If we’re talking about flagship smartphones, there are only four phones that matter. The year almost always starts with the introduction of Samsung’s Galaxy series in March, followed by a Galaxy Note in September and the iPhone soon after. Google rounds off the flagships with a Pixel device at the end of the year.
Given that we’re in January now, the first phone on the list is the Samsung Galaxy S9. At CES 2018, Samsung’s DJ Koh confirmed that we would indeed be seeing the flagship devices at MWC (Mobile World Congress) in February. Better yet, someone leaked an image of what seems to be the retail packaging for the upcoming S9, which also reveals many of the phone’s features. Gizchina posted the leaked image on its site.
We aren’t expecting the phone’s design to change very much, and why should it? The S8 was a stunning phone to begin with. We also expected the usual, incremental updates, such as faster hardware, a better camera and so on. Samsung’s reveal of the flagship Exynos 9810 SoC, which is expected to power this year’s Samsung flagships, hinted at several upcoming features. For example, the SoC supports Face ID like features and 4K@240 fps slow-mo video.
The leaked retail box confirms at least one of those features — Super Slow-mo — and drops a completely unexpected bomb with regards to the camera hardware.
While we were initially expecting the S9 to sport a dual camera setup on the rear, as was introduced in the Note 8 last year, the Google Pixel 2 camera and subsequent reports suggested that Samsung would go with a simpler single camera setup for its device. Interestingly, the box indicates that the S9 is indeed getting a single camera setup, but, that it will feature a dual-aperture setup.
Specifically, the box states: “Super Speed Dual Pixel 12 MP OIS (F1.5/2.4).”
Let’s break that down. The “Super Speed” probably refers to the fact that focussing is super-fast. The “dual pixel” bit refers to the design of the camera sensor that actually captures the light, and also describes the focussing technology. Dual Pixel autofocus is very fast and has been used in smartphone cameras for many years now. “OIS” simply refers to optical image stabilisation, which is a technique for eliminating blur due to shaky hands or other factors. It’s optical IS, which means that the lens or sensor element physically moves to compensate for shake. This has also been a common feature on flagship smartphones for many years now.
The most exciting part comes at the end, however, the “(F1.5/2.4)” bit. This number refers to what photographers call the F-stop or lens aperture. The smaller the number the larger the lens opening that allows light to enter. Larger cameras such as DSLRs support variable apertures. Smartphone cameras are so tiny that they’re usually locked to one aperture.
As a rule of thumb, the smaller that F-stop, the larger the amount of light that comes in and the better the bokeh (background blur). More light means better low-light photography and cleaner images. Better bokeh means that generally, your images look less cluttered.
Last year’s Galaxy S8 offered a rear camera with an F1.7 lens, which was already superb. An upcoming F1.5 lens means that low-light performance could be improved by as much as 25-30 percent over last year.
We’re still puzzled by the option of F2.4 on the rear, however. Why would Samsung need two apertures on a single lens smartphone camera? Large cameras like DSLRs benefit from variable aperture lenses because the of something called depth-of-field (DOF). DOF is simply the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that are in focus. For reasons too complicated to explain here, DOF is not much of a factor for smartphone cameras because of how small the sensors are. While an F1.4 lens on a DSLR camera will have a DOF of a few cm, an F1.4 lens on a smartphone camera might have a DOF of several metres. This is also the reason why cameras must resort to artificial means like software to create bokeh and other effects.
Samsung did introduce what could be the same dual-aperture camera on the W2018, and even there, the explanation wasn’t particularly sensible. Apparently, the F2.4 aperture is used when the camera detects that there’s enough light. This is done to “get more of the background into focus”. Superficially, that makes sense. But, given the aforementioned sensor-size issue, it doesn’t make sense.
We suspect that the dual-aperture system will primarily be used to deliver a better single-camera portrait mode experience. If the camera can switch apertures fast enough, it should be able to take two images at different apertures and blur out the background better using the data. Since there’s no dual-camera system and the image frame will remain the same, this task should be much easier.
Either way, we’re just guessing here and the true purpose of the dual-aperture might be something else entirely. Come February, Samsung will likely reveal all anyway.
The rest of the leaked specs are nothing particularly exciting. According to the image, the phone will feature a 5.8-inch QHD+ sAMOLED display, an 8 MP selfie camera with auto-focus, stereo speakers tuned by AKG, IP68 water and dust resistance, an iris scanner, wireless charging support, 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of internal storage.
GizChina also reports of another leakster who claims that the Galaxy S9 will come equipped with a 12 MP dual-aperture camera and that the S9 Plus will feature a 12 MP + 13 MP dual rear camera setup. The report adds that “Super Slow-mo” support refers to a ridiculously quick 960 fps video mode.
Sony introduced the 960 fps video mode last year, but the implementation was gimmicky and on the XZ1, one could only record one second of 960 fps video.
We wonder how Samsung has implemented the feature.