Samsung is believed to have acquired camera technology company Corephotonics. That may not come across as a big deal at first but look closely at what the company does and the implications this can have for Samsung smartphones going forward and it becomes evident that Samsung has made an important strategic decision here.
Samsung's flagship smartphones have always had good cameras but it often felt like the company wasn't pushing the envelope as much as it should have, the variable aperture lens introduced with the Galaxy S9 being an exception. It seems to be getting more serious about this now.
Corephotonics is an Israeli company that specializes in dual camera technologies for mobile devices. It's the company that has supplied Oppo with a 5x telephoto lens and its recently unveiled 10x zoom camera. Corephotonics doesn't actually build the cameras itself, it just designs them.
One can argue that while smartphone cameras have significantly improved over the past few years, they still leave a lot to be desired in the zoom department. Digital zoom is still the only way to get closer to the subject on many devices but the more you zoom in, the more image quality you end up losing. Corephotonics has been able to overcome a significant barrier in enabling optical zoom on smartphones.
Optical zoom lenses need quite a bit of space and can thus not fit in with the overall thin and light aesthetic of modern devices. So manufacturers can either do something unusual or stick with digital zoom. Samsung did the former with the Galaxy S4 Zoom. It was essentially a point-and-shoot camera with an Android phone at the back. It had a 10x optical zoom lens paired with a 16-megapixel sensor. Samsung never made another device like this and that concluded the literal “camera phone” experiment.
Samsung's flagship smartphones do come with 2x optical zoom now. That's the most you can get before the camera utilizes digital zoom. I particularly like this feature on my Galaxy Note 9 as the optical zoom has come in handy taking pictures when traveling. Now imagine having 5x or 10x zoom on your Samsung flagship without the device appearing out of the ordinary and any major loss in quality. That's what Corephotonics' technology makes possible.
Oppo unveiled the Corephotonics-designed 5x telephoto lens back in 2017 and will also be unveiling the 10x lens at MWC next month. Some reports suggest that the company has even made a 25x telephoto lens for smartphones. The optical magnification can't technically be regarded as “zoom” since these are fixed lens systems, so users switch between standard, wide and telephoto. The zoom between them is digital and minimal quality loss can be ensured with processing.
This is achieved by flipping the telephoto sensor on its side to effectively create a periscope. The workaround allows for a longer telephoto lens to be fit inside a thin device. Samsung stands to gain this camera technology with its acquisition of this company. It already has ample experience in developing camera sensors. Samsung also has the production facilities and the deep pockets to really make something of this.
Customers really expect a lot out of the camera on their devices, even more so if they're paying top dollar for a flagship. It will thus help Samsung set its devices apart from the competition with improved camera functionality. The company will also be able to brag about significantly more optical magnification compared to devices from the likes of Huawei and Apple. Its acquisition of Corephotonics would likely mean that the company's work with Oppo would come to an end.
Samsung has really stepped up its game in the camera department in recent months. It launched its first triple-camera smartphone, the Galaxy A7 (2018), last year. That was followed up with the world's first quad-camera phone, the Galaxy A9 (2018), a few months back. It has even put ultra-wide cameras on its latest Galaxy M series. These are sub-$150 devices and offer something that no competitors in this price bracket do. It clearly sees the camera as a way to capture consumers' attention for its products and it seems to be working.
The Korean giant has all of the resources on hand to take advantage of Corephotonics' technology. It remains to be seen, though, when we'll get to see the fruits of its labor. The company hasn't confirmed the reported $155 million acquisition but such deals seldom are. Nonetheless, this is certainly a promising development, one that can result in Samsung devices that stand tall above the competition.