Every inch meant in the race for better smartphone photography

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

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

The first smartphones were not the photographic giants that today’s flagship devices have become. Back then, if you cared about image quality, you would have to lug around a dedicated camera next to your smartphone. Not anymore. Almost any smartphone today will deliver decent images, and some, like the Google Pixel 6 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S22 series, do well in even the most challenging scenarios. But while computer photography often gets all the attention, larger image sensors deserve just as much credit.

Not all megapixels are the same: Why sensor size matters

Google Pixel 6 in hand in an alley showing the camera app

Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

For years, many of us have been looking at a camera’s resolution (or megapixel count) to assess image quality. This was actually a semi-reliable metric for a few years in the early 2000s – a 5MP camera would definitely deliver better results than a VGA camera. However, it is no longer possible to judge a camera’s image performance based on its resolution alone. We have seen smartphones with 12 MP and 16 MP cameras win over 108 MP giants on several occasions now.

Also see: The best Android camera phones you can buy

Beyond a certain point, an increase in resolution does not provide noticeable improvements – unless you want to cut in. Many mid-range smartphones offer high-resolution cameras, but often give more grainy and poorer results than DSLR cameras with much lower megapixel numbers. This is mostly because smartphones are limited by physical space and use smaller image sensors than advanced cameras.

In short, a smaller image sensor collects less light. This translates directly into poorer picture quality, especially in low light situations. Conversely, larger sensors can achieve better dynamic range and exposure levels without resorting to solutions such as increased ISO or digital sharpness. Larger sensors are drivers for better image quality.

Read more: Why the camera’s sensor size is more important than multiple megapixels

Given the benefits of a larger sensor, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing smartphone manufacturers focus on improvements in this area year after year. That said, while some phones – including the Sony Ericsson Satio and Samsung Pixon 12 – offered great camera sensors as early as 2009, the vast majority of handsets did not jump on the bandwagon until relatively recently. With that in mind, let’s examine how large camera sensors in modern smartphones came to be and where the industry is headed.

Nokia N8 and 808 PureView: The first major 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 specifications than many point-and-shoot cameras in 2010. Nokia even produced a seven-minute short film with some of Hollywood’s finest to highlight the N8’s back then – Impressive 720p video recording capabilities.

In context, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S3 from the same year had a significantly smaller 1/3-inch camera sensor. The iPhone 5s sensor, meanwhile, was even smaller at 1 / 3.2 inches. It was actually the norm that smartphones at the time had small sensors of less than 1 cm. One-inch sensors were exclusive to DSLRs and professional cameras.

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

Although the N8 was well ahead of the competition, Nokia did not stop there. In 2012, the company released the 808 PureView with an even larger 41MP 1 / 1.2-inch sensor. Advances in processing power also enabled oversampling, which involves combining neighboring pixels into one for better light sensitivity. As it sounds familiar, today’s smartphones have a similar technology called pixel binning. Back then, though, Nokia’s computer photography game was far ahead of the curve.

Large camera sensors in smartphones over the years

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra 18 rear view showing camera module.

Luke Pollack / Android Authority

Although the Nokia 808 PureView was a technical breakthrough, the smartphone industry did not react to it until much later. A notable exception was the Panasonic Lumix Smart Camera CM1 from 2014. It included an even larger one-inch sensor. However, this came at the expense of a larger overall body compared to the standard Android smartphones at the time.

In the mainstream segment, however, improvements in sensor size would not come until the late 2010s. Most manufacturers continued to ship smartphones with sensors in the range of 1/3 to 1/2 inch. Even Samsung’s camera-centric smartphones – Galaxy S4 Zoom and Galaxy K Zoom – came with a 1 / 2.3-inch sensor, pretty small by modern standards. That said, it was still larger than their non-zoom counterparts’ 1 / 3.06-inch sensor. 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 exceed the 1/2-inch threshold. The 2018 Huawei Mate 20 Pro, for example, featured a 1 / 1.7-inch sensor – far larger than most other smartphones at the time. Combined with a large f / 1.8 aperture, Huawei delivered better image quality at night than most competitors. In fact, the Mate 20 Pro’s increased light collection capabilities allowed it to compete with Pixel’s then undefeated Night Sight feature.

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

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

Related: 15 best camera apps for Android

What does the future hold for smartphone sensors?

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. This is 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, which blew up a lot of the competition. The iPhone 13, meanwhile, moved to a 1 / 1.9-inch sensor – significantly larger than its predecessor’s 1 / 2.55-inch sensor.

As smartphone image sensors creep up to an empty mark, manufacturers have to compromise elsewhere – usually in the form of a big camera bump.

Some manufacturers like Sony and Sharp have even squeezed in a one-inch sensor. However, it is worth noting that large camera sensors often come with their own problems.

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

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