Rear Camera Configurations — What’s the Future for Android?

Rear Camera Configurations — What’s the Future for Android?

We recently asked you about your preferences with rear camera layouts on smartphones. Seeing how Android has evolved from sporting a single rear camera to now as many as five cameras, their placement on the back lends itself to the aesthetic appeal of the device, as well as to practical decisions in holding the device to not obstruct the field of view of the camera with your finger. What is even more important than the layout of the camera is the actual camera hardware itself, as that directly and substantially affects the use cases of your phone.

Single rear camera setups did not have many options to go around, as most OEMs tended to stick with a “normal” sensor. The early years of Android were also characterized by the Megapixel Race, where every OEM tried their best to cram in as many megapixels into their camera as possible. This came at the cost of a decreasing pixel size and a smaller sensor, which OEMs were happy to compromise on back then. HTC dared to innovate against the wave by focusing on larger pixels with the HTC One (M7), packing in a camera with 4MP resolution but big 2 μm “Ultrapixels”. Opinion differs on whether the One M7 managed to fight the myth that megapixels meant everything: the phone had science backing it, but marketing stacked against it. The phone was enough of a success for HTC to keep making more flagships, and retain the Ultrapixel camera.

Dual rear cameras took a while to become a fad, even though they made their first appearance back in 2011 with devices like the LG Optimus 3D and the HTC Evo 3D. Using two cameras on the rear, OEMs could perceive depth information using a smartphone, similar in concept to how our eyes function. HTC continued on its innovation streak with the HTC One M8, the successor to the ‘ultrapixel’ One M7, adding in a second camera on the back specifically to capture depth information. This allowed users to add background blur to images, or refocus them after shooting. Looking back, both the HTC One M7 and M8 were ahead of their time, as features we saw back then are now widely accepted as standard. Sadly, the HTC One M9 got rid of the secondary rear camera, while the HTC 10 got rid of the Ultrapixel technology; the rest, as they, is history.

HTC One M8 with dual cameras placed in the center of the back. (2014)

Dual rear cameras also became popular as a means to add other features. The Huawei P9 added in a monochrome sensor on the back, promising more details in daylight and less noise at night. The LG G5, on the other hand, packed in a wide-angle lens which gave wider field-of-view. So instead of using two rear cameras together to capture information to be used in one image, both the cameras on the G5 could function independently to give different results.

Nowadays, dual rear cameras have become the standard across Android smartphones, except in the very early stages of the budget segment. Even budget devices like Xiaomi’s Redmi series come with dual rear cameras, mainly a regular camera coupled with a depth sensor, so it will feel odd when a device will not come with at least two rear cameras. Devices like the Honor View 20 have gone one step further by introducing ToF (Time of Flight) sensors for much greater accuracy with depth sensing. Pixel binning technology has also caught on, and this has been made further popular with sensors that have begun touching 48MP resolution for photos.

With three rear cameras, such as on the industry-pioneering Huawei P20 Pro packed in a regular camera, a monochrome shooter, and a telephoto camera with 3x optical zoom. The idea was to put in optical zoom capabilities to the setup from the Huawei P10. This allowed users to get in closer to images without losing details that they would have otherwise lost through digital zoom. The Huawei Mate 20 Pro perfected this setup by switching out the monochrome sensor (whose actual contribution was disputed by many) with an ultrawide lens camera.

Then come smartphones with four rear cameras, mixing and matching the best use-cases we have seen so far, to give a setup that is theoretically equipped to handle any situation. The Samsung Galaxy A9 (2018) mixed in a main camera with a wide-angle camera, a telephoto camera and a depth sensing camera, giving the end user so much more variety with how shots could be framed.

The Nokia 9 PureView will always be considered the bar for “crazy”, as it packed in a total of six rear cameras. However, despite the great potential, the execution has been botched up. Two of the rear cameras are RGB sensors, three are monochrome, while the sixth camera is a ToF sensor. All of them work simultaneously to create a combined image — none of these can work independently. Packing in six rear cameras still need work, and Nokia 9’s implementation is far from being called perfect.

The Nokia 9 PureView with several-camera layout.

The Honor 20 series is slated to launch on May 21, 2019 at an event in London, and the teaser image for the event focuses a lot on the camera setup of the device. The prevalence of “4” in the teaser makes us believe there might be four cameras on the device, so it will be interesting to see which configuration Honor decides to go on this particular device. If the Honor VIew20 is any inspiration, we could see a 48MP rear camera and a ToF sensor at least. Other possible options in the configuration could range from wide angle lens, a telephoto lens or a monochrome sensor. It remains to be seen which exact configuration is used on the Honor 20.

Teaser image for Honor 20

For our readers, we ask you these questions:

  1. What is your preferred rear camera configuration in a reasonable budget?
  2. How many cameras do you ideally need on the back of your device?
  3. Are you content with a “regular” camera with a lower MP count, or do you actively look for a higher MP count?
  4. Do you prefer a high MP count with pixel binning, or without pixel binning?
  5. Do you click enough portrait shots to justify the existence of a dedicated depth sensor or ToF sensor, or do you prefer having those for when you do need them?
  6. Do you have enough usage to justify a wide angle lens camera, and similarly, a telephoto camera?
  7. Do you think monochrome sensors should make a comeback?
  8. What do you predict will be the sweet spot for rear camera configurations on Android?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

About author

Ronald Comstock
Ronald Comstock

I am a lover of Android and work on the sponsorship team at XDA-Developers, making sure the bills get paid.