Apple's iPhones to get 10x optical periscope zoom by... Samsung


While foldable iPhones are still a twinkle in the Cupertino design team's eye, folded optics may appear as soon as the iPhone 14, and its Pro Max variety in particular. What is folded optics, you ask? It's the good ol' periscope zoom that companies like Samsung, Oppo, and Huawei, have been equipping their flagship handsets with this year.

Trusty Korean media The Elec is confirming the rumor that Apple has resorted to Samsung (again) to source parts for its iPhone periscope zoom plans but the components would be shipping to LG Innotek first, the actual assembler of iPhone's cameras. Why? 

First, Apple can't just go to Samsung directly as it has an established supply path with LG for camera modules. Second, Apple's patent situation on folded optics is weak, as Samsung's acquisition of Corephotonics brought many a related patent into the fold, pun intended, while Corephotonics is still suing both Apple and LG for its telephoto zoom patents. It insists that those were employed first on the iPhone 7 Plus without its authorization, and Apple simply hijacked the idea without paying a dime for the patents.

In any case, the tricky patent conundrum is apparently going to be resolved by Samsung shipping its folded optics actuators or lenses to LG, which will then еmploy them into an oven-ready zoom module, and then ship them to Foxconn to put in upcoming iPhones. We even probed Corephotonics about their zoom tech for phones achieved with two lenses, one wide, one narrow, set at different levels, and came away impressed, as you can see in the video below. This was back in 2014.

Could iPhone 14 Pro Max have 10x periscope zoom camera?

While Apple currently advertises its iPhone 12 Pro series as possessing 5x zoom "range," it starts the count from the ultrawide angle camera, while the actual telephoto zoom from the main camera is about 2.6x. Misleading? You have to put yourself in Apple's marketing team shoes, as, given that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra sports 5x periscope zoom, and the Huawei P40 Pro+ has the whopping 10x zoom folded optics inside, it's a bit embarassing to advertise 2.5x telephoto on phones that cost at least a grand.

Apple usually catches up with the competition in major technology breakthroughs about two or even three generation later, when the initial kinks have been ironed out by someone else, and, most importantly, when the components of the novel technology have fallen in price enough so that it can maintain its profit margins.

That's what happened with OLED displays and 5G connectivity which were just this year paired in an iPhone, and when Apple introduces new technology it is usually some sort of a low-hanging fruit liked telephoto zoom, 3D touch, or tougher glass for which it doesn't have to invest all that much in R&D on its own. The notable exceptions are Apple's A-series processors, of course, and the Face ID module which may now be augmented by under-display Touch ID finger scanning, because... masks and stuff.

Something of that eveloution-before-revolution nature may be cooking in Apple's idea kitchen when it comes to catching up to the persicope zooming trend. Samsung may be preparing a 10x folded optical zoom for the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and when the iPhone 13 Pro Max ships with "mere" 2-3x zoom again, Apple's fans may start asking questions.

The issue, however, is that Samsung and Corephotonics hold the good patents here, for the so-called Ball Guide Actuator that provides way more precise control of the folded optics movement than Apple's spring mechanism patents, and is on top of that gentler on the battery, plus it takes less space inside an already crammed camera island. Long story short, it seems that Apple would have to hold high-level meetings with Samsung if it wants to employ quality periscope zoom on its future iPhones. 

As for which of them will get 5x or 10x zoom first, the bet is on the iPhone 14 series, if all goes well with Samsung as a periscope components supplier, as the 13 Pro Max is already scheduled to receive a larger main sensor and improved ultrawide camera, too. 

The non-Pro iPhone 13 models, on the other hand, will reportedly be getting the souped-up sensor of the current Apple camera champ - the iPhone 12 Pro Max - so Apple will be all set with meanigful iPhone camera upgrades for next year. Alternatively, Apple could use the purported larger, higher resolution sensor of the 13 Pro Max for crop-zooming, just like Samsung does with the S20/S20+, and will allegedly keep doing with the S21/S21+. Come 2022, however, some iPhones might even get to optically magnify way beyond the puny 2.5x zoom Apple currently offers. 
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