Will the HTC M7's rumored Ultrapixels up the ante?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: February 4, 2013

One thing you can always rely on is me griping about a smartphone with a terrible camera. Although smartphones are effectively shooting through pinhole-sized sensors, several manufacturers have proven that capturing quality images with a smartphone camera – even in low-light situations – is possible.

Through using better glass, better software and using tricks that were only possible with SLRs, such as adjusting shutter speed and optical image stabilization, some recent smartphones are capable of taking some great shots. With a little know-how, the right techniques and the help of some applications, you can easily take shots that are comparable to point and shoot cameras or even better.

Yet manufacturers continue to pump out smartphones with cameras that are barely passable. Details are lost in compression, and when lighting is anything but perfect, noise litters images.

Every time I switch to another phone, I'm reminded of how awful some smartphone cameras truly are. Last week, I switched to the Nexus 4. And while it performs well in most situations, it's hardly the best camera around. Since the phone arrived on my doorstep, I have struggled with a sharp auto-focus and white balance, among other things.

As silly as it may seem, image sensing may be the next big metaphorical land grab in the mobile realm. Display quality is on the verge of plateauing, battery life issues are being resolved with extra large capacity cells, storage concerns will soon be a non-issue and performance is solid across the board. Some of the larger variables now are build and camera quality.

If a recent rumor holds true, however, HTC could have a solution for those all too common blurry, noisy pictures from smartphone cameras that lack detail and truly impressive quality.

Rumor has it that HTC will utilize what the company is calling "Ultrapixels" in its still upcoming handset, the M7. Instead of the 13-megapixel camera that has been mentioned a time or two, the M7 will allegedly sport three inline 4.3-megapixel sensors. Using the three sensors simultaneously, says Pocket-lint's Stuart Miles, three lots of data will be combined to form a single pixel. Ultimately, what this means is the output would not be the roomy 13-megapixels, but rather a 4.3-megapixel image.

Initially, this sounds … bad. And judging by how manufacturers have spec-bumped cameras using megapixels, we're trained to immediately scoff at anything shy of the standard 8-megapixels.

I will admit, I'm skeptical of the output – not because it's 4.3-megapixels, but because HTC has a track record for hyping its smartphone image sensors to the media and dropping the ball on delivery. Take ImageSense, for example. With the f/2.1 lens and the dedicated ImageChip, the One X, One S, One X+ and DROID DNA were all supposed to have fantastic smartphone cameras. To be frank, they didn't. Those shooters were hardly any better than the competition and still fall short of the iPhone 5 and even the Samsung Galaxy S III's camera.

That said, the result from the three stacked sensors in the M7 is supposed to deliver a much sharper, clearer and more detailed image. Color reproduction is supposedly much more accurate, too. The resolution of the images should hardly be a problem for most. No, you're not going to get the full output of a 16-megapixel point and shoot image. But the output resolution should be in the ballpark of 2,240 by 1,680 pixels.

Sure, this is notably smaller than the 3,264 by 1,840 pixels from the 8-megapixel DROID DNA or 3,264 by 2,448 pixels from the iPhone camera. But the only way this would truly affect you is if you plan to print or heavily crop your pictures. A 4-megapixel camera can produce a decent-quality 16-inch by 20-inch print, whereas an 8-megapixel camera would look much sharper, even as a 20-inch by 30-inch print.

The 4.3-megapixel camera will suffice for the 8 by 10s on your walls and coffee tables, if that's your thing. And it will be more than enough for sharing your pictures to Instagram, where they will be cropped to 612 by 612 pixels, Facebook and Twitter. They will even look great on Google+, which allows full-resolution uploads to Picasa. Unless you have a Retina Display MacBook Pro, you could even use the pictures for desktop wallpapers.

But image resolution is only half the battle. That's all for nothing if HTC slips up again in image sensor quality. Here's to hoping the stacked sensor gambit works for them, because it's going to be an uphill battle trying to convince the uneducated general public that a phone with a 4.3-megapixel camera can take better pictures than the 8- and 13-megapixel cameras on other phones.

What say you, folks? Would you buy the M7 if it comes with the three 4.3-megapixel stacked sensors? Do you think it will take quality images? I'm all for it, if it means my phone can take better images with more detail and more accurate color.

Products mentioned