HTC One, take 1: An in-depth discussion with the company's camera guru

When it comes to smartphone cameras, HTC's One is decidedly different from the norm.

HTC One Smartphone

With the One -- set to launch in the U.S. later this month -- HTC is proudly stepping away from the megapixel race in what it describes as a "forward-looking" move. At first take, the decision sounds strange: While other flagship phones are shipping with 13 megapixel shooters, the HTC One has a low-sounding 4 megapixel camera -- but HTC swears size isn't everything. The One's camera, the company insists, puts the competition to shame.

[HTC One camera samples: Judge for yourself]

I had the chance to chat with Symon Whitehorn, a former Kodak executive who now heads up HTC smartphone imaging as the manufacturer's director of special projects. I'll be reviewing the HTC One in depth soon, but before we get to that, I wanted to understand the company's reasoning behind its bold camera gamble and give Whitehorn a chance to answer some early criticism about the device.

Here's an edited version of our conversation.

JR: The cameras on last year's HTC flagships were widely praised for their quality. What made you guys decide to make such a drastic change with this year's HTC One device, going with a seemingly low 4 megapixels and trying to break the belief that more is automatically better?

Whitehorn: We don't see it as such a drastic evolution. The premise we started with was what are you doing with the camera and how can we improve the quality of the images you get.

We think of it as a forward-looking step. It's allowed us to do a lot more things with the camera than we'd otherwise have been able to do -- the first one being the low-light performance, which really is quite special. You get this absolutely natural tone. The camera takes pictures the way you see them, the way you see your moments.

It's really [a matter of] becoming very rational about the megapixel count rather than using it as a marketing metric, which people have been doing before. Lots of megapixels have their place -- usually in a bigger device. The price the industry is starting to pay by cramming more and more megapixels into a smaller and smaller sensor is loads of added noise and all-over performance. 

For 99 percent of what people do with their images, they actually don't need the high megapixel count. We'd rather give them the sort of performance that is real-world usable.

JR: So why specifically did HTC decide four was the magic number?

HTC One Camera

Whitehorn: It's really about finding the balance. It came down to how many megapixels we could fit in a sensor that size that can respond and give a significant difference in low-light performance. The by-product of that was looking at what people are really doing with their images and how many megapixels they really need. In 90 percent of the cases, four megapixels is more than enough.

That also gives us a super manageable file size, which lets us do lots of cool things with Zoe. We couldn't do the dual-path encoding we're doing now, shooting video and stills at the same time, with a very large file size. If it was a 14 megapixel sensor, you'd end up just choking the whole system.

[Ed. note: Zoe is a new feature on the One that creates a 3-second video along with a series of still images when you press the phone's shutter button. Zoes can be shared via a new HTC Zoe Share service or through any regular medium (email, social networks, and so on). The One also automatically assembles related images and video clips into short "Highlight Videos" that can be shared in a similar fashion.]

JR: Taking megapixels out of the equation, then, what are some of the things that make the One's camera setup unique compared to other devices?

Whitehorn: One of the most obvious things is optical image stabilization. That helps a lot in low light level situations. We still maintain that class-leading F/2.0 aperture that we had in the One X and we maintain the right optics to match that system. We're focusing on creating a system that's in balance, from capture to what you do with your content. That's informed pretty much every decision. 

We're also doing more with content -- applying effects automatically to content so it becomes a really rich experience. And we'll be evolving the whole Zoe and Highlight Video experience a lot more to give you more control. You're never going to give up that automatic, super elegant, we've-already-made-a-video-for-you-on-the-fly experience, but we're going to refine editing tools and make the whole thing even more elegant than it is now.

Our aim is to get the technology of the camera out of the way so you can stay in your moments while you're shooting them.

JR: Some of the early criticism of the One has been that images captured with its camera tend to look grainy and overly processed with noise reduction when viewed at full resolution -- particularly with shots captured in well lit conditions. What's your take on that criticism?

Whitehorn: I'd highlight that those were preproduction units. We had an automatic ISO issue that's been resolved and fixed pre-production launch. ... All those issues shouldn't be there [in final consumer versions of the phone].

JR: So with the megapixel value being lower, will an image from the One still look sharp if I'm viewing it in full resolution on my PC?

Whitehorn: It will look fine. Any digital image ultimately has a fail point ... but with most of the things you're doing with imaging, you're not going to see any visual difference -- even printing. We can print a 10x8 with no visible loss whatsoever.

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The HTC One is set to launch on AT&T and Sprint on April 19th. T-Mobile has announced plans to carry the device as well but has yet to provide a firm launch date.

I'll be spending quality time with the One as the launch grows closer; stay tuned for my hands-on impressions and in-depth review.

[UPDATE: HTC One: To buy or not to buy?]

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