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The Honor View 20’s 48-megapixel camera is legit

It’s all about AI Ultra Clarity

Last July, Sony announced an intriguing new smartphone camera sensor. At 48 megapixels and half an inch across, the IMX586 is bigger than most mobile sensors on the market, and it offers far more resolution than competitors, despite not requiring a large camera bump. But with tiny 0.8-micron pixels, won’t image quality be compromised?

Well, the first phone to use the new sensor has arrived in the shape of Honor’s View 20, which was announced in full today in Paris. There’s a lot more to say about this phone, not least how its distinctive hole-punch display works out in practice. (A full review from Vlad Savov will follow soon.) In the meantime, I’ve been testing the phone’s headline feature to see if 48 megapixels can make a meaningful difference in mobile photography.

In short, the answer is “yes.” Under the right conditions, this phone takes amazing photos with detail far beyond what I’d expect from a conventional mobile image sensor. But it does require a little experimentation to get the best results, and the ideal mode for each situation may not always be what you might assume.

The default setting for the View 20’s camera is actually a 12-megapixel mode that supposedly delivers results akin to a much larger sensor with 1.6-micron pixels. This is because Sony’s sensor uses a quad-Bayer RGB layout involving 2 x 2 squares of pixels assigned to a given color, meaning that the effective resolution really is 12 megapixels. But the sensor allows the phone’s image signal processor to convert this array into a 48-megapixel image in good light. Honor also has a more advanced mode called “48MP AI Ultra Clarity” that uses the Kirin 980 processor’s machine learning capabilities. It requires a few seconds of holding the phone still in order to capture and combine multiple 48-megapixel frames, and Honor only advises using it in good light with stationary subjects. 

Here’s an image from Sony showing how the quad-Bayer filter and array conversion work:

For this comparison, I’ll be putting the View 20’s various modes up against each other and the iPhone XS Max. The iPhone’s popularity makes it a useful frame of reference, but it’s also a technically interesting comparison because of its combination of a 12-megapixel sensor and a 2x telephoto lens. You’d expect Honor to out-resolve the iPhone’s main 12-megapixel camera, but can the greater sensor resolution catch up to longer optics?

None of these photos have been edited in any way other than by cropping to show pixel-level detail. 

First, here’s a 12-megapixel shot taken facing Tokyo Skytree at around 2PM on a cloudless, sunny day. In other words, these are the best possible conditions for tiny pixels to do their thing. The View 20 is on the left, the iPhone XS Max is on the right.

Honor View 20 (left) and iPhone XS Max (right).

As you can see, these are really different exposures, and the one you think is better will come down to personal preference. The iPhone’s Smart HDR processing turns in an even, flatter photo with more depth in the shadows, while the View 20 shot is a lot more dramatic and contrasty. Check out that gradient in the sky.

Now, let’s take a look at the pixel-level detail on this shot.

Honor View 20 on the left. iPhone XS Max on the right.
Honor View 20 on the left. iPhone XS Max on the right.

The View 20 clearly wins in terms of detail, even with both cameras shooting at 12 megapixels. But how do the 48-megapixel modes compare?

View 20 48-megapixel shots with AI Ultra Clarity mode turned off (left) and on (right).
View 20 48-megapixel shots with AI Ultra Clarity mode turned off (left) and on (right).

As you can see, there’s basically no benefit to using the regular 48-megapixel mode over the default 12 megapixels. All you’re getting is a larger file size, essentially. The separate 48-megapixel AI Ultra Clarity mode, however, is stunning. This is an amazing level of detail for a phone camera to capture from so far away.

Here’s how it compares to the iPhone XS Max’s 2x zoom lens, which mathematically should offer about the same resolution.

View 20 48-megapixel AI Ultra Clarity (left). iPhone XS Max 2x zoom (right).
View 20 48-megapixel AI Ultra Clarity (left). iPhone XS Max 2x zoom (right).

The iPhone image is sharper and obviously better exposed, but it’s impressive that the View 20 holds up as well as it does here. Remember, this was taken with a wide-angle lens, and it exhibits this degree of sharpness across the whole scene, whereas the iPhone’s frame is zoomed in twice as far.

A similar comparison could be made with the Pixel 3, which Google claims can emulate a 2x zoom lens through its AI-powered Super Res Zoom feature. Again, though, the Honor phone achieves a comparable level of detail across an uncropped wide-angle frame.

Here’s a 12-megapixel shot taken in the shade (iPhone on the right):

Honor View 20 on the left, iPhone XS Max on the right.

And here’s how the 12-megapixel mode compares to AI Ultra Clarity:

Overall, I am very impressed with AI Ultra Clarity’s ability to capture a ton of detail across the frame. It also holds up pretty well with moving objects, to an extent, despite not being designed for it. Here’s a picture of a cyclist in motion, for example, that exhibits no artifacts:

This picture of a boat, too, turned out pretty well:

But the mode doesn’t work for faster-moving subjects, partly because you have to hold the phone still for several seconds and partly because you end up with a rolling shutter-style effect, as seen on this taxi:

The View 20’s camera is capable in low light, but as Honor suggests, you don’t get much benefit out of the 48-megapixel shooting modes. Instead, it’s best to use the default 12-megapixel setting, which bunches four pixels of the same color together for better light sensitivity, supposedly resulting in the equivalent of 1.6-micron pixels. Here’s a shot next to the native 12-megapixel, 1.4-micron iPhone:

Honor View 20 (12 megapixels) on the left, iPhone XS Max on the right

The View 20 shot is much brighter and more detailed. It’s clear that while Honor is applying more aggressive processing and sharpening, the camera does capture more detail to work with in the first place. You could certainly make the case that Honor goes a little too far, however. There’s a lot of artifacting in the first crop shown here.

Honor View 20 (12 megapixels) on the left. iPhone XS Max on the right.
Honor View 20 (12 megapixels) on the left. iPhone XS Max on the right.
Honor View 20 (12 megapixels) on the left. iPhone XS Max on the right.
Honor View 20 (12 megapixels) on the left. iPhone XS Max on the right.

The View 20 also has a dedicated night mode, but, unfortunately, it isn’t very good. While it does sometimes result in a more pleasing exposure, the results I’ve seen are usually blurrier than the default 12-megapixel setting, and they fall apart under scrutiny. When the night mode photos are usable, they don’t end up looking much different than regular shots.

Here’s a comparison between a 12-megapixel shot and a night mode shot:

Honor View 20 default 12-megapixel mode (left) and night mode (right).

The night mode shot had an exposure that was 80 times longer than the regular shot’s, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the two. Google’s Night Sight this is not.

For comparison, though, here’s the iPhone photo:

Shot on iPhone XS Max.
Shot on iPhone XS Max.

Both of the View 20's photos are much better than this, so the underwhelming night mode isn’t that big a deal.

We’ll have to spend more time with the View 20 to fully evaluate it as a phone and as a camera. But from this first look, the results from Sony’s sensor and Honor’s so-called AI processing are impressive. You can extract a huge amount of detail out of this camera, and there’s only the tiniest of physical bumps to show for it.

Photography by Sam Byford / The Verge