Samsung Galaxy S7 / S7 edge: leaving the MegaPixel race to compete with Apple

Samsung is focusing on the camera as one of the unique selling points of both its new flagships, the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge. And: Samsung is clearly attacking the iPhone 6S camera. In this post you'll read all about the radical changes in the camera specifications - and you'll find a few test shots I could make earlier.

Although far from uncommon in the industry, I was still a bit susprised to see how much emphasis Samsung put on imaging during the presentation of its new flagship. Of course, bragging about the best camera in a smartphone has devaluated quite a bit since Sony has been disappointing even with the Xperia Z5, but that doesn't mean Samsung can't deliver. 

General specifications
I've been holding the Galaxy S7 edge for a while, and its size is somewhere between the S6 edge and S6 edge +, which I must admit is just about "perfect" for me. The Galaxy S6 edge was just a bit too small after working with the S6 edge +, which on the other hand appeared a bit too big for my hands. If there's ever going to be a Galaxy S7 edge + I can't believe it will be bigger than it's predecessor.

Mind you, the Galaxy S7 edge has a 5.5 inch screen, whereas the Galaxy S7 (without "edge") has 5.1 inch, making it considerably smaller. Resolution of the sAMOLED display is the same on both: QHD (1440x2560), but there is a large difference in the battery capacity: 3000 mAh (S7) vs 3600 mAh (S7 edge) - bigger display, so there's more need and more room for power. Wireless charging has become a lot faster too - you'll need about 150 minutes to charge the largest battery, which is 69% faster according to Samsung.

Both run on the Samsung 64 bit Exynos 8 processor: quad 2.3Ghz and Qua 1.6Ghz - Samsung says CPU is 50% faster and GPU even 77% faster than on the Galaxy S6. Both the S7 and S7 edge have 4GB (!) of RAM, and the standard capacity of 32GB eMMC can be expanded with a microSD up to 200GB. Of course you'll find LTE and WiFi on the spec sheet as well. Last but not least both are dust & water resistant (IP68).

Camera specifications
Lo and behold: Samsung is leaving the MegaPixel race in favor of faster autofocus and more light. With a smaller sensor, it's possible to minize the way the lens protudes from the back, as you can see in this picture - it's quite a difference indeed, 0.46mm instead of 1.33mm - about 60% less!

Now how does Samsung achieve faster autofocus and more light? 
1. Less Megapixels, but larger pixels. Now you'll get a maximum of 12MP in 4:3 aspect ratio. The size of the pixels changed from 1.12µm to 1.4µm, adding 25% to the size of each pixel. It's the same size as found on the sensor of the Nokia 808 PureView (which might give some of you an idea what it could be capable of). More important for now: it's larger than the 1.22µm pixels found in the "iSight" camera of the iPhone 6S and S6 Plus (with a 12MP sensor).
2. Larger aperture. Samsung increased the aperture from f/1.9 on the Galaxy S6 to f/1.7 on the Galaxy S7. Worth noting that's a lot wider than on the iPhone 6S (f/2.2).
3. Dual pixel technology. All pixels are now "dual" and this is a first according to Samsung. The Galaxy S6 only used 0.7% of the 16MP pixels to focus, the S7 however uses all (100%) to focus on the subject.

Again according to Samsung, under normal light conditions, the Galaxy S6 would need 0.3 seconds to autofocus and the Galaxy S7 only 0.15 seconds. In low light (20 lux), the S6 would need 0.85 seconds, the S7 only 0.2 seconds. That would mean a serious improvement indeed.

Counting pixels
So what do you get, theoretically? Way faster autofocus and way more light in your shot - I'd say it's a great step from the consumer point of view. Will it give me as detailed shots as I got with the Galaxy S6? Well: depending on how you look at it. Why? 

Look at the maximum resolution of the Galaxy S7 in 12MP (4:3) above: 4032 x 3024 pixels = 12.2MP. The Galaxy S6 on 12MP (4:3) gives me 3984 x 2988 pixels = 11.9MP. That's a 0.3MP difference, the good old VGA size amount of pixels, the Galaxy S7 being "better", even when using a smaller sensor.

But what about the Galaxy S6 on 16MP? Sure, on 16MP (16:9 aspect ratio) the S6 uses the maximum size of the sensor: 5312 x 2988 pixels = 15.9MP. That's almost 3MP more than the maximum amount of the S7 and a big difference from what you can get from the S7 in 16:9 aspect ratio: 9.1MP. That's a 6.5MP difference, and could be considered quite a sacrifice for faster autofocus and more light? 

On a sidenote: Samsung is not the first choosing this method. HTC tried it years ago with the "Ultrapixel" in the HTC One, but that was hardly succesful with way larger pixels (4µm) on a much smaller sensor... Only 4MP clearly wasn't enough to impress anyone.

Conclusion so far
It looks like Samsung might have found a "sweet spot" in which larger pixels and aperture could really prove to be useful whereas the sensor size still is acceptable for its purpose. If not for the aspiring mobile photographer who is craving the details in his shot, but for the consumer who likes very fast autofocus, hence sharp results - and much better shots in lowlight conditions.

A 12MP resolution might look quite low these days - comparing it for example with Lumia or Sony (ahµm) - but it's obvious with whom Samsung is competing here. 12MP sensor, less protuding lens, faster autofocus, better light: it's all direct competition for Apple. I can't wait to test the Galaxy S7 against it, and against a few other smartphone camera flagships as well.

One thing I shouldn't forget to mention: the front camera of the Galaxy S7 offers 5MP like before, now with f/1.7 aperture.

First shots with the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge
Below you will find some shots I captured with the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge. Just a few, and please keep in mind that since I'm always fooling around with the settings (often pulling the exposure slider down a bit when the device is on auto), these examples are a bit darker than what the S7 would actually capture if I hadn't touched anything. I realized later it's not the best way to demonstrate what it's capable of, so I promise to make that up as soon as I have a review sample.

These shots were captured during an event Samsung Netherlands organized in Madurodam, a small "amusement park" offering a bird's eye view on some of the landmarks in The Netherlands. It was at the end of the afternoon, so during twilight so to say. 

Of course, it's always hard to tell "how dark it was" exactly, but I was really surprised to see how bright the shots appeared in the screen compared to the circumstances I was capturing - that's exactly the reason why I personally tend to use the exposure correction and try to get a bit more "realistic" image. I won't make the same mistake as soon as I get the chance to review the Galaxy S7 edge.

One thing to keep in mind though, like I wrote in another post earlier: you may be deceived by your own display settings. With the display set very bright, you might think it's a good idea to underexpose the scene you are capturing, whereas in fact the result may end up to dark... So my next shots will be on auto no matter what :-)

Anyway, I did notice autofocus was very fast even under seriously pretty dark circumstances. In that respect it looks like Samsung is doing a great job and the effect will please many customers looking for faster and better performing cameras even in low light conditions. However, I don't think the "pixel peepers" among us will be very pleased with this next step, but we'll have to see how the Galaxy S7 holds up in a future smartphone camera comparison. 

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