A history of large camera sensors for smartphones

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Sony Xperia Pro I Sony on top

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

The first smartphones were not the photography giants that have become today’s flagship devices. In those days, if you cared about image quality, you had to lug a dedicated camera next to your smartphone. Not anymore. Pretty much every smartphone today delivers decent visuals, and some, like the Google Pixel 6 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S22 series, perform well in even the most challenging scenarios. But while computational photography often gets all the attention, larger image sensors deserve just as much credit.

Not all megapixels are created equal: why sensor size matters

The Google Pixel 6 in hand in an alley with the camera app

Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

For years, many of us have looked to a camera’s resolution (or megapixel count) to estimate image quality. Indeed, this was a semi-reliable benchmark for a few years in the early 2000s – a 5MP camera would certainly produce better results than a VGA camera. However, it is no longer possible to judge the image performance of a camera on the basis of its resolution alone. We’ve seen smartphones with 12MP and 16MP cameras triumph over 108MP behemoths several times now.

See Also: The Best Android Camera Phones You Can Buy

After a certain point, increasing the resolution produces no noticeable improvements – unless you want to crop. Many mid-range smartphones offer high-resolution cameras, but often yield grainier and poorer results than much lower megapixel DSLRs. This is mainly because smartphones are limited by physical space and use smaller image sensors than high-end cameras.

Simply put, a smaller image sensor collects less light. This translates directly into poorer image quality, especially in low-light situations. Conversely, larger sensors can achieve better dynamic range and exposure levels without resorting to workarounds like increased ISO or digital sharpening. Larger sensors provide better image quality.

Read more: Why camera sensor size is more important than more megapixels

Given the benefits of a larger sensor, it’s no surprise then that smartphone makers are focusing year-on-year on improvements in this area. That said, while some phones – including the Sony Ericsson Satio and Samsung Pixon 12 – offered large camera sensors as early as 2009, the vast majority of handsets only jumped on the bandwagon relatively recently. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how large camera sensors came into being in modern smartphones and where the industry is headed next.

Nokia N8 and 808 PureView: the first large smartphone sensors

Nokia 808 PureView camera sensor

Nokia 808 PureView

It was hard to escape or ignore the hype surrounding Nokia’s N8 and 808 PureView smartphones in the early 2010s. With a resolution of 12 MP and a sensor size of 1/1.83 inches, the Nokia N8 delivered better specs than many point-and-shoot cameras in 2010. Nokia even produced a seven-minute short film starring some of Hollywood’s stars. best to highlight the N8’s then-impressive 720p video recording capabilities.

For context, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S3 from the same year featured a significantly smaller 1/3-inch camera sensor. The iPhone 5’s sensor, meanwhile, was even smaller at 1/3.2 inches. Indeed, it was the norm at the time for smartphones to have tiny sensors less than 1 cm. 1-inch sensors were exclusive to DSLRs and professional cameras.

In addition to large sensors, Nokia was ahead of its time with computational photography in the 808 PureView.

While the N8 was way ahead of the competition, Nokia didn’t stop there. In 2012, the company released the 808 PureView, featuring an even larger 41 MP 1/1.2-inch sensor. Improvements in processing power also enabled oversampling, which combines adjacent pixels into one for better light sensitivity. If that sounds familiar, today’s smartphones feature a similar technology called pixel binning. At the time, however, Nokia’s photography computer game was way ahead of the curve.

Big camera sensors in smartphones over the years

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra 18 rear view with camera module.

Luke Pollack / Android Authority

Although the Nokia 808 PureView was a technical breakthrough, the smartphone industry reacted much later. A notable exception was the 2014 Panasonic Lumix Smart Camera CM1 which featured an even larger one-inch sensor. However, this was at the expense of a larger whole compared to the then Android smartphones.

However, in the mainstream segment, sensor size improvements wouldn’t happen until late in the 2010s. Most manufacturers continued to supply smartphones with sensors in the 1/3 to 1/2 inch range. Even Samsung’s camera-centric smartphones – the Galaxy S4 Zoom and Galaxy K Zoom – bundled a 1/2.3-inch sensor, quite small by modern standards. That said, it was still larger than the 1/3.06-inch sensor of their non-zoom counterparts. Indeed, as recently as the Galaxy S10 and Pixel 5 series, ~1/2.5-inch sensors were the norm.

Chinese brands like Huawei and Xiaomi were the first to finally surpass the 1/2-inch threshold. For example, the 2018 Huawei Mate 20 Pro had a 1/1.7-inch sensor – much larger than most other smartphones at the time. Coupled with a large f/1.8 aperture, Huawei delivered better nighttime image quality than most of its competitors. The Mate 20 Pro’s improved light-gathering capabilities even allowed it to compete with the Pixel’s then-unbeaten Night Sight feature.

A decade later, Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra finally surpassed the giant sensor of the Nokia 808 PureView

By 2020, most flagship smartphones – including the Oppo Find X2 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – offered sensors with a diameter of at least 1/1.5 inches. A year later, Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra featured a record-breaking 1/1.12-inch sensor that eventually surpassed the Nokia 808 PureView and ushered in the ongoing era of large image sensors in smartphones.

Related: 15 Best Camera Apps for Android

What does the future of smartphone sensors look like?

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

Smartphones with large camera sensors have become much more common in 2022. That’s especially true in the flagship segment, where even holdouts like Google and Apple have now embraced the trend. In 2021, the Pixel 6 moved to a 1/1.31-inch primary sensor, outperforming much of the competition. The iPhone 13, meanwhile, has moved to a 1/1.9-inch sensor — significantly larger than its predecessor’s 1/2.55-inch sensor.

As smartphone image sensors climb to the one-inch mark, manufacturers elsewhere have to compromise — usually in the form of a large camera bump.

Some manufacturers like Sony and Sharp have even squeezed a one-inch sensor into it. It’s worth noting, however, that large camera sensors often come with their own problems.

For example, Sony’s Xperia Pro-I has a one-inch sensor that looks great on paper. However, the limited physical dimensions of the smartphone meant that Sony could only fit a lens large enough to utilize about 60% of the sensor. Ultimately, the Xperia Pro-I has similar light-gathering capabilities to the iPhone 13 or Pixel 6, despite a larger sensor on paper. Xiaomi overcame this limitation with a huge camera bump on the Mi 11 Ultra.

For this reason, the vast majority of smartphones are unlikely to be equipped with sensors larger than one inch any time soon. That said, we’ve already heard rumors of a Sony-made 1/1.1-inch sensor set to launch alongside a potential Xiaomi 12 Ultra later in 2022. Only time will tell if we start to see diminishing returns or if manufacturers can find a way to fit and take advantage of 1-inch image sensors.


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