Galaxy S23 Ultra needs three cameras to do what this $300 phone can do with only one

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Galaxy S23 Ultra needs three cameras to do what this $300 phone can do with only one
Have you ever wondered whether 200MP cameras have a place in smartphones? I certainly have. Now, we might be closer to answering this question thanks to a new Samsung-made camera but… not a Samsung-made phone.

The smartphone in question is the brand new Realme 11 Pro+, and while it might look like just another mid-range device from China, it actually does something even Samsung’s $1,200 Galaxy S23 Ultra can’t do, and (according to Realme), this is to “unleash the full power of 200MP”. Frankly, I’ve been waiting for a phone to do exactly this for a while now, which is why I’m excited to tell you about it.

Before Samsung’s most passionate fans get triggered, Realme says the company actually worked closely with Samsung to develop the 200MP camera found in the Realme 11 Pro+. That’s because Samsung is the manufacturer of the 200MP 1/1.4-inch ISOCELL HP3 sensor in the new Realme mid-ranger, which (surprisingly) isn’t actually a new sensor. So, what’s the hype about then?

Let’s take a look!

200MP cameras - not a marketing trick anymore; Realme 11 Pro+ can zoom without a zoom camera, combining three lenses into one; take notes, Samsung, Apple, Google

The Realme 11 Pro+ can take zoom photos like we’ve never seen before, and that’s made possible thanks to a camera trick called “sensor-cropping”, which is really no rocket science. Imagine you took a 200MP photo. The large megapixel count means you can start zooming into the picture with little loss in quality (up to a point) compared to something like a 12MP image which would start falling apart pretty soon after you start punching in. You can try that on your phone which (with 99% certainty) takes 12MP photos by default.

What’s special here is that Realme has figured out a way to use the power of the 200MP Samsung-made ISOCELL HP3 sensor to perform this “zooming” in real time, and at two different zoom values - 2x and 4x. The latter achievement is a first-ever on a smartphone, which is what makes the Realme 11 Pro+ special and important for smartphone cameras.

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While phones like the iPhone 14 Pro and Pixel 7 can use their high-res cameras to perform 2x lossless zoom, they can’t do the same at a higher level of magnification (of course, they do have additional zoom shooters). As you’d be able to tell by the image samples shot by Phandroid and Ben Sin, Realme 11 Pro+ promises “lossless/optical quality” zoom at 2x and 4x zoom, and it just about delivers on that promise.

Realme 11 Pro+ takes lossless quality 2x and 4x zoom photos with primary 200MP camera

Sure, turning a single 200MP camera into three different ones sounds amazing, but what about the quality? Well, the early camera samples show that although Realme still has some work to do, the “magical” aspect of the 2x and 4x zoom photo taken with the same 200MP primary camera is indeed there, and (of course) the quality is noticeably better than if you were to digitally zoom to 2x and 4x.

Of course, the zoom photos in great lighting are going to be sharper and more detailed, but even with little light, the Realme 11 Pro+ seems to deliver some remarkable 4x zoom photos that look far better when compared to the 12MP digitally zoomed versions of the same images. I hope I’ve done a good job at illustrating that with the side-by-side comparisons above (samples courtesy of XDA’s Ben Sin).

Combining multiple cameras into one - the future of phone cameras and why phones are slowly but steadily going back to having only one camera

So, yes, Realme is breaking new ground here, but it’s good to note that other phone-makers are working hard to combine multiple cameras into one too. For example, Sony has already managed to give us a true variable, continuous zooming system via the latest Sony Xperia 1 V (and earlier Sony flagships), while Apple was/is the only phone-maker able to unlock the full power of sensor-cropping thanks the iPhone 14 Pro’s ability to apply 2x lossless quality zoom to videos too.

As a true believer in the single-camera system, I’m excited to see the progress being made to bring back single-camera phones. I’ve talked about the disadvantages of multi-camera setups before, but they generally make phones more expensive, the camera experience less consistent, and feel less like the “real” deal (an actual camera).

The 1-inch Sony IMX989 sensor of the Xiaomi 13 Ultra is by far the best smartphone camera sensor on the market, while Xiaomi’s flagship also boasts a physical variable aperture. However, the variable zoom technology is only available on Sony flagships, namely the new Xperia 1V. And finally, if we were to go the way of lossless zoom via sensor-cropping, only Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro can do this trick in video mode. And as we found out, somewhat surprisingly, the Realme 11 Pro+ is the only phone that can zoom beyond 2x without the need for a zoom lens, without losing quality.

Only if I could combine them to make the perfect phone camera…

15-30-60-90-120: The camera formula that could bring back single-camera phones

And while I’m at it, here’s a quick “camera formula” I came up with… First, imagine a phone was able to use only one camera to zoom between four different values without any loss of quality.

The idea behind the “15-30-60-90-120” formula is to equip a phone with a single 200MP camera fixed at 15mm FoV, which can crop exactly to a certain portion of the sensor to make for “optical” quality 30mm, 60mm, 90mm, and 120mm photos and videos. That way you can have a 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, and 5x lossless quality zoom with only one camera. Believe it or not, I thought of this bizarre idea before the release of the Realme 11 Pro+ but now that I’ve seen this is possible, I think my idea might not be as crazy as it seemed at first.

Sure, having a 15mm “primary” camera might seem unconventional (and it is), but that’s only so you can also have an ultra-wide-angle lens in the mix - many people seem to like those. Of course, the focal lengths can vary, but I’ve gone with the 15-30-60-90-120mm system as it looks fairly practical. Of course, things are much easier said than done, as implementing this single-camera system will take extreme processing power - remember, the (imaginary) phone needs to perform sensor-cropping in real time, which would also apply video.

But then again, Realme and Apple already managed to achieve a variation of this “magic trick”, which leads me to believe my wild little scheme might be more realistic than I thought at first. Hey, perhaps the iPhone 15 Pro Max is the one to make it happen? We hear rumors about advanced zoom in Apple’s premium iPhone.

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