Taking a closer look
Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge
Samsungs newly announced Galaxy S20 Ultra offers a new feature that the company is calling Space Zoom, which allows its cameras to offer a total combined optical and digital zoom of 100x. That sounds like one of the biggest zooms weve seen on a mainstream smartphone, but theres a lot of nuance to how Samsungs phone achieves the figure. In short, its all down to a combination of optical zooming hardware, image processing, and an exceptionally high-resolution sensor.
At lower levels of zoom, Samsung is relying on a folded 4x telephoto lens behind the hole in the back of the phone, which its combining with a 48-megapixel sensor. Then, between 4x and 10x zoom, the phone offers what Samsung is calling a lossless hybrid optic zoom, which relies on a combination of sensor cropping and binning where multiple pixels are combined into one big pixel. The use of the word lossless implies that Samsung doesnt think youll see any loss of quality up to 10x zoom. Then, between 10x and 100x zoom, the phone is using similar methods, but its a digital zoom that will inevitably mean less detail as the zoom increases.
This 100x zoom is exclusive to the S20 Ultra. The S20 and S20 Plus, meanwhile, offer a hybrid optical zoom that tops out at 3x rather than 10x, while their maximum zoom levels sit at 30x rather than 100x.
Huawei and Oppos phones have previously gone up to 50x and 60x zoom
Samsungs method of getting to 100x isnt entirely unique. For example, last year, Huawei used a similar folded zoom lens on the P30 Pro. In Huaweis case, it had an 8-megapixel sensor underpinning the telephoto camera with an optical zoom of 5x and was then able to add data from the cameras main 40-megapixel sensor to offer a hybrid lossless zoom up to 10x. In our experience, we didnt think this lossless claim was 100 percent accurate due to a slight loss of detail at 10x zoom, but it was a small drop in quality overall. The total digital zoom topped out at 50x, but well-lit images stopped being usable beyond around 32x. Meanwhile, the Oppo Reno 10x Zoom offered software-enhanced zooming up to 60x and used a similar hybrid system to zoom up to 10x. In our testing, the Oppo produced sharp, well-exposed 13-megapixel zoom shots in good light that quickly turned blurry at night.
The S20 Ultras main sensor has a resolution of 108 megapixels
One of the bigger hardware differences between Samsung, Huawei, and Oppos phones is that Samsung is using much higher-resolution sensors for both the S20 Ultras periscope and main cameras. While the P30 Pros telephoto camera had a resolution of 8 megapixels, and the Reno 10x Zooms was 13 megapixels, Samsung is using a 48-megapixel sensor with its periscope lens. Then, the S20 Ultras main camera has an incredibly high-resolution 108-megapixel sensor, compared to the 40-megapixel sensor on the Huawei and 48-megapixel on the Oppo. The two sensors combined give Samsungs handset access to more data, which could potentially result in more detailed images.
Increasing the resolution of a sensor can cause its own problems, such as worse low-light performance due to having smaller individual pixels. Samsung claims to have found a solution to these problems, but we wont know whether its done so for sure until we can fully test the feature for ourselves.
Having said all of that, the relationship between smartphone camera specs and real-life performance is very hard to predict. Apples latest round of iPhones, for example, produces impressive photos from a selection of 12-megapixel camera sensors. As my colleague Sam Byford has made clear in the past, megapixel count or even physical sensor size just arent that meaningful at this point the image processing pipeline and computational photography make a much bigger difference to how well your phones camera will perform.
Well be putting Samsungs 108 megapixels and 100x zoom to the test in our upcoming review, so stay tuned.
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