Smartphone photography is about to take a huge leap forward—and I got a sneak peek at that future last week.
Using a new Samsung phone that comes with a powerful zoom lens, I was able to read tiny writing on a label stuck to a light stand 15-feet away. Without the zoom, I could barely see the label, let alone the writing on it.
Samsung unveiled that phone, the Galaxy S20 Ultra, on Tuesday, with pre-orders starting on Feb. 21 and shipments on March 6. It has a lens that can magnify by 10 times everything it focuses on. With the additional help of software that digitally enhances image quality, the phone can magnify scenes by 100 times, according to Samsung.
It’s easily the most powerful zoom lens ever in a phone. And the external design still looked like a pretty ordinary phone, despite the telephoto upgrade.
There’s a simple truth about telephoto lenses: They require multiple, internal lenses placed one in front of the other. Those components can take up a lot of space, forcing manufacturers to produce phones with ugly bumps.
Even with the bump, current phones, including last year’s Samsung Galaxy S10 and Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro, come with lenses that make subjects appear only twice as big, or a two-times zoom. Software tricks and A.I. can increase magnification, but that usually comes with obviously reduced picture quality.
The new Ultra, which costs $1,400, has a few other tricks besides the zoom lens. It’s larger than any previous Galaxy phone, with a 6.9-inch screen. It also has built-in 5G compatibility to connect to the fastest wireless networks for uploading high-resolution pictures and videos rapidly.
In addition to announcing the Ultra at an event in San Francisco on Tuesday, Samsung unveiled a few other phones. Those include the S20, a $1,000 5G phone that comes with a 6.2-inch screen, and a larger S20+ that also comes with 5G compatibility and a 6.7-inch screen, for $1,200. Those two phones have zoom lenses that feature three-times optical magnification, or 30 times when software enhancement is used.
Also on Tuesday, Samsung unveiled a folding phone dubbed the Z Flip, which will go sale later this year. The phone, hinted at during a recent Super Bowl commercial, is smaller than Samsung’s folding phone from last year, the Galaxy Fold, and is designed to easily fit into a pocket when folded.
How did they fit the lens?
The better zoom lens isn’t the only lens on the new S20 line of phones. All three models also have a traditional lens for taking typical shots and a wide-angle lens that is suitable for group shots or landscapes. And, of course, all three have a selfie camera on the front.
To fit the new lens with the 10-times optical zoom in the S20 Ultra without creating a bump, Samsung invented a new way to install the lens. Instead of it emerging from the back of the phone, as all prior phone lenses did, the longer lens is tucked inside the phone and placed sideways instead of facing straight out of the back of the phone. To bring the image into the lens, the phone includes a prism to reflect light at an angle through the sideways lens.
It’s the same principle that allows a submarine skipper to use a periscope to see what’s happening on the ocean’s surface.
Telephoto lenses are one of the few areas of photography remaining in which the quality of smartphone pictures still lags far behind traditional cameras. To get 10-times magnification on a full frame D-SLR camera requires a 500 mm lens, which can cost close to $10,000 and weigh seven pounds or more.
Recently, Fortune was allowed to test the camera on the Ultra for about an hour. The picture quality with the 10-times optical zoom was comparable to the best smartphone pictures available on current models with much lesser zooms. Lines and lettering were sharp, and colors were accurate.
The even greater 100-times zoom using software quickly degraded the image quality, however. Still, it was about as crisp and vibrant as regular smartphone pictures from four or five years ago.
The bigger problem with the massive 100-times zoom is holding the phone steady. Even the slightest shake caused the deeply zoomed picture to bounce around, making focusing difficult. Even propping the phone on a table failed to eliminate all of the shakiness.
Samsung is touting the 100-times zoom as one of the S20 Ultra’s top features, but it’s still a bit of a gimmick given the fuzzier images and the challenge to hold the phone still. But that shouldn’t diminish the amazing achievement of including the more useful 10-times zoom lens.
With the appeal of the new cameras and pent-up demand after some underwhelming upgrades the past few years from Samsung, the S20 line up should sell 40 million phones this year, analysts at Counterpoint Research noted last week. That would be the most since the S7 line up back in 2016, the research firm says.
And that’s no gimmick.
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