HTC's Ultrapixels - Bucking The Trend

With the One, HTC has taken an incredibly daring direction for camera. Last year’s One X, One S, and rest of the One series included an ambitious F/2.0 system, discrete ISP, and set an impressive imaging baseline. A full year later, few of the major players are shipping an F/2.0 system (though Nokia will ship an F/1.9 system later this year and has the F/2.0 Lumia 920), but with the One, camera is even more of a serious emphasis. In fact, the camera in the One is surprisingly perhaps the most interesting and ambitious feature of all, outclassing even the unibody aluminum construction. The short list of features on the HTC One camera that make it unique are an F/2.0 system with larger than the norm 2.0 micron pixels, optical image stabilization (OIS), and a new revision of imagechip.

For years now, smartphone manufacturers have been moving to smaller and smaller pixels to increase the resolution of their cameras. It’s the megapixel race all over again, but in the smartphone platform. I gave a presentation at an industry event and laid out the general trends that I’ve seen smartphones taking for the past years. In general, there has been a progression from 1.75 micron pixels, to 1.4 micron pixels, now to 1.1 micron pixels on smartphone CMOS imagers. The result has been a steady increase in megapixels for the same 1/3” or 1/3.2” sensor size common for smartphones, from 5 MP to 8 MP to 13 MP, respectively, for those pixel sizes at the same optical format size. Conversely, OEMs can also deliver the same number of megapixels on a smaller and smaller sensor each generation, for example 8 MP at 1.4 microns on a 1/3.2“ sensor, or 8 MP at 1.1 microns on a 1/4” sensor. At the same time, smaller sensor means smaller z height required for the optics, which often is the thickest part of a design. There’s this constant battle between, you guessed it, industrial design and the camera system that goes in a smartphone.

Though improvements to quantum efficiency (think sensitivity, whether every photon is converted to an electron) at each successively smaller pixel size have mitigated some of the downsides from having smaller effective integration area for a pixel each time, there are still downsides to going smaller. Smaller pixels require an even better optical system to resolve that resolution, and already imaging onto pixels at 1.4 microns is really just oversampling. With the bayer color filter on top, you can make an argument that it isn’t really oversampling given the 2x2 nature of the array, but the reality is that we can’t image a spot onto a single 1.1µm pixel even with diffraction limited optics. Other downsides to smaller pixels are again a loss of sensitivity, partially from having a smaller integration area, partially from other things like the smaller active region for the sensor and a change in drive voltage. The other problem is loss of dynamic range before saturation occurs - already smartphones are operating with a dynamic range of around 5,000 photoelectrons. This means a very narrow range of brightnesses that can be represented inside the normal 10 bits of data shipped back from a given pixel at a given exposure.

The end result to this game is a ton of tradeoffs. In the case of the very high 13 MP cameras that are emerging today, we’re talking about an image that might not even be sharp outside in bright daylight if the optical system can’t resolve a high enough spatial frequency for the sensor, potentially very compressed dynamic range, and less and less sensitivity indoors in dim or low lighting. This year at the high end the trend is predominately 1.1 micron pixels, and basically any 13 MP camera you see in a smartphone is going to come with them. Likewise there’s a huge push for HDR this year in just about every mode (photos, videos, and panorama), and the reason is pretty much entirely to mitigate the fact that smartphone platform cameras just don’t have a lot of it before they saturate.

With the One camera, HTC has gone the other way entirely, instead moving up the scale to bigger 2.0 micron pixels while others move down to 1.1, while last year everyone primarily shipped at 1.4 microns. They’ve branded this the ‘UltraPixel sensor’, but really the important thing to think about is that the pixels are 4 square microns (2.0 x 2.0 micron) compared to the flavor-du-jour 1.21 square microns (1.1 x 1.1 micron) and thus have just over 3x the area. The result is, like anything else, a tradeoff but in the other direction - improved low light sensitivity and dynamic range at the expense of spatial resolution. At 1/3" sensor size, use of 2.0 micron pixels translates to 4.0 MP of resolution.

Smartphone Camera Comparison - 2013
  HTC One Samsung Galaxy S 2 Samsung Galaxy S 3 Samsung Galaxy S 4
Front Camera 2.1MP 2MP 1.9MP 2MP
Front Camera - CMOS OV2722
(1.4µm, 1/5.8")
- S5K6A3
(1.75µm, 1/6")
S5K6B2
(1.34µm, 1/6")
Front Camera - Focal Length ~1.59mm 2.73mm 2.7mm 1.85mm
Front Camera - Max Aperture F/2.0 F/2.8 F/2.8 F/2.4
Rear Camera 4MP 8MP 8MP 13MP
Rear Camera - CMOS ST VD6869
(2.0 µm, 1/3")
S5K3H2YX
(1.4µm 1/3.2")
Sony/Samsung
(1.4µm, ~1/3")
IMX135
(1.12µm, 1/3.")
Rear Camera - Focal Length 3.82mm
(28mm eff)
3.97mm 3.7mm 4.2mm
(31 mm eff)
Rear Camera - Max Aperture F/2.0 F/2.65 F/2.6 F/2.2

While some may decry the tradeoff of resolution for sensitivity and dynamic range, the reality is that we live in a world dominated by displays that are either 1080p, slightly above, or share via web-based services that dramatically downscale images for bandwidth reasons. The question is then how much resolution is really necessary given predominately electronic displays start to finish and lack of much printing or enlargement. At least for my workflow, 4 or 5 MP seems more than adequate for most sharing, especially if it’s sharp and ends up having good dynamic range, and that’s still enough resolution to downsample to 1080p and get an even sharper-looking image. There’s also a case to be made for storage requirements which are lighter and so on, but most of that is obvious. The benefits from having more sensor sensitivity are also immediate – no need to fire the distracting flash in a restaurant or at a party, shorter exposure times with less blurring, quicker follow up shots, more accurate preview, and so on.

When I heard that HTC was taking their camera this direction, I was incredibly excited. Not only is this completely bucking the camera trend that just about every other OEM seems satisfied with marching down just for marketability reasons, it’s actually sound science and possibly the best way to end the megapixel myth in the smartphone space. Unfortunately the flip side is that, obviously, HTC now has to fight the megapixel myth head on. This is incredibly difficult to market to most normal consumers since megapixels is just about the only parameter ever exposed to them, and marketing was probably the biggest problem with HTC’s lineup last year. Conveying the Ultrapixel message will require more than a branded name and carefully avoiding talking about the fact that the camera is 4.0 MP on the box or online specifications (as it is now), it will require real education and an active role in building credibility in the imaging space. It will also require real demonstrable benefits to consumers in use cases that matter to them.

Battery Life and Charging Still Camera Analysis
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  • Gorgenapper - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - link

    Step 1: Buy a metal phone because it looks and feels premium
    Step 2: Cover the phone in a matte black plastic case

    This is why the materials used to make a phone are largely irrelevant to me. I always put a case on my phone for extra protection in case of a drop.
    Reply
  • TEJASH - Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - link


    I actually did quite a bit of research on these cell phone trade in programs, and www.smartphonecashin.com is definitely the highest paying site. They are also very straightforward and easy to use.
    Reply
  • batongxue - Monday, May 20, 2013 - link

    Hope Brian will update some parts of this awesome review according to latest software update for the ONE.
    I really hope that HTC could make better use of OIS with further updates.
    Reply
  • matthewls - Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - link

    I ordered the HTC One after liking a nexus 7 tablet. After getting the HTC One I spent a few days frustrated with the phone because I couldn't mod the launcher to my liking--couldn't increase the icon spacing enough, couldn't change the dock settings, all this annoying crap on the "sense 5" and "blinkfeed." Then I discovered launcherpro, and now the phone is a delight. I would like to get the 3 bottom "buttons" working to have separate, single tap "home" and "running app list" control, but I'm sure that will get here soon enough. Reply
  • vipuls1979 - Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - link

    there are certain cons compared to Samsung Galaxy S4 , 1st , battery is not removable secondly storage cannot be increased , for more comparision you can visit http://mobiknowhow.blogspot.com Reply
  • htj - Thursday, May 23, 2013 - link

    Great detailed review. Very refreshing compared to other sites.

    I picked up an HTC One on Sprint... the quality control seems really bad. The buttons were recessed and difficult to press. I swapped it out for another one with better buttons, and that one had 2 stuck pixels out of the box. Returned that one and will get an S4 eventually.
    Reply
  • getoliverleon - Sunday, May 26, 2013 - link

    Thank you so much for the long, detailed and absolutely fun to read review! I've been reading for years, but this review made me register to comment.

    One thing I sorely miss from your review: The Sense UI used to have very enticing features in the contacts app for power users. You could have something like a unified messaging view for your contacts. I would love to read about this, the good contacts widgets and the other changes HTC made to the stock Android experience. Sadly the review falls short of this. But the rest is great!!
    Reply
  • arunbala - Thursday, June 06, 2013 - link

    Why I'm Going Back to my 18-month old iPhone 4s...

    I've been on iOS since the smartphone revolution. I use my iPhone a lot for browsing the web (on the chrome app), corporate email (stock iOS mail client), Gmail, Whatsapp, paid navigation (Navigon), Netflix, Lots of music, Facebook, following sports scores through built in apps, shopping apps (Amazon, Red Laser, BestBuy) some games and financial management apps.

    I'm clearly a techie and not averse to tweaking my phone. I've been a serial jailbreaker on both my old iPhone 3GS and my current iPhone 4S. I mostly jailbreak for the all the efficiency tweaks and customizations. When my iOS 6 jailbreak crashed I was forced to restore to the stock iOS experience.

    Right around this time the HTC One rumors started pouring in. I was growing sick of all the customizations I lost as I followed the HTC One's launch very closely and waited with bated breath for Brian's full review after the teaser mini-review from Anand. I got the black HTC One 32GB from Costco online for $129.99. I thought this was an awesome deal. Here are some of my thoughts and observations after a week with the phone and why I returned it.

    What I LIKE about the HTC One:
    32GB, 129.99 on contract, LTE, Ultrapixel Camera, Awesome 4.7” screen, great Industrial design and iconic look

    I really loved the industrial design of the black HTC One, except for one glaring aspect that has been oft repeated in other reviews. The speaker grill assembly has very poor quality. The bottom speaker grill was not sitting flush with the screen and formed a small ridge under the screen. This ridge acted as a convenient platform for dust and grime to collect on. This was just from 2 days of use.

    What I HATE about the HTC One:
    Battery life, Battery recharge time, Android app quality, Blinkfeed, Facebook shares showing up in Gallery

    The battery on the HTC One lasted way less than the iPhone as mentioned on the Anandtech detailed review. This was something I expected. How long it takes to charge up was also mentioned on the detailed review but I was shocked by what this meant in real time use. The painfully slow recharge time in combination with the low charge retention made for an awful real world experience. Coming from an iPhone I found myself really paranoid about even using my phone for basic stuff worrying if I was going to drain the battery.

    I've been reading over the last couple of years about how the Android app marketplace has now completely caught up with iOS. I found this to be grossly mis-representative. I went hunting for an exchange email client app for my corporate email not realizing at the time that this was one of Android's weakest links. After trying the stock HTC mail app, K-9 and a free version of Toucdown I was left very disappointed about the quality of these apps. I tried the built in browser, Firefox and Opera browsers for kicks and found them seriously lacking in the polish that I observed on the chrome app. There were a couple of similar examples but the end result of all these app hunting exercises left me seriously missing the app experience I had on my iOS device.

    I came to Android thinking I would be getting the added benefit of customizations and widget screens without losing out on app quality. I found out how big of a compromise I would be making in giving up great iOS apps for not so great equivalents on Android. I was left feeling that most app makers did not care about creating great experiences on Android or that the severe fragmentation significantly hampers their ability to translate their vision into reality on a consistent basis. This seems to me like a disadvantage Android will always have over iOS that I am personally surprised by this having misled by the generous amount of press Android's emergence seems to receive.

    This combination of crappy real life battery usage and the Android app experience has me running back to my iPhone despite an otherwise lovable HTC One for all the things they did right - Ultrapixel Camera, Top notch design (even though manufacturing quality control doesn’t come close to Apple's), gorgeous screen etc.

    I've still not given up on the HTC One. I read rumors about a 4.3 inch HTC One mini with a 720p screen. Maybe the HTC One mini will have better battery life? I want to see if HTC will release the stock Nexus ROM for folks that buy the HTC One on contract.

    Having said all this if I do decide to try a HTC One again, I will do so with the full realization that I will be compromising significantly on App quality. I will have to plan better to use specific apps on my iPad to make up for crappy ones on Android and prepare myself for a less compromising transition from iPhone to HTC One. At the end of the day I'm not sure if the compromises will be worth it if the next iPhone manages to meet or exceed the current expectations set by HTC One hardware and iOS 7 brings some degree of compromise in terms of efficiency focused features and customizations.

    For now, I'm going to wait till fall.....
    Reply
  • npnpatidar - Thursday, June 20, 2013 - link

    I really like this mobile. My only concern is battery longevity that it will become "use and throw" after 2 years. As I am spending 40K Rs., I want to hold it for long time. Could HTC Service Center replace the battery ?
    By the way great review Brian !!!
    Reply
  • erickr.cr - Sunday, June 30, 2013 - link

    I was told HTC that the EMEA WCDMA Bands do not use the 850mhz frequency, do you check that? Reply

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