The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s secret weapon could be this new Samsung chip

The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s secret weapon could be this new Samsung chip

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With its new 200-megapixel Isocell HP2 image sensor, Samsung will try to give smartphone photographers the best of both worlds: high resolution and good image quality in challenging conditions.

HP2 is in mass production. Samsung has neither announced its shipping date nor confirmed which phone it will arrive in. Still, the sensor is expected to power the company’s main camera flagship Galaxy S23 Ultra phone, is likely to debut on February 1st.

Image sensor designers face a trade-off. Increasing the resolution means that each pixel on the sensor is smaller and the smaller pixels cannot collect light. This means that photos taken in low light are marred by noise spots. They lose detail in shadowy parts of a scene. And they suffer from blown lights in bright areas like the sky.

However, the HP2 brings new methods to counteract these problems and get the most out of each photon of light, Samsung revealed exclusively to CNET.

The South Korean electronics giant’s sensor can collect light more efficiently in the first place, zooming in on high dynamic range (HDR) photos to better handle scenes with dark and bright elements, the company said. And when shooting at full 200-megapixel resolution, Samsung uses AI technology to help render the finest details.

It’s not yet clear how well the sensor will perform in real-world testing. But it’s no surprise that Samsung is focusing on technology. Camera improvements are a major reason to upgrade phones, with better photos and videos more noticeable than slightly better processors, battery life and network technology.

“The full 200MP resolution shines especially when shooting concerts or outdoors, where there is a lot of detail to capture,” said JoonSeo Yim, executive vice president of Samsung Electronics’ sensor business. “This may not be the predominant setting for most users, but we definitely see the need for highly detailed images.”

Apple, Samsung’s biggest smartphone competitor, is also investing heavily in its cameras. Relatively large lens elements protrude from the back of the iPhone 14 Pro models to show off the camera’s performance, and Apple has upgraded its sensors for better high-resolution and low-light photography.

Better pixel grouping options

One of the leading techniques for improving smartphone photos is called pixel grouping. With it, groups of physical pixels can be combined into larger virtual pixels that collect more light when it’s low, trading resolution for lower noise and better color.

Samsung isn’t alone in its use of pixel clustering. You will see it in Apple iPhone 14 Pro, Google Pixel 7, Xiaomi 12T Pro and other phones, but the HP2 sensor is one of the most advanced. Apple and Google, for example, use 2×2 pixel binning, which turns four physical pixels into one virtual pixel. Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S22 phones from 2019 offer 3×3 pixel grouping, offering 108-megapixel photos in good light and 12-megapixel photos in low light.

Samsung’s HP2 can take 200-megapixel photos in good conditions. When weaker, pixel binning groups pixels into 2×2 parts for a 50-megapixel photo. And when they’re even weaker, Samsung’s 4×4 “Tetra2pixel” pieces snap a 12.5-megapixel photo.

Both levels of pixel binning were available on the 200-megapixel HP3 announced in 2022. However, the HP3 uses smaller pixels, which, while minimizing the bulk of the camera, aren’t as good at capturing light in the first place. The HP1 announced in 2021, had it too. But HP2 adds some other tricks that HP1 lacks.

The ups and downs of pixel grouping

Pixel clustering has some other advantages. Cameras can crop out the center of the image to zoom in on more distant objects. This is a key foundation for efforts to give smartphones the ability to scale like traditional camera lenses. Pixel pooling also opens up new options for high-definition 4K and 8K video.

However, pixel pooling has its drawbacks. It takes a lot of battery power to process all those pixels, and storing high-resolution photos eats up a lot of storage space. And high-resolution sensors, while good in principle, don’t achieve the highest image quality unless paired with high-quality lenses.

“The full 200MP mode really requires more RAM and power,” Yim said, which is why high-resolution sensors are only found on high-end smartphones.

One complication with the HP2 is determining color when shooting 200-megapixel photos. Digital cameras capture red, green, or blue light for each pixel, but the Tetra2pixel design means that each 4×4 pixel group captures only one of these colors. To help fill in the color detail needed within those 16-pixel groups, Samsung uses an artificial intelligence algorithm, the company said.

Samsung HP2 image quality improvements

The sensor has other tricks up its sleeve to boost image quality, especially in high dynamic range scenes with bright and dark details. Here are a few:

  • A technology called Dual Voltage Transfer Gate (D-VTG) gives each pixel 33% better light-gathering ability, which should improve image quality in dark scenes and reduce washed-out white spots in bright skies.
  • Samsung’s Dual Slope Gain (DSG) feature enhances HDR photos by digitizing the exposure data of each pixel at two different scales to collect bright and dark data when shooting in 50-megapixel mode. The abundance of pixels on the sensor means that some quartets of pixels are tuned for bright light and others for lower light.
  • A related feature called Smart-ISO Pro is a separate HDR technology that adapts to different scenes by using different combinations of sensitivity settings appropriate for the different frames used to create an HDR photo.

Another new feature in the HP2 is improved autofocus with a technology called Super QPD. It can recognize horizontal and vertical lines in groups of 2×2 pixels, helping the camera lock onto details like horizons or tree trunks, even when it’s dim, Samsung said.

Each HP2 pixel is 0.6 microns or 6 millionths of a meter wide. This is slightly narrower than the HP1’s 0.62 microns. For comparison, a human hair is about 75 microns in diameter. Combined in a 2×2 array for 50-megapixel photos, the pixel width increases to 1.2 microns, and for 4×4 to 2.4 microns.

“We expect high-resolution image sensors to become a standard feature in future flagship smartphones,” Yim said. “That’s why we think it’s important to continue our efforts, from advanced sub-0.5 micron pixel processes to pixel performance and algorithms.”

Larger sizes are better at gathering light. Samsung’s pixel sizes are quite similar to the iPhone 14 Pro’s main camera sensor, which uses 2.44 micron pixels in 12-megapixel mode and 1.22 micron in 48-megapixel mode.

When it comes to video, the HP2 has a lot of options. It can shoot 8K video at 30fps using the sensor in its 50-megapixel mode. It can shoot 4K video at 120fps or, if Smart-ISO is engaged, at 60fps. For 1080p video, the sensor will shoot at 480fps without autofocus and 240fps with autofocus.

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