On the second day of the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit, much more technical details have been revealed, and we now have a good picture of what the next-generation high-end phones will be capable of, especially when it comes to photography.
Qualcomm is hosting a large international media contingent for its 3-day Snapdragon Summit tech conference in Maui. Ubergizmo is part of the US media group.
Qualcomm’s footprint in the overall mobile camera market is enormous, with handset partners such as Samsung, Oppo, OnePlus, Google, Oppo, and many more.
2019 marked the proliferation of camera modules into smartphones, with some models getting three, five, or even seven cameras integrated into their chassis. In 2020, the camera quality evolution will continue, with an emphasis on software and AI, to merge and exploit the image data to the maximum.
The Snapdragon 865 platform camera performance foundation is what Qualcomm calls Gigapixel speed, which means that the Spectra 480 ISP (image signal processor) can read and process an insane amount of pixels (2 Gigapixel) coming from the sensor.
This translates to an effective sensor size of “up to” 200 Megapixel, a very far cry from today’s 12 Megapixel sensors found on many high-end phones.
To achieve this feat, Qualcomm has redesigned the three Spectra modules: first, the HiSpeed Capture module, to read four pixels per clock (RGGB), instead of one.
As you imagine, that’s a big boost, and Qualcomm can even lower the silicon frequency to be more power-efficient than before. However, maximum frequency and speed can be turned on to achieve that 2 Gigapixel speed.
HiSpeed Capture also works with Quad-Bayer sensors that have a particular sub-pixel structure. They have been introduced by Huawei phones, but are found in many other brands now, including Qualcomm partners such as OnePlus.
The sheer amount of pixels in these sensors is so huge that they haven’t been fully exploited yet, because of a lack of horsepower. In my opinion, that’s partly why most default to a quarter-resolution photo of 10 to 12MP instead of using the 40, 48, or 64 Megapixel sensor resolution. Snapdragon 865 could be a game-changer, and we’ll have to keep an eye on the actual Image Quality of upcoming phones.
The second ISP module is the Engine for Video Analytics (EVA), which creates some of the foundational data for further image processing such as depth maps (for Bokeh) or image segmentation maps. More on that below.
Finally, the HEIF block will encode and prepare the data for storage and sharing, including all the metadata and secondary data. It was there before, but the depth maps are now saved as well, which allows for more retouching options.
Better noise-reduction and motion-compensation
Once the data has been read, the ISP can now apply noise reduction. Spectra 480 has dedicated noise-reduction hardware that can handle larger image sizes. Noise can come from several factors, including electronic noise or heat, for example. Higher ISO will magnify that noise even more, and no-one likes noisy images, so this is a crucial step, especially in low-light.
The de-noised images can then be used in the whole graphics pipeline, including previews and videos.
Talking about Video, Qualcomm has added a local motion compensation instead of the previously “global” compensation. It means that instead of applying such a filter on the whole image, it is now applied where it is needed, with different parameters to maximize the efficiency and visual acuity. Videos should look smoother and more natural.
Beyond the limits of video-recording
Video is getting a huge upgrade with Snapdragon 865. First, it is capable of recording in 8K, and while that’s pretty amazing, let’s not forget that today’s Qualcomm-powered phones often don’t record in 4K HDR, a feature that was delivered by Snapdragon 845 long before current handsets came to market. Let’s hope for a faster adoption this time.
If you record in 4K, the maximum framerate is now 240 FPS, and the cherry on the cake: Snapdragon 865 is the first mobile platform to support Dolby Vision video recording.
The unlimited slow-motion is a genuinely cool feature. We got a taste of 960 FPS slow-motion with Sony and Samsung, followed by others, but that mode was very limited: with 0.4s of total recording time, you better had been good with the trigger.
Snapdragon 865 phones won’t have such limitations, and while it is called “unlimited,” we know that either storage or RAM will limit it, eventually. However, relative to 0.4 seconds, it’s fair to call it “unlimited” (in a communications context) because the gap is so huge.
Note that such speeds need sensor support to start with. Only sensors with embedded memory can capture that fast to start with, but Snapdragon 865 seems to be able to read as fast as the sensor can capture.
Now, everyone can become a “slow-mo guy,” and we feel like this is going to make slow-mo that much more useful. Slow-Mo at lower FPS will be easy of course.
Full-resolution photo capture during video recording
Spectra 480 reads the whole sensor during video recording, so you can now snap photos at full resolution. Previously, it was limited to the video resolution (8MP during 4K recording). 4K recording and 64 MP photos at the same time? Sure!
It might mean that video recording itself can be of higher quality because of potential downsampling from the native resolution, but this needs to be confirmed.
Up to 200 Megapixel photo capture
It’s official; the megapixel race is back! After a hiatus of nearly a decade, late 2018 sparked a megapixel race, with 40 and 48MP sensors. In 2019, 64 and 108MP sensors have made an appearance.
From our Camera IQ tests with some of these phones, we know that higher resolution can help with details and texture in daylight photography. All of them did use ¼ resolution by default, so the real-world impact remains to be seen, but there’s potential. 5th-gn
5th-gen AI Engine for smarter photography
With enormous AI computing power available, the Qualcomm photo pipeline has been designed to leverage AI whenever possible.
We mentioned Image Segmentation earlier, and it is an AI-driven, fundamental element of modern photography. By recognizing the nature (skin, cloth, hair, trees, etc.) of different surfaces in a photo, the camera engine can apply different filters to improve data quality without creating data loss.
For example, a filter to remove noise on cloth may not work as well on skin or hair. As a result, some fine details may be lost. Qualcomm says that its tests show an 18% better texture preservation.
Another example is for high-contrast selfies: by recognizing where the face is, it’s possible to make sure that the subject is well lit, without over-exposing the whole scene.
To be fair, some cameras such as the Honor 10 and previous Qualcomm-powered phones had this type of feature before. The staggering difference is the scale, speed, and power efficiency (16% better) at which it can now Snapdragon 865 can do it.
Conclusion: a strong technical foundation that sets the bar
The Snapdragon 865 is the highest-performance mobile photography platform that has been announced so far, and if market trends are similar to last year’s, there’s nothing on the horizon to overshadow it.
The Gigapixel Speed opens the floodgates for every other improvement, by allowing the system to read an unprecedented amount of data from camera sensors.
From there, a balanced heterogeneous architecture and fine-tuned software can process images with the latest algorithms at very high speed and power-efficiency.
Qualcomm started this design three years ago, with very clearly defined goals. In concert with phone makers and sensor suppliers, the ensemble lands like a well-orchestrated act on what is shaping up to be an exciting 2020 for mobile photography.