The MWC 2019 at Barcelona kicks off today. Or rather, it started two days ago when Oppo held its Barcelona event, and then on Sunday that was yesterday, others brought out their big guns. But today the event opens formally.
Xiaomi on Sunday showed the Mi 9 and the Mi Mix 3 5G. Huawei, following Samsung’s Galaxy Fold foldable phone launch in San Francisco on February 20, showcased its own foldable phone called Huawei Mate X. Nokia brought the Nokia 9 Pureview to the game, and hoped that the 5 rear cameras in this phone will steal the show. Impressive products all of them. The Samsung Galaxy S10 and the Galaxy Fold, Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G, Nokia 9, and no doubt a few more we will see in coming days… all of them are result of some top engineering. But for me, the one technology that has stood out so far is Oppo’s 10X camera module.
Yes, 5G is going to change the world. Yes, the foldable phones are going to not just change the world but are also going to change how we use smartphones. The multiple cameras in a phone is a trend we can’t ignore. But right now it is the zoom technology that Oppo showed that seems most impressive. The reason is simple: It aims to solve an immediate problem, the problem of telephoto photography with a smartphone.
In the last couple of years smartphones, at least the ones that you can call premium phones, have become incredibly good at clicking photos. Phones like Google Pixel 3 are so good that they are better than most of the cheap point-and-shoot cameras and in some ways can even beat mainstream DSLR cameras using technologies like Night Sight and HDR+.
A lot of smartphones now come with a medium length telephoto lens that, when used with some smart algorithms and image processing can let people click portrait photos. Many phones also come with a wide-angle lens for more panoramic shots. Phones like the Huawei P20 Pro come with a greyscale filter or image sensor, which captures data that helps in sharper and more detailed low-light photos.
But one area where regular cameras continue to be better is the optical zoom. Call this final frontier for smartphone cameras. The laws of physics, and the size of smartphones, mean that you are not going to get a 500mm telephoto lens in your smartphone anytime soon.
This is the reason why the technology that Oppo showed on Saturday is impressive. The 10X optical zoom that Oppo is offering in a smartphone may not be 500mm but it is a huge improvement over some 55mm telephoto lens that Apple, Huawei and Samsung are putting in their top phones. Until 500 lens, which is at the beginning of the beginning of the telephoto range, the 10X camera module prepared by Oppo comes with 160mm lens.
The technology is not yet available but it is apparently good enough to go into the phones. Oppo had a number of demo units, all regular smartphones with this technology, at the MWC and reports are that the telephoto lens in these Oppo demo units works as intended.
This makes the 10X Oppo technology so exciting. Unlike 5G, which is going to take a while before it reaches people, or a foldable phone that is also apparently one year away, the 10X optical zoom is coming into smartphones in Q2 of 2019. In other words, there will be smartphones — and it is possible that OnePlus 7 is one of them — that will offer 10X optical zoom to users in May or June.
A 160mm lens will not make the smartphone a tool for telephoto photography. It will not let you click the close-ups of birds or follow the wildlife during a safari in savannah. The challenges for that kind of photography with a smartphone still seem insurmountable. Focus, speed, reach… everything is required for good photography with telephoto lenses. Smartphone cameras don’t have that yet. But there is no doubt that the 10X optical zoom tech demonstrated by Oppo is a crucial towards making smartphone cameras versatile.