Welcome to 2010, Apple Upgrades its Camera

The iPhone 4 is equipped with two cameras: a 5 megapixel camera with LED flash on the back of the phone and a VGA camera with no flash on the front. The LED flash works in both still and video modes. Like the EVO 4G, the iPhone 4‘s flash allows you to shoot in perfect darkness. If you’re filming a video in low light the LED will stay illuminated while you’re recording.


Taken with the iPhone 4 in total darkness

The same unfortunately can’t be said for the front facing camera on the 4. In anything but good lighting you’re going to get noise. It’s really only useful for FaceTime (or as an alternative to a mirror) and even then you need to be well lit for it to look decent.

Apple has opted for a 5 megapixel OmniVision sensor for the rear camera on the iPhone 4. What's interesting is that Apple has decided to bring backside illumination front and center with their marketing.

Backside illumination improves the sensitivity of CMOS and CCD detectors by reducing the amount of material in the path of incident light. In a frontside illuminated detector, a considerable amount of light is lost due to absorption that doesn't result in emission of an electron, in addition to reflection off pixel structures and electrical components near the frontside surface. Backside illumination greatly improves sensitivity by flipping the stack over. Instead of light having to pass through and possibly be reflected by metal structures, it is converted into electrons and read out by passing solely through silicon. Creating a backside illuminated part isn't as simple as flipping a sensor over, however, as manufacturers also generally thin the silicon light has to pass through before it can reach the photodiode. This further improves sensitivity and is generally accomplished through chemical etching in acid or by lapping (physically grinding) sensors at wafer scale.


OmniVision OV5650 - iPhone 4's rear camera SoC

Though backside illumination (BSI) improves quantum efficiency (how many photons are converted into electons), backside illumination is hugely important for another serious reason as well. Because the sensor is small at 4.6 mm by 3.4 mm, pixel size is also extremely small at just 1.75 microns square for the OV5650 in the iPhone 4 (state of the art sensors are 1.4 microns square, like those in the HTC Incredible's 8 MP sensor). Frontside illuminated parts generally have in the neighborhood of 10-15 microns of silicon before the active region of the photodiode where one wants photons to get converted to electrons. The result is that without backside illumination, pixels have a 10:1 ratio of height to length, you can visualize them as looking something like long square pillars. But that's a problem.

As photons are converted into electrons in that silicon, there's no guarantee that it will immediately travel down into the gate structure below to be read out by the camera. Electrons drift as they descend these columns, meaning that photons incident on one pixel don't necessarily map to the gate below. Because the smartphone camera sensors are so small, with a 10:1 ratio of height to size, the result is large amounts of so-called quantum blurring from electrons traveling into the gate structures of adjacent pixels. The result is a blurry image (and a decrease in MTF at the sensor level!), thus not representing the image that used to be incident on the sensor.

OmniVision and other smartphone CMOS sensor manufacturers thin that column down in an effort to come closer to having the pixel look more like a cube than a huge pillar. Ballpark numbers are between 3 and 6 microns, down from 10-15. The result is much more sensitive sensors that are higher resolution. While megapixels don't necessarily matter, neither does pixel size as much anymore; it's all about quantum efficiency, which is what engineers really care about.


OmniVision BSI - Courtesy OmniVision

The optical system of the iPhone 4 is difficult to characterize without disassembly, though the focal length is a bit shorter than previous iPhones. The result is that the photos are demonstrably wider angle. Backside illumination also allows for a bigger chief ray angle, higher numerical aperture (and thus lower f/#), but I won't bore you with the details.

The Display in the Sun Camera Usability
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  • bplewis24 - Monday, July 12, 2010 - link

    Consumer Reports confirms what I have commented on earlier about this article: that the "best case scenario" testing of one phone is clearly an attempt to excuse away this clear design flaw in a biased review. See the article here: http://blogs.consumerreports.org/electronics/2010/... .

    And watch the video. This testing was done in a controlled environment with an RF Isolation Chamber that is impervious to outside radio signals. I suggest you guys stop misleading the tech nerd population with this review now, and revise it.

    Brandon
    Reply
  • plastic_avatar - Monday, July 12, 2010 - link

    How can you not respect the research of someone who slides in an apt geek reference? Reply
  • zholy - Tuesday, July 13, 2010 - link

    Only Apple can release a product with such a design flaw and respond to complaints with either "you're holding it wrong" or "buy another product to make it work correctly". Any other company would have their product returned in droves, Mac fanatics just say "ok" Reply
  • Hengie2000 - Saturday, July 17, 2010 - link

    Help! I am a wireless tech that uses field test daily to survey in building wireless projects, but the iphone 4 or 4.0 upgrade lost that capability. I am willing to pay for someone to make a field test app or follow the steps that Brian and Anand have listed in this story. Is there any way to reach these guys for more details to get field test running on the iphone4? Does this give full field test menus or only replaces the signal bars with decibels? Reply
  • Stang289 - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    It would be great if you had Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus performance numbers included in smartphone reviews. I would like to see how they stack up against other smartphones. Reply
  • marxster - Thursday, September 9, 2010 - link

    ...after all that, I'll give you my real world experience. We have a 3Gs and a 4 in our household. The 3Gs always shows more bars and does not drop calls at all while my iPhone 4 does drop calls and has less bars.

    We live far away from the closest tower and the iphone 4 doesn't ever get better reception here than -103db.

    I'm now afraid to receive calls because I know they'll be dropped. Makes my phone useless.

    I should say that both phones are on the latest iOS version and there isn't much of a difference whether I use a case or not.

    By the way, please explain this to me. Why did Apple bother to spend millions of dollars shipping out cases when they clearly don't get rid of the problem. When I cup my phone with the case on, the bars drop just the same as without.
    Reply
  • MisterQED - Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - link

    I am not a member of the “tin foil hat” crowd, I’m a guy with a physics degree and a Ham license, so I know a bit about radios. What I am about to point out seems so obvious to me, but I have never heard it discussed anywhere. Your article discusses the effects of having a exposed antenna as it effects phone reception, but that misses the main point, this is a receiving and transmitting antenna. Having skin contact with a transmitting antenna is not safe. Allow me to explain my thought process and tell me if I have a flaw in my logic.

    1) Constant irritation causes cancer. Whether it is fiberglass fibers, silica dust or coal dust in our lungs, to UV radiation from skin exposed to the sun, if you irritate an area consistently for long periods of time, you are just asking for cancer.

    2) RF radiation from most phones is a subject of worry and present discussion, but it doesn’t worry me. RF radiation is a worry because it will cause electrical conduction thru body tissue. This would be an irritation and consistent irritation can lead to cancer. RF radiation from most phones has two methods of conduction, capacitive and inductive.

    a) Capacitive needs: a sizable area, small dielectric distances and high frequencies. Cell phones have the high frequencies, but all other designs keep minimal gaps between antennas and the operator’s skin. Also the operator’s finger tips provide a rather small area to support capacitive conductance.

    b) Inductive conduction needs frequency matched radiators to allow conduction i.e. a good antenna on each end. Body parts make poor antennas, and bodily dimensions generally don’t match the proportions of ideal radiators, so inductive conduction isn’t really a worry.

    3) iPhone 4s, unlike any previous device, allow a third and a magnitude more effective connection between an operator and a transmitting antenna, a resistive connection. All a resistive connection needs is a low resistance, which skin has when sweaty or damp and the antenna has if it is not covered by a non-conductive coating. To add insult to injury, this contact de-tunes the antenna making it less efficient. This inefficiency causes the transmitter to up the power output as cell phones work on a “yell loud enough to be heard” system, so the worse the reception the more power the phone will pump into the antenna to be able to communicate with the cell tower.

    So unless you can show me where my logic has lead me astray, I would expect that in the future some percentage of the population that use an iPhone without a case may find a small possibly cancerous mole forming on one of their fingertips.

    That is a bigger problem than some dropped calls, so why didn’t you mention it.
    Reply
  • smithpercy - Sunday, November 14, 2010 - link

    Does this mean that I could cold weld a suitable socket to the gsm antenna side strip to allow a patch cable to an external antenna and get reception in the very marginal areas that I spend most of my time in?? I know that the shield would have to be grounded but that could be done thru one of the other connectors. I understand that would void the warranty, and give apple a conniption fit but that is their problem. Reply
  • keri - Thursday, February 24, 2011 - link

    serious question here. Reply
  • jessicacoles - Saturday, December 12, 2020 - link

    https://reviewsicon.com/ Reply

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