How Google Camera HDR+ Improves the Image Quality of Xiaomi Budget Phones
Xiaomi is currently the second largest smartphone manufacturer in India, and for good reason. Consistently, the manufacturer has posted class-leading performance and display quality at an exceptional value for its price. One thing, however, that Xiaomi hasn’t yet been able to nail is the camera performance of their budget smartphones. Thankfully, we now have the Google Camera HDR+ port.
The Redmi Note 3, released in 2016, started a trend of underperforming camera quality in Xiaomi phones. It excelled in almost everything else, but had unfortunately only average image quality. The Redmi 3S and the Mi Max released later that year didn’t do much to improve things. Even the flagship Mi 5 couldn’t compete with the camera of the OnePlus 3, although the camera specifications of both phones were almost the same. Other competitors at the same price point had weaker specifications but were able to boast better camera performance.
A Troubled Camera
Despite Xiaomi’s meteoric rise in popularity in the Indian smartphone market in 2017, things haven’t changed on this front. Camera quality still hasn’t been a priority for Xiaomi for most of this year, but this situation is slowly beginning to change with the release of camera-centric mid-range smartphones such as the Mi A1 – which we should note lacks any form of video stabilization.
The Redmi Note 4, the Redmi 4, and the Mi Max 2 all had relatively poor image quality despite having fairly decent camera specifications. The Redmi Note 4, for example, has a 13MP ⅓-inch Sony IMX258 sensor with a f/2.0 lens and 1.1 micron pixels.
It’s interesting to note that the camera sensor used is the same one found in the LG G6. Of course, the G6 has a superior f/1.8 lens, superior ISP (aided by the Snapdragon 821’s Hexagon DSP), and optical image stabilization but the difference between the image quality of the Redmi Note 4 and the G6 is too vast to be explained purely by these factors. The key ingredient missing here is image processing.
While LG didn’t have best-in-class image processing with the G6, it’s still several orders of magnitude better than what Xiaomi offers with the Redmi Note 4. The Redmi Note 4’s photos are overly soft even in daylight and detail preservation is poor, leading to the oil painting effect. The smudging is harsh and it manages to destroy detail without addressing the noise.
In low light, there is no comparison because the Redmi Note 4 (as well as the Redmi 4, and to a lesser extent, the Mi Max 2) falls apart in low light conditions. The photos taken in low light, both in outdoor and indoor scenarios, are incredibly dark, noisy, and lack fine detail. Once again, this shouldn’t be the case as other OEMs have made better use of the same camera sensors.
Xiaomi recommends using the HHT (Hand Held Twilight) mode in low light, which does produce better results as it uses image stacking. However, the photos still turn out to be poor in even moderate lighting indoors. To give an example, the LG G3 from 2014 has a much older sensor (the 13MP IMX135), yet manages to take better photos with much more detail in both daylight and low light conditions thanks to exposure combining and use of long exposures (made possible because of its Optical Image Stabilization).
While there may be light at the end of the tunnel for Xiaomi users with the release of phones such as the Xiaomi Mi A1, this doesn’t help Redmi users who have bought a Redmi device in 2016 or 2017. Even in the case of the Mi A1, its low light photos are markedly improved from the Redmi Note 4, but it still isn’t competitive with older flagships and most importantly its newer competitors.
Google Camera HDR+ Port
So what are we to do? Here is where the unofficial port of the Google Camera app, complete with Google’s HDR+ technology, comes to the rescue. An explanation of what HDR+ means and the workflow it consists of can be found here. To put it simply, Google’s HDR+ algorithm is one of the primary reasons why the camera of the Google Pixel is rated so highly. It uses computational photography and image stacking to make up hardware deficits elsewhere (such as the lack of OIS) and preserves detail with luminance noise instead of destroying it.
Suggested reading: Google Camera HDR+ Port Updated with RAW Support, HDR Customization
Multiple versions of the Google Camera port are available, but I recommend you use this one which is fully point-and-shoot and doesn’t require fiddling with settings to set up the HDR+ algorithm. Xiaomi devices require the Camera2 API to be manually enabled with a build.prop edit – thus root is required to use this port on Xiaomi phones. So yes, you should root your Xiaomi device if you haven’t done so already.
The Google Camera HDR+ port works without needing additional modifications on AOSP-based custom ROMs such as LineageOS – no need to edit the build.prop.
MIUI Camera App vs. Google Camera Port
In order to test differences in image quality, I tried out a comparison between the Google Camera HDR+ port installed on a Redmi Note 3 running official LineageOS 14.1 and the stock MIUI camera app installed on a Redmi Note 4 running the stock MIUI 8.5 Global ROM.
Normally, in a stock-vs-stock camera comparison, the Redmi Note 4 is expected to win considering it has a better camera than the Redmi Note 3. The megapixel count is lower, but 16MP on such a small sensor was of limited use, and hence the pixel size is bigger (1.1 micron vs. 1.0 micron).
Here, however, Google Camera’s software HDR+ changes the game entirely. While HDR+ on these budget devices doesn’t work as well as it does on a OnePlus 3T, it’s still quite effective in many cases. Take a look at the following image samples:
The Redmi Note 3’s image quality is dramatically improved by using HDR+ auto (the default setting) on the Google Camera port. In daylight, sharpness is better and detail is marginally improved. As these samples have the HDR+ auto setting enabled, the poor dynamic range of the camera is mitigated quite a bit to the point where you can actually take a usable back-lit photo. Color detail is also superb with HDR+ with colours being true-to-life and accurately depicted instead of appearing undersaturated.
The price to pay for this improvement in image quality is the capturing and processing speed. It takes longer to snap photos in the Google Camera app compared to the stock MIUI camera which is basically instant. There is also substantial processing lag in the order of seconds – you have to wait 5-10 seconds for the processing to take place. (In fairness to the Note 3, the processing delay also exists on Snapdragon 820 devices and is even found on the Pixel).
The Redmi Note 4’s camera quality proves equivalent or even inferior to the Redmi Note 3 using Google Camera HDR+. In daylight, the Redmi Note 4 has many of the same issues which have plagued other Xiaomi budget devices in the past-namely poor dynamic range-which means it’s difficult to take a photo and have a properly exposed sky. This basically means that you have to leave HDR enabled all the time in daylight as there is still no auto HDR toggle in the MIUI camera app.
Detail is also poor, and the detail captured isn’t representative of the true detail a 13MP camera could capture. It’s on par with the Redmi Note 3 Google Camera samples here, but we’ve seen better elsewhere.
The foliage has this characteristic smudged, soft Xiaomi processing look. HDR processing – which does mitigate the dynamic range issue – requires the phone to be held steady as it takes 2+ seconds to process the image.
In low light, we would expect the Redmi Note 4 to win by a substantial margin because of its bigger pixels, but it ends up being a close contest. The Redmi Note 3 with the MIUI camera app has below average low light image quality, which could be slightly improved using HHT mode. The Google Camera port, however, unlocks the full potential of its abilities.
With the Redmi Note 3 using Google Camera, detail is mostly similar in the two phones. Color detail is very poor on the Redmi Note 4, to the point that all colors are undersaturated, compounded by the lack of contrast in photos. HDR+ proves its worth again by having much superior colour detail in low light in the Redmi Note 3 samples. Also, dynamic range is once again better in the Redmi Note 3. The plus points for the Redmi Note 4? It has better sharpness in low light conditions and it can take photos more quickly.
An Improved Redmi Note 3 Camera Experience
In conclusion, the Redmi Note 4 has better camera hardware, but because of HDR+ in the Google Camera app, the Redmi Note 3 can take equally as good or even better photos than the Redmi Note 4. The Redmi Note 4 will likely regain its camera advantage after installing Google Camera, but when it comes to the MIUI camera app vs. Google Camera, the latter is the clear victor. As such, users with Xiaomi’s budget smartphones should consider installing this camera port as soon as possible if they want to unlock the true potential of their smartphone camera. If you want to learn more, check out our article explaining the Google Camera HDR+ port!