HTC’s latest flagship smartphone, called the HTC One
goes against the megapixel trend in smartphone cameras. They have introduced the new Ultrapixel Camera in the HTC One that promises to achieve better pictures with a 4 megapixel camera than the competing flagships from Apple and Samsung with higher megapixel specs. They have decided to focus on actual image quality. While this is noble and certainly could benefit the HTC customer, it could be a big challenge in the sales and marketing department.
The Megapixel Myth
When we Product Planning Pros market a new phone, we always want to promote some differentiating features so that the phone stands out in the crowd. Sometimes, we have to include certain features as ‘entry tickets’ just so the market will recognize it as a credible contender for the market’s mighty buck. Since camera phones entered the scene in 2005, the push has been for ever-higher pixel counts. For a while you wanted to claim a megapixel camera, then it needed to be more megapixels, and now, 5 to 8 megapixels is the entry standard in smartphones, with some offering up to 41 megapixels.
Many in the mobile device industry, including prominent reviewers and bloggers, have pointed out that there is more to a camera than the megapixel count. Yet, that is exactly the main thing that has been marketed to consumers. Like clock speed or cores in processors, more megapixels sounds like more to the consumer. What other information do they have when they visit their local shop to compare phones.
Is Ultrapixel a Better Camera?
The first distinguishing factor is the pixel size in the image sensor. It’s simple physics that a larger sensor can capture more light in less time given the same lens. So, HTC claims that each ‘pixel’ in the sensor collects 300% more light than certain competing 13 megapixel cameras.
Second, the Ultrapixel camera achieves the largest aperture in the smartphone market at f/2.0 which is 44% more than iPhone 5’s f/2.4 aperture. Capturing more light overall means that the camera will offer better contrast and color in low-light conditions and will show less blur when capturing fast action since the shutter speed can be faster. It also results in less noise in the image since more light is measured to even out the gaps.
Another advantage touted by HTC is the ISP (Image Signal Processor) to fully accommodate real-time video and image processing. Since there are less pixels, it is easier to achieve the processing throughput to keep up with the signals coming in from the camera. This means the camera can capture full-size images in the video capture without compression or other lossy techniques that degrade the image.
So, if we ignore megapixels for a second, we can see that this camera module is more in line with a compact digital camera than even the best camera phones. The pixel size and the aperture both set it apart from most smartphone cameras. It remains that the biggest downside is that it doesn’t compete on megapixels.
Will It Matter?
Megapixels matter according to most of the consumer research that I’ve been privileged to participate in or review. Most consumers are familiar with the term and equate it with a better camera. In fact, most consumers don’t differentiate the megapixel camera rating from the video capabilities, which is definitely recorded at a much smaller resolution (Full HD video is only about 2 megapixels).
The extreme megapixel example in the market was the Nokia 808 with a 41 megapixel camera. Nokia used the megapixels to deliver oversampled images (combining data from multiple pixels into one in the final image) and to allow for a better digital zoom experience. The reviews for that camera were pretty strong overall, with little complaint about the image quality, and much exposure due to the extreme megapixel rating.
I think that HTC recognizes the uphill battle they are taking on and have decided to try for a marketing reset for the camera. They seek to re-frame the customer’s decision process regarding smartphone camera expectations.
Their marketing reset starts with the Ultrapixel Camera name for their solution to sound like it’s better than the standard megapixels that other cameras offer. They have created a website to explain the camera and are trying to educate the consumer about their design efforts. I have also seen some mainstream press already discussing Ultrapixel as a departure from the megapixel myth, so likely they have executed a solid PR effort to achieve that.
Finally, they have paired the updated camera with their HTE Zoe shooting mode. The Zoe shooting mode captures up to 3 seconds and 20 full-scale images by pressing the shutter once. The photo gallery will animate the Zoe captures after a short delay so you get an active gallery with more pizzazz than a typical smartphone grid. Finally, the phone can group them into highlight videos with a selection of themes and it’s easy to share any of this created content to social networks. So, they have tried to emphasize more than just raw picture quality in their value proposition for the Ultrapixel Camera as part of the HTC One.
I think that HTC could have done even more to emphasize the experience advantages of their Ultrapixel camera configuration. Ultimately, their website ends up trumpeting f-stop and pixel size as the new specifications to compare, but consumers are already trained that megapixels matter. For example, they should put the low-light and motion capture performance advantages more to the forefront. I fully expected to see some comparisons on their website showing similar images with and without the Ultrapixel sensor. They should show images of the same scene taken with HTC One vs. competitive flagship smartphones.
HTC should, and still could, tap into the social network community with photo contests on Instagram or Flickr featuring low light or motion capture as the theme.
Finally, they could have invoked some brand or celebrity to endorse their efforts. If they were to attach a popular camera brand or a popular photographer’s name to the effort, that could help them offer credibility to the consumer that they can relate to instead of f-stop and pixel sizes. They have had success with this approach by partnering with Beats for their audio solution.
I think that HTC has made a decision to follow the path of designing for the customer experience, followed with the best marketing efforts they can deliver. I hope that the market is ready and receptive to a change from valuing cameras only on megapixel ratings. The whole smartphone industry would be better for it.