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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  • medi01 - Thursday, November 3, 2011 - link

    Find contrast of BEAUTIFUL Galaxy phones on the charts pretty please... Reply
  • doobydoo - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    Yeah the 'beautiful' screens...

    The Galaxy screen is what, 480 x 800? on a 4.27 inch screen?

    The iPhone 4s is 640 x 960 - on a 3.5 inch screen.

    A much higher resolution.
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Sunday, November 6, 2011 - link

    "1) Ridiculous BS sentences about "improved vibration" that obviously come straight out of Apple's marketing mouth"

    I'm sorry you feel that way, but the vibration unit is indeed different, and lends a completely different feel from every other device out there which just uses a spinning counterweight.

    I'd encourage you to try it on your own.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • Samus - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    Great review, thanks Anand! If I weren't so stubborn I'd get an iPhone (because they really are great phones) but I just can't do the Apple thing. I like the openness, tweakability and choices provided by Android phones, but for the general population, the iPhone is pretty much the best option for the high-end market. Reply
  • zanon - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    Hoorah, the definitive review is here at last! Thanks as always for your hard work on this.

    And yeah, the 543MP2 is a sick monster of a chip. Imagination Technologies really hit a home run with this one, simply amazing performance. Not just Apple either, I believe the Vita is using the MP4 version of this chip. With the show they've put on this time, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what they do for the Series 6 Rogue ones that I think are still due next year. Or for that matter even if they do an update/shrink of these ones.

    Great to see so much competition between graphics in the mobile world, practically every major player has a foot in the water at least. I think this stuff will start to matter more and more too for items beyond games. Applications like further advances in augmented reality seem like they could use plenty of power, and are uniquely suited to mobile platforms. Things will get really nuts when retinal projection displays or some equivalent finally start filtering down into the main market.
    Reply
  • Lucian Armasu - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    It's not really about the architecture, though, but about the size of the GPU = more performance. It's 2x the size and has 1.5-2x the performance of Exynos' GPU. Not that surprising.

    I'm not entirely sure why they had to use such a powerful GPU, though. Is it to make it easier to support higher resolutions? Because it can't be about the games. Why would it get 7x the performance of the previous iPhone 4 GPU, when it can only use 2x of that anyway?
    Reply
  • loganin - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    That's a pretty weak and factually wrong claim to discredit Apple's product, not that it's surprising coming from you.

    "Exynos SoC Same Size As Apple A5 In iPad 2"

    http://www.itproportal.com/2011/06/07/exynos-soc-s...
    Reply
  • zanon - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    loganin already addressed your claptrap regarding size, so we'll just ignore that. A few other bits stand out, however. The first is that, fundamentally, even if you were right so what? You don't win any points for improving in one way vs another, what matters is the result at the end. Regardless of the method PowerVR used the fact that the 543MP2 utterly demolishes the competition, and that it's a beast, would not change.

    Second, you failed to mention in your "1.5x-2x" the performance bit the fact that it's also clocked *50% slower* then the Exynos. Again, even pretending you were correct, your size difference *still* wouldn't explain the kind of gap we're seeing. Unlike size, which is not perfectly correlated with performance, clock rate pretty directly is. If the 4S's A5 was running at 1.2 GHz, it would be more like 2.8x the performance of the Exynos at the high end.

    >>Because it can't be about the games. Why would it get 7x the performance of the previous iPhone 4 GPU, when it can only use 2x of that anyway?
    Also, this bit is just WTF. You might have noticed that PC GPUs continue to increase in power? Despite resolutions not continuing to increase? WTF do you mean "you can only use 2x of that"?? At least until the level of complete photorealism with full real time physics modeling of everything is achieved there's always room to spend more power just making the scene look better. Duh.
    Reply
  • metafor - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    Erm, GPU clocks are independent of what the CPU is clocked at. I.e. just because the A5's CPU is clocked at 800MHz doesn't mean the GPU is.

    Apple never really releases what the internal clocks of their various components are running at.
    Reply
  • Lucian Armasu - Wednesday, November 2, 2011 - link

    Do you even know what 50% slower means? It means half the clock speed. It's not 50% slower. It's 30% slower than Exynos CPU.. It's the Exynos CPU that is "50% faster" than the A5 one.

    But that's not even what we were talking about. I was talking about the GPU, not the CPU. The GPU has a difference frequency.
    Reply

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