Honor will focus on larger pixels instead of more megapixels for its flagships
Huawei’s presence on the US Entity List has resulted in serious issues for its smartphone business. The company is still banned from using Google Mobile Services (GMS) on new device launches, which means that it has been forced to promote its alternative HMS ecosystem for phone launches going forward. Four months after its announcement, the Huawei Mate 30 series suffers from limited international availability due to the fact that it lacks GMS; most international consumers regard GMS as an indispensable feature on Android. Therefore, Huawei’s smartphone business is now strongly reliant on its home Chinese market due to the current political scenario. Honor, a subsidiary owned by Huawei, is affected by the same issues. The brand’s latest phone launches, the Honor V30 and the Honor V30 Pro, are still China-only phones. It’s a sorry situation, because as we have seen before, both Huawei and Honor’s devices were genuine contenders for some of the best phones of 2018 and 2019, particularly with respect to camera performance. Now, Honor has clarified its stance on high megapixel cameras.
Honor’s Kailang Shen stated on Weibo that the brand won’t be following other device makers that have either released phones with 108MP cameras, or are about to release such phones. He said that achieving 108MP can only be done by going with a 0.8μm pixel size. The company, however, believes that the 1μm pixel size is the smallest that can ensure “flagship sensitivity and image quality requirements”. Therefore, Honor will be forgoing 108MP primary cameras on its 2020 phone launches, and will instead go with large pixels rather than higher megapixels.
It’s important to know about the background information for this statement. In 2019, Honor released the Honor View20, Honor 20, and the Honor 20 Pro globally. All of these phones had a 48MP primary camera, using the Sony IMX586 Quad Bayer sensor with 0.8μm pixel size. With 4-in-1 pixel binning, it was capable of producing 12MP photos with an equivalent pixel size of 1.6μm. The Quad Bayer nature of the sensor meant that it had less color resolution than a sensor with a standard Bayer color filter. The IMX586 proved to be a very popular sensor in 2019, as multiple vendors opted to use it for their flagship and mid-range phone launches.
In the second half of the year, some phones opted to use Samsung’s 64MP ISOCELL Bright GW1 sensor, which had the same 0.8μm pixel size and 4-in-1 pixel binning. The pioneering Xiaomi Mi Note 10 was launched in October with a 108MP Samsung ISOCELL Bright HMX sensor, which also had a 0.8μm pixel size (the sensor size was a correspondingly huge 1/1.3″). Finally, in December, the Xiaomi Redmi K30 and the OPPO Reno3 were launched with the brand new 64MP Sony IMX686 sensor with 0.8μm pixel size, which is the successor to the IMX586. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G is also reported to use a 108MP primary camera. All of these sensors have a Quad Bayer filter array. The pixel size has been kept constant at 0.8μm by increasing the camera’s resolution while making the sensor correspondingly bigger.
Honor’s latest flagships went with a different approach, however. The Honor V30 Pro has a 40MP primary sensor with a Quad Bayer layout, 1μm pixel size, and 4-in-1 pixel binning for 10MP pixel binned photos. It uses the same custom Sony IMX600 sensor that was previously used in Huawei flagships. Honor’s large pixel approach is of merit when we consider physics. Large pixel size cameras inherently have better performance in low light because of better light sensitivity, assuming that all other factors such as the lens and image processing are kept constant. OmniVision’s launch this month of its new OV48C 48MP image sensor backs up Honor’s approach. It’s a 48MP standard Bayer sensor with 1.2μm pixel size that can use near-pixel binning to produce 12MP photos with 2.4μm equivalent pixel size, which would theoretically give us the best of both worlds.
Huawei and Honor’s smartphone cameras were some of the best smartphone cameras in 2019. If the trade ban is resolved in the near future, it’s safe to assume that they will resume their usual place near the top of the smartphone camera rankings.