Sunday Debate: Great Camera Hardware, or Software?

Sunday Debate: Great Camera Hardware, or Software?

Join us in a fun Sunday Debate on phone cameras. Come with your opinions and feel free to read some of our thoughts, then pick your side or play devil’s advocate to get your voice heard and engage in friendly discussion. You can read our food-for-thought or jump straight into the fray below!

 

 

Cameras are typically one of the main attractions of a smartphone, and in the last couple of years, the advancements in this mobile picture-taking have been tremendous. For the longest time, Android was considered below iPhones when it comes to cameras, but last year things took a turn for the better. The Note 4 and LG G3, in particular, shook the mainstream crowd with cameras that seemed too good to be true in a phone. What the average consumer ignores, however, is the technology behind the camera experience that phones provide… and as with so many things in tech, there’s a hardware and a software aspect to it.

This debate is perhaps a little trickier than usual, because the impact of hardware or software in a resulting photo is sometimes hard to discern. But when it comes to OEMs, we see that some focus primarily on software and others on extensively on hardware. A quick example would be the G4 vs. the S6. The S6 features a Sony IMX240 sensor that makes for a camera module that is rather similar to that of the Note 4, excluding things like the addition of F1.9 aperture. However, these two phones take vastly different pictures due to the software upgrades on the S6. The G4, however, focuses extensively on hardware with laser auto-focus, a color spectrum sensor, F1.8 aperture and OIS 2.0. Does the focus on software or hardware matter outside of just pictures as well?

Like in many  of our debates, the two fronts are not mutually exclusive. You can have good camera hardware and then on top of that, amazing software post-processing and functionality. This debate is about which focus  is more useful or efficient, especially for your use case. With these things in mind, we ask:

Do you typically care more about camera apps, post-processing software, shooting modes and features, or the camera hardware that allows for fast focusing, stabilized video, crisper pictures, and higher pixelcounts? Feel free to jump to the comments now or read our thoughts:

 

Hardware

With good camera hardware – and we mean exceptionally good – the need for good post-processing effects is diminished. When it comes to things such as low-lighting, for example, certain hardware configurations can edge even the most advanced of post-processing algorithms. Exceptional camera hardware will typically perform decently no matter what app or ROM you are using. For us at XDA, this is a big deal, as trying out different software alternatives is the core of our hobby. Good camera hardware can be future proofed for longer periods of time, too, as you can deliver software updates indefinitely – and until modular phones are a thing, good camera hardware off the bat remains a good alternative.

On this last bit is where we find the most important argument in favor: software updates, XDA mods, and the like can dramatically enhance picture quality. The Nexus 5 and Moto X saw great quality bumps, as did the M9 very recently, but even good cameras can be improved later on through mods (I typically flash new camera apps on my phones, and never regret it). With a good hardware foundation, you don’t have to worry about getting the short end in any regard if you know that developer or OEM support is good enough. Moreover, good camera hardware can allow for cutting edge technology that is virtually impossible to replicate through software (hardware OIS, for example, trumps every method of smart stabilization on phones). However, if the emphasis on hardware is too strong, the camera experience can suffer from simplistic shooting modes and features or poor auto-mode, where you’ll be shooting most of your pictures anyway.

Software

Camera software can do wonders. With my Note 4 (which was sent out this Friday for an exchange due to a hardware defect in… the camera’s focusing, ironically) I was always surprised at how amazing pictures would come out in low-light once the post-processing took place. Sometimes, they would look brighter than the actual room and still remain solid. The S6 is another shining example, which took software post-processing even further and is now considered the top ranking smartphone camera by DxOMark (will the G4 beat it?). Software can also get you many shooting modes and features ranging from gimmicky to surprisingly fun or interesting, but the best part is that a good auto-mode can make your picture-taking experience much better than a hardware powerhouse phone without good camera software.

The main drawback from a deep emphasis on camera software, as many XDA users have come to know, is that the proprietary bits don’t carry on to some third-party software or custom ROMs. TouchWiz users are keenly aware of this, as camera quality goes down dramatically on non-TouchWiz ROMs, and it truly shows just how significant Samsung’s software is to the overall experience. Sony’s DRM keys being lost when unlocking a bootloader is also a headache for Xperia users. Moreover, some things in OEMs’ camera software are obviously non-tweakable (or at the very least, very hard to modify), making the software-focused cameras not extremely flexible. Finally, an OEM might focus too much on camera software that could end up surpassed by a third-party alternative in certain aspects.

 

Debating

On one hand, good camera hardware allows for things that are not (easily) replicable through software, can greatly benefit from software updates better than bad camera hardware, and has more homogeneous quality within different apps and ROMs. Camera software can also be upgraded through updates, though, and it can intelligently turn a mediocre picture into a looker. Some post-processing algorithms are unbelievable at their job, and the additional functionality can be a blast or a life-saver. Finally, a good auto-mode is a must for a smartphone and this typically relies on software substantially as well.

  • Do you prefer excellent camera hardware over great camera software?
  • What have your experiences with smartphone cameras been like?
  • Do you think your picture-taking experience benefits better from your phone’s hardware, or from its software?

About author

Mario Tomás Serrafero
Mario Tomás Serrafero

Mario developed his love for technology in Argentina, where a flagship smartphone costs a few months of salary. Forced to maximize whatever device he could get, he came to know and love XDA. Quantifying smartphone metrics and creating benchmarks are his favorite hobbies. Mario holds a Bachelor's in Mathematics and currently spends most of his time classifying cat and dog pictures as a Data Science graduate student.