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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  • metafor - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    Fair enough. But that really doesn't take away from the fact that the A5 is a relatively large chip and from the UV-scans of it, looks to use quite a bit of that die area for the GPU.

    I don't know if a similar scan has been done of Exynos but one can't safely say both chips are far bigger than SoC's traditionally used in this space.

    Though that trend appears to be moving forward with MSM8960 and Tegra 3.....
    Reply
  • PeteH - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    That leads to an interesting question: will Apple always have the largest SoCs, and thus (most likely) the highest performance in the mobile space?

    The reason I could see this happening is that Apple doesn't have to sell their SoC's at a profit, so they're paying closer to cost for the chips (excluding the fab mark up). Other manufacturers (like NVIDIA) need to make a profit on their chips.
    Reply
  • name99 - Thursday, November 3, 2011 - link

    "I'm not entirely sure why they had to use such a powerful GPU, though. "

    And you know EXACTLY how Apple use the GPU do you?
    Does Siri run some of its workload on the GPU? Does the faster camera stuff (eg fast HDR) run on the GPU? Does Apple already have OpenCL running (for internal use) on iOS?
    Reply
  • doobydoo - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    He must be an Android fan.

    Androids new marketing campaign will offer a revolutionary 'new' feature - the ability to have a slower GPU than other phones!!!

    Magical.
    Reply
  • InternetGeek - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    They might give AMD and nVidia a run for their money if they ever tried creating desktop products... Reply
  • sprockkets - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    Kyro 2 was a good chip, but obviously went to focus on the desktop market. Reply
  • tipoo - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    Maybe, but there's a reason such crossovers usually take so long. Look at Intel trying to get into this space, I don't doubt they will be good at it but it takes years of development. Imagination specializes in low power, it would take lots of development effort to get into the high power desktop game. Reply
  • _tangent - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - link

    I think this might be intentionally ironic given they got out of that game a long time ago :P

    On point though, anyone would given AMD and nVidia a run for their money with the right up front cash and expertise. I imagine the barrier to entry into that market is truly colossal though. Point is, the SGX543 MP2 is no evidence one way or the other.
    Reply
  • lurker22 - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    Before buying many people who got a 4s on AT&T told me how much better it was than their prior AT&T iphones.

    Anand, thanks for confirming and explaining the reasons.
    Reply
  • LordSojar - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    Can't we have reviews as detailed as this for the really big name Android phones? They are always far less detailed and lack a lot of the testing put into this.... thing....

    Apple makes a few adjustments, tweaks a few things, adds in the same processor that's in the iPad 2, and we have a highly detailed, scientific review that covers every single aspect, even if said aspects are the same. Samsung releases a new phone that has overall better features, faster CPU, faster NAND, a different and arguably better (or at least equal) screen, and mums the word?

    The bias is getting a bit out of hand at this point... We get that you're big time Apple fans, but cmon... At least do a major review of this caliber for the Droid RAZR and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the Galaxy S2 Skyrocket (LTE on AT&T!). Even if you combine them into one review, just make it THIS detailed for once instead of giving Apple the huge, super detailed ultra review!
    Reply

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