While the Google Pixel 5 will probably be an upgrade from the Pixel 4 in a number of ways, one thing that might not be changing much is the camera hardware, as rumors suggest it will stick with the same 12.2MP main sensor as its predecessor, and now we have a good idea of why.
In a conversation with The Verge, Marc Levoy (a former Google engineer who led the team that developed computational photography for Pixel phones) explained that changes to the hardware are offering diminishing returns, and in some cases come with their own problems.
Levoy said “Because of the diminishing returns due to the laws of physics, I don’t know that the basic sensors are that much of a draw.”
More pixels, more problems
He got more specific too. On the subject of upping the number of pixels, he explained (using 96MP as an example) that “I don’t know that going to 96 megapixels is a good idea.
“If you want to put 96 megapixels and you can’t squeeze a larger sensor physically into the form factor of the phone, then you have to make the pixels smaller, and you end up close to the diffraction limit and those pixels end up worse. They are noisier. It’s just not clear how much advantage you get.”
So the problem there is the form factor of phones – make them thicker and you might get some benefit, but Levoy notes that Nokia tried that and wasn’t commercially successful.
Another option is to use pixel binning, where the data from multiple pixels is combined into one. We’ve seen this on a number of phones, such as the OnePlus 8 Pro, which has a 48MP sensor but by default combines four pixels for 12MP shots.
However Levoy notes that these sensors tend to leave visual artifacts in images, concluding “whether that can really be adequately solved remains to be seen.”
So – while Levoy doesn’t confirm the rumors of Google sticking with the same sensor – it might make sense for the company to. That doesn’t mean the Pixel 5 won’t have camera improvements though, as there’s still room for advancements in the software.
Via Phone Arena