While 5G's arrival is getting more attention, camera tech advances might ultimately be a bigger selling point for many buyers of high-end smartphones next year.
A new report about Samsung's (SSNLF) upcoming Galaxy S11 flagship phones -- all of which might have 5G modems -- helps drive this point home. According to Bloomberg, the next Galaxy S11 will have four rear cameras, including one that has a 108-megapixel resolution and another that features a 5x optical zoom. In addition, like Samsung's Galaxy Note 10+, the S11 will have a time-of-flight (ToF) sensor that enables features such as better depth-of-field effects for portrait shots and the ability to create 3D models of recorded objects to use within augmented reality apps.
Samsung definitely isn't the only Android OEM to be pushing the envelope when it comes to camera tech. The camera systems on high-end Huawei phones such as the P30 Pro and Mate 30 Pro have been getting very high marks in reviews. Among other things, the P30 Pro has a 5x optical zoom and a 10x "hybrid zoom" mode that leverages multiple lenses, and the Mate 30 Pro has a pair of 40-megapixel cameras to go with an 8-megapixel telephoto camera that has a 3x optical zoom. And both phones also have ToF sensors.
Fellow Chinese OEM Oppo also managed to put a 5x optical zoom inside of a phone. And while there isn't anything too special about the two rear cameras on Alphabet/Google's (GOOGL) Pixel 4 phones in terms of specs, they maintain the Pixel line's reputation for top-notch photo quality thanks to their superb image-processing abilities (enabled by a custom chip) and various AI-powered software features.
Cameras, of course, are also a big selling point for Apple's (AAPL) latest flagship iPhones, with many reviewers declaring the iPhone 11 Pro to have the best rear-camera system of any phone on the market thanks to its inclusion of three quality image sensors and a number of software improvements. A rear-camera system featuring a ToF sensor, along with new software capabilities that are enabled by the ToF sensor, is rumored to be in the works for Apple's 2020 flagship iPhones.
At a time when smartphone upgrade cycles continue to lengthen and cameras remain a major selling point for many would-be phone buyers, OEMs are clearly trying to push the envelope more when it comes to camera tech. And ultimately, these moves could have a bigger impact on smartphone upgrade activity in 2020 than the integration of 5G radios within mass-market high-end phones, given that it's still far from certain that 5G will deliver major near-term improvement to the smartphone user experience for consumers who are currently getting good 4G speeds.
Companies such as Samsung and Apple naturally benefit if new camera features help boost phone upgrade rates. And in the case of Samsung, which (given iOS and Android loyalty rates) is competing far more against other Android OEMs than Apple, the fact that Huawei's non-Chinese sales are being stung by the loss of access to Google's apps and services could give a boost to Galaxy S11 sales to camera enthusiasts.
Some chip suppliers should benefit from a camera arms race as well. Qualcomm, no doubt aware of this arms race, didn't pull any punches when it came to the image-processing abilities of its just-announced Snapdragon 865 processor, which should go into many 2020 flagship Android phones (including, most likely, some Galaxy S11 models). Among other things, the 865 can process 2 gigapixels of image data per second and support photo resolutions of up to 200 megapixels and video resolutions of up to 8K. Qualcomm also put a lot of work into providing better image-processing power efficiency.Sony ( SNE) , which supplies image sensors to Apple and many other smartphone OEMs (though not Samsung, which uses its own sensors), naturally benefits when OEMs decide to pack more image sensors, and more powerful sensors, within a phone. And growing penetration rates for ToF sensors benefits ToF sensor suppliers such as STMicroelectronics ( STM) and Analog Devices ( ADI)