Camera and display advances might end up stealing the spotlight this year for a 5G-obsessed smartphone industry.
Samsung's (SSNLF) Galaxy Unpacked event on Tuesday, where the company unveiled its Galaxy S20 flagship phones and its Galaxy Z Flip foldable phone, drove this home. Though (as expected) Samsung packed 5G radios within all three of its S20 phones -- the 6.2-inch, $999, S20; the 6.7-inch, $1,199, S20 Plus; and the 6.9-inch, $1,399, S20 Ultra -- that's arguably not the most interesting thing about them at a time when 5G networks are still in their infancies.
To recap, smartphone makers have been driving camera advances along four tangents in recent years:
- Increasing the number of cameras on a phone.
- Using larger, higher-quality and higher-resolution image sensors.
- Adding optical zoom support, as well as improving the ability to perform digital zoom with limited image degradation (up to a point, anyway).
- Using some mixture of sensors, machine learning algorithms and more powerful processors to deliver features such as better low-light shots, greater dynamic range and depth-of-field and portrait lighting effects.
While camera counts for Samsung's S20 phones are largely similar to those for comparable Galaxy S10 models -- there are three cameras on the back, and one on the front -- Samsung definitely pushed the envelope in areas two through four.
The S20 and S20 Plus each sport 64-megapixel (64MP) telephoto cameras, to go with 12MP ultra-wide and wide-angle cameras and a 10MP front camera. Meanwhile, the S20 Ultra has a 40MP front camera, a 12MP ultra-wide camera, a 108MP wide-angle camera (a reviewer at The Verge insists it's not a gimmick after trying it out) and a 48MP telephoto camera that zooms farther than the S20 and S20 Plus's cameras. And both the S20 Plus and Ultra also have 3D sensors that enable depth-of-field effects.
The S20 phones also support varying levels of optical zoom, with the S20 Ultra supporting a 10x "hybrid optic zoom" feature. And for all of the phones, Samsung added a feature called Single Take that spends up to 10 seconds taking photos and short video clips with different cameras, and then lets users pick which ones they want to keep.
Samsung also gave the S20 phones OLED displays with 120-hertz (120Hz) refresh rates -- twice what its phones have typically delivered. As owners of 120Hz TV sets can attest, a 120Hz refresh rate can make a notable difference in terms of how fluid and lifelike visuals appear on a screen.
These moves, it should be noted, come after Chinese OEMs such as Huawei and Oppo launched high-end phones last year that packed a slew of camera innovations. And they also come amid reports that Apple (AAPL) , which saw the iPhone 11 Pro's cameras get rave reviews last year, plans to include (along with 5G radios) a 3D rear-camera system and 120Hz displays within its 2020 flagship iPhones.
Separately, following a rocky 2019 debut for its first foldable phone (the $1,980 Galaxy Fold), Samsung has mostly seen positive initial reactions for the Galaxy Z Flip, which packs a 6.7-inch display, has a clamshell design and starts at $1,380. Those who have had a chance to play with the Flip generally have good things to say about its form factor, display and build quality, as well as a split-screen mode for apps (developed with Google's (GOOGL) help) that lets each half of the Flip's display show different things.
Foldable phones are still very much at the early-adopter stage of their lifecycle. A lot of work still needs to be done to bring down prices, improve battery life and re-write apps so that they can fully leverage foldable form factors. But as the Flip's improvements relative to the Fold highlight, foldables are at least reaching a point where they can carve out a high-end niche.
And meanwhile, at slightly lower price points, the camera and display improvements being delivered by non-foldable, flagship, high-end phones could end up having a bigger impact on 2020's smartphone upgrade rates than 5G's arrival.