Focus turns to cameras as smartphone war heats up

Oppo’s latest smartphone camera technology, which the Chinese firm announced at the Mobile World Congress 2017, allows for 5x optical zoom.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Bigger sensors and more megapixels are no longer enough these days for annual updates to smartphone cameras, as manufacturers look to differentiate their device's cameras in an increasingly saturated handset market.

For one thing, competition is heating up in the dual-lens camera trend for smartphones today, in which monochrome and colour lenses are commonly used to improve the image quality of photos.

Huawei's P10 flagship handset and LG's G6 smartphone, which will be released later this year, both sport this feature.

But Chinese smartphone manufacturer Oppo could be charting a different approach to improve photo quality.

Instead of launching new phones at last week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the firm chose to announce new optical zoom technology for smartphone cameras, signalling the company's increasing focus on cameras in a bid to compete with its rivals, said analysts.

"As smartphone hardware becomes increasingly commoditised, handset manufacturers are turning to software features and camera capabilities to differentiate themselves from the competition," said Mr Gerard Tan, senior director of technology retail tracking at market research firm GfK Asia.

Oppo's technology focuses on achieving near-telephoto lens quality on a smartphone, which will allow users to take sharp, clear shots of subjects from far away.

It said its new camera design, inspired by a periscope, fits two sensors in a 5.7-inch module that can allow for lossless 5x optical zoom.

The technology makes use of two lenses on the phone - a telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens - to achieve this effect. It is a different approach to the current dual-lens trend of smartphones today, which does not focus on optical zoom like Oppo's new tech.

"A 5x dual camera optical zoom is a significant improvement from what is currently available on the market," said GfK's Mr Tan.

The optical zoom feature lets users take much clearer pictures from a distance compared with digital zoom, he added. "Consumers will find this feature useful when they need to take a scenery shot while travelling, for example."

Oppo has yet to announce any phones with the 5x optical zoom technology, or said when the first phone with the feature is expected to be launched, even though it had working prototypes at its booth during the Mobile World Congress.

"The 5x zoom has already passed all of our technical tests, so we are waiting for the right time to launch and market it," said Oppo hardware director Dr King Bai.

However, consumers can expect more of such new features in the months and years to come, according to Mr Cris Duy Tran, a consulting analyst for digital transformation at market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

"The high-end tech war is just beginning. From what I know by talking to some of these brands, they still have many different technologies ready to be launched from their labs," he said.

He also noted that the current dual-lens camera set-up has allowed for features such as wide-angle functions on phones.

On Oppo's new camera tech, Mr Tran said:"This is one way of engaging in the battle with Huawei and its Leica-camera lenses.

"The updated camera feature will start pushing (Oppo's handsets) closer to the 'elite' class of smartphones, away from the cheap-budget perception before."

This article was first published on March 8, 2017.
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