Improved ISP in A5

So we’ve been over the optical system and the sensor, but there’s another factor as well - image signal processing (ISP). It surprised me to see Apple bring this up on stage, but it’s a hugely important point to make, that the quality of images captured on a given platform depends on everything in the image processing chain. The A5 SoC includes an improved ISP over what was in the A4, and is referred to as the H4. You can watch the OS power gate the ISP and activate it when you launch the camera on console as well:

Oct 18 16:35:02 unknown kernel[0] : AppleH4CamIn::ISP_LoadFirmware_gated: fw len=1171480 Oct 18 16:35:02 unknown kernel[0] : AppleH4CamIn::ISP_LoadFirmware_gated - firmware checksum: 0x0545E78A Oct 18 16:35:02 unknown kernel[0] : AppleH4CamIn::power_on_hardware

The changes include faster processing to accommodate an 8 MP sensor, and vastly improved white balance (which we will show later), and finally some face detection algorithms that work in conjunction with autofocus and autoexposure. I’ve also noticed that the A5’s ISP seems to have improved AF speed (it’s hard to measure, but it just seems much faster) and more importantly the framerate of the capture preview is much higher. I’ve included a small video showing just how much smoother the 4S looks than the 4, even on my 1080p60 camera (which YouTube then reduces to 30fps) the difference is noticeable.

When the ISP detects a face, it’ll paint a green rectangle over the region and run the AF/AE routine just like it would if you tapped to focus. Like all face detection algorithms, it’s decent but not perfect, and I saw the face detection rectangle come up while shooting pictures of pumpkins at a pumpkin patch (which was fairly repeatable on one pumpkin), and a few other random occasions. Apple claims their ISP will run face detection on up to 10 faces and balance AF/AE accordingly for the best exposure.

I mentioned that the camera application preview framerate is improved - which it is - but the camera application is also speedier. Word on the street is that camera application launch time was a significant focus for the 4S, and I set out to measure the difference over the predecessors cameras. Camera launch time is one thing that was singled out during the presentation, but another that can be measured is HDR processing time. I quit all tasks and launched the camera application fresh five times (from tapping camera to seeing the iris fully open), then averaged.

Camera Performance Comparison
Property iPhone 3GS iPhone 4 iPhone 4S
Camera Launch Time (seconds) 2.8 2.3 1.4
HDR Capture Time (seconds) - 4.9 3.2
Working Distance (cm) ~7.0 7.0 6.5

The result on the 4S is a bit behind Apple’s quoted 1.1 seconds, though it’s possible they were measuring after an initial launch, whereas I’m starting with the camera completely closed each time. Still, 0.3 seconds isn’t that far away from their own measurements. The 4S is almost an entire second faster at launching the camera app than the 4, and 1.5x faster at merging three images to HDR than the 4. I also decided to get a rough measure of working distance on the three cameras, or the closest an object can be to the camera and still be focused on.

Camera Improvements Still Image Capture Quality
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  • a5cent - Wednesday, November 2, 2011 - link

    Nobody will use it to support Windows Phone. Ryan was certainly talking about Windows 8 and tablets. WP8/Apollo will run on Qualcomm's S4 SoC and on nothing else. An OS that can make assumptions about the hardware it is running on can include performance optimizations that would be impossible to do otherwise, and is also much easier to test. Apple and Microsoft seemingly agree that this is the better approach. Reply
  • Penti - Wednesday, November 2, 2011 - link

    Actually they will of course, see Brians latest pipeline post http://www.anandtech.com/show/5038/stericsson-anno...

    Windows Phone 7-series devices need DirectX/3D and SM3.0 support, it has been discussed before and it's precisely this that prompts them to release products on 544. ST-E will produce SoCs for Windows Phone in cooperation with Microsoft and in partnership with Nokia which they have supplied before and has an extensive partnership and relationship with. At least they would hardly care for Windows 8 when choosing parts. They will hardly support DX9 and SM3 on Mali-400. They wouldn't bother if it was just for Windows for ARM any way. Even though Ryan referred to Windows 8 it doesn't make my post any less relevant and justified.
    Reply
  • dagamer34 - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    My best guess is that other SoC vendors would have had a hard time selling a SoC with that big a GPU until Apple did it. They don't want to loose the "speeds and feeds" game. We'll probably see more chips with larger dies in the future to compete with what Apple comes out with. Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    This is extremely accurate. The best thing Apple could have done for competition was ship an iPad with a 122mm^2 SoC inside.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • Penti - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    Not to mention every other application for ARM SoCs in this multimedia heavy world. It's more the tablet itself that drove this as well as other media player applications and all the other applications that aren't as power constrained as mobile phones. That was set out for for some time. Reply
  • mashimaroo - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    i gave my spare case to my gf thinking it would fit right on until i noticed the vibrate lock switch was moved. My friends thought it was a defect but i knew there was no way. Unfortunately i had to buy another case after already shelling out $700. =( still im happy. The mirror ability is great and i can watch all my shows straight off my iphone to my aaxa p4 pico projector. All i had to get was the vga cord from the apple store for another $30.
    pretty much plug and play after though. ANGRY birds 80 INCHES instead of 3.5 inches. I'll admit its pretty fun to watch the giant birds fly across my walls.
    Reply
  • kishorshack - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    Really loved this review
    kudos to anandtech team
    Reply
  • medi01 - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    1) Ridiculous BS sentences about "improved vibration" that obviously come straight out of Apple's marketing mouth
    2) No real comparison vs competitors (guess what, AMOLED screens wipe the floor with iphones, no wonder)

    No real comparison, but thorough kissing all over apple's butt. Formidable review, indeed....
    Reply
  • doobydoo - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    If there weren't charts showing the faster CPU/GPU combination as compared to all the other Android competition.

    If there wasn't a thorough analysis of the screen, showing that the iPhone 4S trades blows (winning and losing) vs the best Android can offer 9eg EMOLED).

    If there wasn't a thorough analysis of wifi speed, battery life, as compared to other Android phones...

    You would have a formidable comment, indeed....
    Reply
  • rd_nest - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    Where did it show faster CPU? Reply

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