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Apple is catching up with the iPhone 11 camera
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"Customers love iPhone because we focus on technologies that matter in their lives," said Apple's Kaiann Drance when he introduced the iPhone 11 yesterday. If that is the case, then Apple's competitors have been doing the same for longer when it comes to the camera. What was previously rejected as gimmicks are now the most important functions for Apple.

The two largest additions to the iPhone 11 camera system, the ultra-wide lens and night mode, are commonplace on Android phones. That is not really relevant for most iPhone buyers, who just want a phone with iOS and will enjoy the new possibilities. But because it is impossible to know if Apple has overtaken competitors in the area that matters most – basic image quality – the camera part of the presentation felt a bit flat.

Apple was one of the first companies to introduce a system with two cameras on a phone, and certainly one of the first to make it really useful. The telephoto camera of the iPhone 7 Plus made portraits possible and greatly improved zoom image quality, the area where telephones still lag behind cheap point-and-shoot cameras. So it was a bit surprising to see that Apple closed the telephoto lens in favor of the new ultra-wide lens for the dual camera system of the iPhone 11.

Make no mistake, ultrawide is a great feature and Apple has spent a lot of time explaining the dramatic creative possibilities it offers. Anyone who upgrades to the iPhone 11 will have a lot of fun with it. But why now? LG earns credit for groundbreaking ultra-wide cameras on each of its flagship phones since the G5 in early 2016, and now in 2019 almost every other mid-to-high-end Android phone has one. Apple is just catching up here.

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This also applies to the iPhone 11 Pro, which this year has a triple camera system like any other flagship phone. Apple & # 39; s Phil Schiller called it a & # 39; pro camera system & # 39; but if the Pro does something other than the regular 11, except keeping the telephoto camera close and improving the aperture to f / 2.0, said he didn't. Schiller pointed out that between the ultra-wide and telephoto camera & # 39; s the 11 Pro has a zoom range of 4x, which is true. But it still has no farther range than the XS, and it can't match phones like Oppo's Reno 10x Zoom, which (confusingly) has about 8x optical zoom range with its ultra-wide and 5x telephoto lenses.


Meanwhile, night mode is a feature that uncovered Apple's lack of competition in low-light photography when Google introduced it to Pixel phones a year ago, and the situation was exacerbated by Huawei's even more impressive vision of the idea. In reality, the iPhone XS is worse than all competitors in low light, even when they don't use night mode, although the way the iPhone 11 automatically activates the function should help a lot there. But again, it is more a defensive addition than an innovation. Apple just had to add a night mode this year to stay in the conversation.

As far as basic image quality is concerned, Apple did not have much to say. Last year, the company made a major hardware leap by adding a physically larger main image sensor to the iPhone XS, so it was unlikely that we would see a similar change in the iPhone 11. The biggest difference with the main camera is that it now uses 100 percent focus pixels over the entire sensor, which supposedly should give three times faster autofocus in low light. The selfie camera gets a more significant improvement, jumps from 7 to 12 megapixels and uses a wider lens – although portrait selfies are standard zoomed in and cropped to 7 megapixels.

It was remarkable that Apple continued to claim that the iPhone 11 can record video of the highest quality on a smartphone, a claim that is fully credible. The video capabilities of the iPhone are already leading and with improved recording of extended dynamic range in the 11 there is no reason to expect that someone will catch up soon. However, Apple really can't say the same about the image quality of still images, and that's where attention will fall when the new iPhones find their way to the world.

As always, the image quality of the new iPhones is determined by the company's software stack and how it works with the image signal processor in the A13 Bionic processor. In other words, does Smart HDR get better? Apple says it has adjusted the image pipeline, now including "semantic display" to get a better idea of ​​the subject and how to best expose the photo, while "next-gen Smart HDR" uses multi-scale tone mapping to process highlights in specific parts of the image. There is also a new feature called Deep Fusion that Schiller described as & # 39; computational photography mad science & # 39; but it will not be ready until later in the year.

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Smart HDR is a technically impressive feature that retains a lot of dynamic range and editing space in most photos, but does not always produce the most pleasant images. In addition to Google's Pixel phones, for example, iPhone XS photos often seem to have no punch and contrast. It is not surprising that Apple did not talk about taste and subjective aesthetic considerations on stage, because that would have flown over the heads of most viewers who just want their cameras to capture the scene well. But we will have to wait and see if the approach to image tuning has changed with the iPhone 11.

That is really the story with Apple & # 39; s camera presentation in general. The iPhone 11 Pro has more or less achieved equality with its competitors, and people upgrading from the iOS ecosystem will undoubtedly be happy with the ultrawide camera and night mode. From a broader perspective, however, we will not know whether Apple has returned to the days of supremacy with the iPhone camera until we have the new devices under control.