into a camera can actually have an adverse effect on the amount of light that the sensor is able to capture. This leads to situations where a camera with fewer megapixels can actually beat one with more.

From an advertising perspective, it’s not hard to see why megapixels are promoted so prominently. The average consumer has little point of reference for sensor size, while megapixels have a clear number value.

What More Megapixels Let You Do

For sharing on social media, you simply don’t need a megapixel monster. Most platforms automatically reduce the image quality when you upload files. This saves on bandwidth and site loading time.

If you’re looking to print out your pic, accepted wisdom is that an 8Mp camera will produce good quality photos at A4 size. Even most budget phones surpass these specs, so you can rest assured that the bar for quality isn’t crazy high.

If you’re looking to print out billboard-sized images, or display them on a large screen, then you’ll need more of those megapixels, admittedly. This is also true if you want to make use of your phone’s zoom feature. Traditionally, this is defined as optical or digital zoom. The former is a physical movement of the lens itself (rare on phones), while the latter essentially crops the image smaller.

The more megapixels you have to play with, the more you can use a digital zoom to crop into your image.

One further downside to vast megapixel counts? Huge file sizes. This can make them a pain to store or transfer, and you’ll certainly need an extra memory card.

Google, Apple, Samsung and ‘Low’ Megapixel Phones

For most of us, more megapixels is simply overkill, and shouldn’t be the prime concern when considering a phone camera.

Want proof? Some of the best cameras we’ve seen on phones this year have a megapixel count way below the 48Mp of the Honor 20. We’ve been blown away by the images from the Google Pixel XL 3, despite the fact that it ‘only’ has an 8Mp camera. Its success lies in the excellent lens and sensor, and first-class image-processing software.

Then there’s the Samsung S9, with its 12Mp rear camera. Again, it produces stunning shots that will impress, and doesn’t rely on a bloated megapixel count to do so.

Lastly, there’s Apple’s iPhone XS, which also has a 12 megapixel rear camera (two, actually). Yet again, it produces pictures of a stunning caliber, in a variety of light conditions.

Megapixels are important, don’t doubt that. But don’t get caught up in the numbers.

A good camera phone relies on a number of components and shouldn’t try to distract you with one headline stat. How Honor and Xiaomi’s phones stack up remains to be seen in the new year. But, in our opinion, they’ve a fight on their hands if they want to topple the Pixel XLs and S9s of the world.

And it’s a battle that will be won with results, not numbers.

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If you have a question about how to pay for college, the internet has an answer. You might not even have to search very long if you know where to look on the federal student aid website or what’s offered here at Student Loan Hero. But sometimes you need a living, breathing human who can […]

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Apple is Paying the Price for Being Late to the Smart Speaker Party

Amazon recently announced that it’s Echo speakers would soon support Apple Music. This is great news for Echo users, but it makes us wonder, why on Earth would you buy a HomePod?

The HomePod, in case you’re not familiar (which isn’t surprising) is Apple’s rival to the Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers. The HomePod was unveiled in June 2017, and originally slated for release in December 2017. However, multiple delays saw Apple begin taking orders on January 26 2018, and releasing the HomePods on February 9.

This was two years after the Google Home debuted, and a full four years after the first Amazon Echo was released. And Apple is paying the price for its tardiness to market.

Why Would You Buy the HomePod?

Compared to the competition, mainly the Amazon Echo and Google Home, there seems to be precious little reason to buy the HomePod.

For a start, the Apple smart speaker is more expensive than its Google and Amazon counterparts. The HomePod starts at $349, whereas the regular Google Home starts at $129 and the regular Amazon Echo is cheaper still at $99.

Amazon Echo Small

The Amazon Echo

You might argue that the HomePod’s main rivals are the Google Home Max (similar to the above but with significantly better sound quality) and the Amazon Echo Plus or Sonos One with Alexa which cost $399, $165 and $179, respectively. However, this is missing the point, as Google and Amazon offer cheaper devices as well.

Google Home Hub Max Small

The music-focused Google Home Max

The HomePod is also less useful and more inflexible than its rivals. Siri is noticeably more dim-witted than Google Assistant, and the HomePod only works with Apple devices whereas both Google and Amazon’s smart speakers work with iOS, Android, Chrome OS and Windows devices.

Sure, the HomePod might sound good but you can get speakers that sound better for less, and you can hook a Google Home up to them and make them smart. There’s really no reason to buy a HomePod.

Why Was Apple so Late to the Party?

There’s no clear reason why it took Apple four years to come up with the HomePod. It might have been caught on-the-hop by Amazon, without expecting a smart speaker from the retail giant, though this seems a bit unlikely.

It might simply be due to a lengthy development process. In fact, when Apple delayed the HomePod’s release, it claimed it needed “a little more time before it [would be] ready for… customers.”

Apple delays HomePod until 2018. Statement: “We can’t wait for people to experience HomePod, Apple’s breakthrough wireless speaker for the home, but we need a little more time before it’s ready for our customers. We’ll start shipping in the US, UK and Australia in early 2018.”

— John Paczkowski (@JohnPaczkowski) November 17, 2017

Alternatively, Apple might not have wanted to be seen to be jumping on Amazon’s bandwagon. The Cupertino-based company often likes to differentiate itself from other companies, and rarely contextualizes the performance of its products in relation to its competitors. Launching a smart speaker shortly after Amazon would have validated the Echo concept while ignoring it made it seem more gimmicky.

How Can Apple Improve the HomePod?

Beyond opening-up the HomePod’s connectivity options (which will never happen) there are a couple of ways Apple could make the HomePod a more enticing device.

We must stress though, the HomePod hasn’t been a complete sales flop — despite its high price and connectivity issues, analysts reckon Apple has managed to shift between 1.3-3 million HomePods meaning that it has certainly impressed core Apple fans.

Apple could release a cheaper version. This would bring it into much sharper competition with Amazon and Google and would give Apple fans a proper choice of smart speaker. However, it seems unlikely that Apple would do this, given that much of the original HomePod hype revolved around sound quality. Apple could improve Siri. Of course, Apple is probably improving Siri all the time, whether we notice it or not. However, getting Siri up to par with Google Assistant seems unlikely, given Google’s headstart and the company’s enormous pool of potential data and its ability to analyse it all.

Without being too pessimistic though, it seems Apple is content to persevere with the HomePod and maintain its aloof image, despite remaining in the shadow of Google and Amazon’s smart home success.

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