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HTC One UltraPixel camera – How it works

Andrew Williams by

HTC One camera
HTC One camera

Perhaps the most exciting feature of the new flagship HTC One Android phone is its new camera type, which HTC calls UltraPixel. Using a 4-megapixel sensor, it may not sound at all impressive, but like the PureView camera seen in the Nokia 808 Pureview, there’s some clever stuff going on behind the scenes.

The HTC One’s UltraPixel sensor features much larger pixels than the norm. Raw images that result are relatively small in terms of file size – as the megapixel count is so slow - but the HTC One is designed to make the most of every pixel at its disposal.

What does UltraPixel mean?

HTC’s "UltraPixel" term marks a disconnection from science – it’s effectively a marketing term. Megapixel refers to a million pixels, but short of a pixel superhero, UltraPixel doesn’t hold the same resonance. However, it is not mere marketing nonsense.

The HTC One uses a single 4.3-megapixel sensor. Your first assumption may be that a 13-megapixel sensor like that of the Sony Xperia Z would easily outclass the HTC One, but it’s not quite so simple.

Although it’s not pixel-packed, the HTC One camera’s pixels are much larger than the smartphone norm. They’re roughly double the size of the norm, in fact. They’re roughly the same size as those of a high-end compact like the FujiFilm X20, which produces fantastic images, and costs a pretty penny itself at around £400.

To oversimplify matters, the HTC One offers sensor pixels comparable to a “proper” dedicated camera within the space of a mobile phone’s camera array. The downer is that the sensor itself isn’t all that big – hence why HTC has only managed to fit in 4.3-odd million pixels. For spec fans, it’s a 1/3-inch BSI CMOS sensor.

How good is UltraPixel?

HTC says that the larger pixels of the One enable the phone enable it to take in “300 per cent more” light than a standard mobile phone sensor. This should give the phone far better low light performance than even top-end phone cameras including the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3.

Better low-light performance means much less grainy, underexposed images in poor lighting conditions and improved focusing too. In excellent light – such as a bright, sunny day, the HTC One is less likely to show such benefits over a standard mobile phone. Heck, it might well even be worse if HTC hasn’t aced the design.

The lens makes similar moves to ensuring low-light performance too. The HTC One uses an f/2.0 lens. This figure refers to the aperture, how big the lens’s light opening is. It’s better than the iPhone 5’s f/2.4 lens, and matches the Nokia Lumia 920.

The HTC One also makes one other similar move to the Lumia 920. It offers optical image stabilisation, which reduces the effect of your movement while you’re snapping by stabilising the camera’s internals physically.

UltraPixel vs PureView

The HTC One may sound like a dead ringer for the PureView technology, but its UltraPixel approach is quite different. Where the HTC One keeps the sensor size standard, but crams it with few high-quality pixels, the Nokia 808 PureView packs-in a ridiculous number of pixels (around 42 million) into a much larger than average sensor. The Nokia phone downsamples images to get to the standard 8-megapixel resolution, but if anything the HTC One will need to upsample its snaps.

Which is the future? Ideally we’d like to see a middle ground established. An 8-megapixel sensor with the pixel size of the HTC One could produce pretty stunning images, but quite how such a sensor would fit into a phone is a problem for the next wave of smartphones.

We’ll take the HTC One out for a road test against the Nokia Lumia 920 and iPhone 5 as soon as we get our mitts on one. Which sounds better to you? UltraPixel or PureView?

Go to comments


February 19, 2013, 9:51 pm

Good for HTC. The megapixel myth needs to be addressed and I'm glad HTC stepped forward on this matter. If your not making giant posters there is no benefit to lots of tiny pixels, also there are some laws of optics that says you are not going to get more real resolution from those little lens. 3 megapixels is even plenty for printing and emailing and some cropping and even then the tiny lens can not provide the resolution (details) that a 3 megapixel sensor could provide if it had bigger lens. Lens size is limited on such thin devices.

Eduardo Islas

February 20, 2013, 12:29 am

An ultrapixel may have more area and will get less noise, but will also get less information per area. At least pureview lets you choose. You want better low light performance?, then get 5 MP images out of the 41 MP sensor by averaging... you prefer a lot of info?, then get the full 41 MP... do you want to zoom without loosing detail? then get a cropped image at 5 MP... software image processing done by Nokia is stil way far ahead to the rest, I'm sorry to say. Pureview will detect the areas of low information content and average them to reduce noise, while will keep the areas with lots of information intact. So it's like having bigger pixels where there is not a lot of content, and smaller pixels where there is. That's smart. -> I'm eager to see the DxOMark comparison.

bigley ling

February 20, 2013, 3:24 am

Both ultrapixel an pureview are marketing terms. The proof will be like you said, get your hands on this amazing new unit :)


February 20, 2013, 9:36 am

Couldn't have said it better. Another advantage of pureview approach is that its impressive native resolution helps overcome the interpolation artifacts due to the bayer color filter array. As far as it seems the htc one's sensor uses a normal bayer filter and thus its color and detail reproduction will be short of the 808 pureview...


February 21, 2013, 1:51 pm

But PureView makes your phone huge.

i Money

February 24, 2013, 7:14 am

It's not fair by comparing this way. Of course there must be
some disadvantages by downsizing megapixels if you always want to crop your
pictures like this. However, you should consider other advantages that htc ONE
came with.

I can just say that you shouldn't buy htc ONE if you always
want to crop your pictures like this and print out your pictures bigger than
8*10 (actually you can print out bigger than that).

You should buy htc ONE if you have limited data plan.

You should buy htc ONE if you don't want extra works to
resize your pictures by app or Paint (PhotoShop).

You should buy htc ONE if you want "much
better/nature(sometimes LED flash won't help)" pictures indoor or under
dim lights (especially most people hang out with their friends after their
works -after evening).

htc ONE can take pretty decent pictures during daytime (by
the standard of smartphones, not DC) without cropping pictures like this.

Don't forget there are many places and special moments don't
allow people to take pictures with LED flash lights. ex. museums, shows, nocturnal
animal areas in zoos , school performances, bars (taking hot girls' pictures
without notice and annoying flash lights). Go see those pictures took under dim
lights by htc ONE. Its’ pictures are much much better than others

I never try to print out my pictures in my phone. If I do, I
will only print them in 4*6 (actually you can print it out bigger).

I remember that I was very happy with my 3 megapixels Nikon
DC Coolpix 3200. I never buy another DC till someone gave me another DC as a
gift. I used my 5 megapixels smartphone to record my life for long time. I'm
still happy with that.

I haven't upgraded my phone for long time and the reason I
want to buy a new one because of the CPU and ram (for bigger and more apps),
not because of camera. Don't even mention its' Zoe, F2.0 28mm lens, Imagechip,
OIS, 1080p Full HD video, HDR video, and more.

If you want to print out super-size pictures and crop your
pictures like this, you should buy a Nikon professional DC.

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