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What are ultrapixels? HTC's new camera technique explained

News by Andrew Kameka on Wednesday February 20, 2013.

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What is an ultrapixel? The simple answer is that an ultrapixel is a marketing term cooked up by HTC to explain to customers why the new HTC One doesn't have as many megapixels, the camera measuring unit most familiar to consumers, as they might find on other smartphones. HTC has released more details on the ultrapixel vs. megapixel debate as a way to explain why its approach to mobile photography is better than previous setups.

Megapixels don't affect photo quality as much as the average consumer believes. They are definitely important, but most cameras today have reached a point where the difference in megapixel count is not as important as other factors. Lighting, sensor quality, and image processing software are more important in determining photo quality. Unfortunately, consumers have been conditioned to believe that more means better, so people wrongly assume that the higher the megapixel count, the better the camera. This has led to misinformation and confusion that causes some people to believe that a 13 megapixel camera is automatically better than an 8 megapixel camera, which isn't exactly true. HTC uses the term "ultrapixel" as a way of changing the conversation and explaining why the HTC One camera, which basically has a 4 megapixel lens, can best cameras with MP ratings that are twice as high.

When a camera takes a photograph, its sensor groups millions of pixels together to form an image. An ultrapixel doesn't try to raise the pixel count; it tries to raise the size of individual pixels. The HTC One camera sensor benefits by having larger pixel sizes that capture more light and information - as much as three times more, according to HTC - than the typical smartphone. Because capturing ample amounts of light is a crucial element of taking good photographs, an ultrapixel is supposedly better-equipped to handle low-light conditions and produce higher-quality photos.

Ultrapixel comparison - image credit to HTC
Ultrapixel comparison - image credit to HTC

The concept of the ultrapixel is that by introducing more light into a single pixel, cameras are able to pick up more detail, better color, and produce a higher-quality photograph. In theory, having a 2.0 micrometer ultrapixel absorbs more light than the 1.4 micrometer pixel in most smartphones, so more light should increase the chances of a good image. The old approach of stacking as many megapixels as possible really just fragments the image sensor and allows each pixel to capture less light, which leads to distortion and lower-quality images. HTC decided to utilize a better quality sensor and invent the "ultrapixels" branding measurement as a way of breaking the megapixel mindset that makes people believe 8 megapixels are automatically better than 4.

Ironically, the way HTC pitches ultrapixels could potentially just create a new way to mislead people. Sensors are incredibly important to camera quality, but if we get into a war of comparing ultrapixels vs. megapixels without taking into account the many other factors of a solid image, we may trade one misleading spec for another. Having larger pixel sizes and capturing more light won't mean much if there isn't stabilization and the proper software to process the captured image. Stellar photography is the result of many factors, and the ultrapixel benefit could easily be overshadowed if HTC does not have the total package to deliver better results. HTC has detailed that the One does include optical image stabilization and its HTC ImageSense chip, but we'll have to wait until the final software is released and available for more rigid testing to truly gauge the benefit of its new camera approach. HTC One Ultrapixel sample
HTC One Ultrapixel sample

I took a few photos with an HTC One at yesterday's announcement event but the lighting there was terrible and the camera was tethered to a security device, so it was difficult to get a steady shot. I sent the samples to my email and still noticed noise, but I expected as much given the conditions in which they were taken. I'll reserve judgement until it's possible to do better testing.

Ultrapixels are a novel concept, but regardless of what HTC calls its camera technology, we can't exactly say that it has reinvented the wheel yet. It will be a long time before people know or care about the difference between a megapixel and ultrapixel, so let's just hope that the HTC One will actually enhance mobile photography and not just usher in a new spec war that doesn't tell the full story.

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About the author

Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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