2021 might only be a couple of months old, but I have already been overwhelmingly impressed with the standard of phone cameras that have passed over my desk.
With the lack of any big MWC smartphone showcase event so far this year, phone brands have been releasing new flagship devices at a different pace than normal. Instead of one big event heralding in the suspected devices, seen a smattering of solo events starting with Samsung in January and Oppo’s launch of the Find X3 Pro earlier this week.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 series (notably the Galaxy S21 Ultra), the Xiaomi Mi 11 and the aforementioned Find X3 Pro all have great screens, top-drawer chipsets and more RAM than is probably necessary for a best Android phone in 2021. However, they all stick out particularly for their cameras.
For many years the Google Pixel has sat at the top of our best camera phone list, batting off any competition with ease. There was even a time when the previous Pixel device could produce nicer photos than that meant Galaxy phone, all because of the extraordinary computational wizardry that went on behind the scenes.
This just claimed the case anymore and if Google wants to be back at the top table of smartphone cameras the Pixel 6 needs to be a big step forward.
While Google has focussed on those AI skills; Samsung, Oppo and many others have all pushed ahead with higher megapixel cameras (mostly built by Sony and Samsung itself) and offering skills beyond your standard wide and ultra wide lenses. The Oppo Find X3 Pro, for example, has a microscopic camera for getting ridiculously close to a subject and the telephoto skills of the S21 Ultra outperform the competition. Simply put, it’s not enough anymore for Google to just focus on the main camera and expect its phone to stand out for that.
Now, I can probably give Google a free pass for the lack of innovation in 2020. This was an odd year, where it decided against focussing on the flagship market and instead went with the more modest Pixel 5. This had the same main 12MP sensor as the past few Pixel phones and while it took good and often great pictures, it was no longer standout.
What I really want to see from Google this year is for the Pixel line to take back that flagship camera crown – and as we have seen in the past it’s more than capable of doing so.
A new sensor, some zoom tricks and even more improvements to its AI computational backend. Could we see the year out with the Pixel back on top in terms of smartphone cameras? I really do hope so.