Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are full of new stuff: a new display that stretches across more of the phone than ever, a new processor, a new digital assistant. One thing that isn’t really new, however, is the camera on the back of the phone.
That initially feels kind of crazy, right? Much like its competitors, Samsung over the years made an increasingly bigger deal about its smartphone cameras. In the previous four Unpacked events, the company spent anywhere between five to seven minutes talking about the newness of the cameras on its smartphones. For an event that typically ranges between about 45 minutes to an hour, that’s a big chunk.
At yesterday’s S8 unveiling, the company only spent two minutes.
Two minutes devoted to what has been a major selling point for smartphones after the spec war of the late 2000s reached a detente. It was a jarring contrast to past Samsung press conferences, which were always heavy on specs and especially gimmicky camera features. At 2013’s Galaxy S4 event (which took place at Radio City Music Hall), for example, Samsung went so far while touting the camera that it put on a painfully awkward stage show where overzealous actors pretended to use the phone to photograph a dance recital.
So why the shift? For one, the camera on the Galaxy S7 phones was really good. It was basically dead even with the iPhone 7 and Google Pixel in most situations, and even outperformed those phones in others. This gave Samsung leeway to focus on things the company believes are more important to consumers, like big, beautiful displays and refinements to the hardware. (There’s no sense in blaming Samsung for making that decision, either — the S8 looks incredibly fresh next to an iPhone 7.) It also gave the company a chance to get in the digital assistant game with Bixby.
You could also argue that Samsung, knowing it already had a stunner in the S7’s rear shooter, decided to upgrade the more important camera — the one on the front of the phone. The S8’s selfie cam uses an 8-megapixel sensor and has improved face detection for autofocus. It seems like it will be a significant step up from the S7’s 5-megapixel front-facing camera, which is wild, because that was arguably the best one on the market already.
I also think there’s a more philosophical part of the equation to why Samsung decided to let the S7’s camera module ride for another year. Like we’ve seen in the DSLRs or mirrorless camera markets, the smartphone camera spec race has been about even for a year or two, and it seems to be running out of track.
All the leading smartphones have 12- or 13-megapixel back cameras, all of them have apertures of f2.0 or brighter, and many of them have optical image stabilization. Consumers no longer have to worry about whether the phone they want has a good camera because they all do. And in the meantime it’s gotten increasingly hard to say which phone has the “best” one.
That’s great for consumers, but what’s really exciting about this situation is that it’s forcing the top smartphone makers to figure out ways to differentiate themselves beyond specs. Apple decided to add a second camera to the back of its iPhone 7 Plus, giving users more versatility by offering them more hardware. Google put the full weight of an entire software team — one that came out of its experimental projects devision — behind the effort to make the Pixel capable of doing more than its sensor and lens array would typically allow.
Samsung might be headed in a slightly similar direction as Google. One of the only new things the company announced about the S8’s camera was that it can perform a similar trick to the Pixel’s HDR+ mode, where the phone takes multiple pictures as you tap the shutter and combines the best attributes of them into one image.
It’s a capability that gives the Pixel a big advantage in low-light situations. But it’s unclear (and probably unlikely) that Samsung’s putting as much computational strength behind its smartphone cameras as Google. And it doesn’t seem like it’s ready to add something like a second camera to the back of the phone just yet.
In the past, Samsung used the Note line to roll out the most advanced features it had in the pipeline before bringing them to its flagship phones. Of course, Samsung literally got burned last year with the Note 7 for pushing this line of thinking a few milliamp hours too far. Maybe the Note 8 is going to have some kind revolutionary camera tech, or maybe the company is just trying to figure out the best approach to sell smartphone photography while past success affords it a moment to spare. With that in mind, it’s not so surprising to see the company exercise a little patience.
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