Samsung and Xiaomi taken by surprise Apples 2X camera too good

Samsung and Xiaomi surprised, Apple 2X camera is very good

I have to admit I was a little skeptical when I first heard that Apple would be using the main camera in the iPhone 14 Pro to give users “optical quality” 2X telephoto shots. There were no previous rumors about such a new feature and it practically came out of the blue.

Digital zoom for years has had a stigma attached to it, and I wasn’t sure if this wouldn’t just be one of those much-hyped instances of a feature we’ve had on smartphones for decades.

But after using the new 2X mode extensively in the past month and a half, I can say that it fully lives up to Apple’s promise. This new 2X mode sets a new standard for smartphone photography by which all upcoming phones will be measured, and it once again opens up the big question of what the perfect smartphone camera system should look like.

How has no one thought of this before?

Apple explains everything very well in just one sentence on the iPhone 14 Pro page. Indeed, the technology is actually so straightforward that it begs the question: if it was just a matter of taking the central part of the sensor, why didn’t anyone do it earlier ?! Apple is using a new 48MP sensor on the iPhone 14 Pro, but it still produces 12MP photos by default in all modes using quad pixel binning. This is exactly what all the other phones do, effectively treating the 48MP/50MP/108MP sensors as 12MP and all the processing actually happens on 12MP photos.

For this new 2X mode, Apple goes beyond pixel binning. So from 1X up to 1.9X the iPhone will be effective “stretch” 12MP image, but once you get to the 2X zoom level you stop doing that and instead switch to using a crop to the middle of the 48MP sensor. This 12MP section of the sensor (without any grouping) is how you get the 2X “full resolution” zoom on the iPhone 14 Pro.

This actually sounds like something every smartphone with a 50MP main camera could do. Scratch that: she should have done years ago!

Honestly, it’s a bit surprising that it wasn’t done before the iPhone 14 Pro.

On the Android side, we’ve had phones with 50MP sensors… for a while! Last year’s Pixel 6 Pro uses a 50MP main camera, but it didn’t offer a 2X mode with an “optical quality” style. So on this phone the zooming in happens on top of a pixel bound 12MP image, and when you zoom in on that the level of detail is naturally much worse compared to a full resolution sensor.

The Galaxy Ultra series has had a 108MP main sensor for three years now, and still no Galaxy phone offers 2X mode with optical quality.

The same goes for other phone makers too: Xiaomi, Motorola, and OnePlus. Despite years of using high-resolution sensors, I’ve yet to see a full-resolution 2X zoom implemented.

It is especially strange that just a month after Apple launched this feature on the iPhone 14 Pro, it immediately appeared on the new Pixel 7 Pro. It’s clear both companies have been working on this for a while, so it’s hard to tell which one started it first, but assuming the precedence that should be Apple.

The good news is that now that we’ve all seen the benefits, it’s a safe bet that most Android phone makers will eventually implement a similar feature in their upcoming flagships.

2X greatness

Apple also calls the new 2X mode “The perfect frame option for portrait mode”And I must agree to that, too.

I have written multiple articles in the past The call to 2X mode is suitable to be implemented on all phones.

There is a good reason for the popularity of 2X mode and that reason is… biological.

2X mode in a smartphone is very close to 50mm focal distance in the language of dedicated cameras.

This focal length has been called the “neat fifty” and has been a staple of modern cameras for years. To this date, many professional cameras have already been bundled with a 50mm lens, the reason being that it is almost a universal lens.

50mm is a field of view that is very close to the way our human eyes see the world. Not too wide and not zoomed in too much. It looks just right.

The reason it works so well for portraits is that with it you can capture a face without it looking distorted (as it does with a 1X wide lens); You can take a full-body photo without walking too far; You can take what’s called a cowboy shot, with the upper half of the body in the frame. Capture it all with just one lens!

You simply can’t do it with a 3X lens without having to walk too far for most of these shots, and in my opinion, you shouldn’t even take one-person selfies with a 1X lens (it looks distorted and…bad).

So what is the ideal camera system?

And do we even need a 3x lens, now that we have a 2x?

But there is a bigger question raised by this new camera. If we now have a 2X camera that’s practically as good as a dedicated 2X lens, how does that affect the ideal smartphone camera setup?

More specifically, do we even need a 3X zoom lens on smartphones now?

The 3X zoom lens is the third most popular lens in a major camera system these days. The Galaxy S22 uses it, the Galaxy Fold 4 and Flip 4 too, the iPhone 14 Pro and 13 Pro series have it, and the Huawei P50 Pro has 3.5X zoom (close enough).

But is a 3X zoom lens really needed when you already have an impressive 2X, which can be extended with a bit of digital zoom to 3X?

Not to mention that the zoom lens on other flagship phones like the Xiaomi 12 Pro now looks completely inappropriate. The 12 Pro has a dedicated 2X zoom lens, but it just seems like a huge waste of space considering you can practically get the same results from just the main camera.

So perhaps, the ideal camera of the future could rely entirely on its main sensor for close range zooms (2X and 3X) and trade in that now popular 3X lens for something much longer, say a 5X zoom lens. The 5X is ideal for pet shots and with some clever manipulation it can deliver good looking footage at 10x. Or why not play around with crazier ideas: Can we get two long-range zoom lenses? A 5X and 10X lens would be great too.

Whatever the case, the conversation is open now and I think we need to rethink what the modern smartphone camera system looks like in 2023 and beyond.