Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) had long been known for offering the best camera experience in the smartphone industry. However, over the last product generation or so, a number of Android-powered flagship phones began to one-up the iDevice maker. For example, in popular camera performance test DXOMark, the iPhone 6s/6s Plus cameras perform well, but lose out to phones such as the LG G4, Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) Galaxy S6/Note 4/Note 5, and the Sony Xperia Z5.
To make matters worse for Apple, though, the iPhone 6s/6s Plus will now have to contend with a new wave of Android flagships, which are sure to push even further ahead of the iDevice maker's flagships. I believe that when DXOMark scores for the latest Samsung Galaxy S7 phones arrive, they'll run away from iPhone 6s/6s Plus.
The S7 gets larger pixels
Both the iPhone 6s and the Galaxy S7 have 12 megapixel sensors, but that's where the similarities end. Apple often talked about the importance of pixel size; the larger the pixels, generally speaking, the better the image quality. This is why Apple was able to ship competitive cameras with just eight megapixel sensors, while the competition was busy chasing megapixel size -- the competition traded quality for quantity.
Interestingly, with the Galaxy S7, Samsung went from a 16 megapixel sensor to just a 12 megapixel sensor. In doing so, however, the company moved to much larger 1.4 micron pixels. In contrast, with the iPhone 6s/6s Plus, Apple moved from an eight megapixel sensor with 1.5 micron pixels to a 12 megapixel sensor with 1.22 micron pixels.
Samsung blows Apple away when it comes to "focus pixels"
With the launch of the iPhone 6, Apple talked up a technology known as phase-detection autofocus, or PDAF. According to GSMArena, this is done by placing a number of special photodiodes in the camera sensor -- typically 5%-10% of the sensor's pixels have such photodiodes, per a Samsung slide.
However, what Samsung (well, Samsung's sensor supplier Sony (NYSE:SNE)) has apparently done is embedded such photodiodes in each of the pixels. The S7 should have the iPhone 6s/6s Plus soundly beat in terms of autofocus.
The S7 has a wider aperture
The Galaxy S7 has a greater maximum aperture than the iPhone 6s/6s Plus. Indeed, the latter has an f/1.7 maximum aperture, while the iPhone 6s/6s Plus stick with the f/2.2 aperture that the prior few generations of iPhone had.
In a nutshell, a greater maximum aperture typically means that the lens can let in more light. This is particularly useful for low-light photos.
The Galaxy S7 has Apple beaten pretty badly
In a product following the runaway success that was the iPhone 6/6 Plus, Apple decided to include a fairly lazy and uninspired camera upgrade -- effectively, a megapixel bump -- with the iPhone 6s/6s Plus. In contrast, arch-rival Samsung, which already had some of the best cameras around (per DXOMark), chose to make another major improvement to its camera subsystems with the Galaxy S7. There's little doubt in my mind that when the DXOMark results come in, the S7 will shame the iPhone 6s/6s Plus.
I'm sure that there's some truth to Apple CEO Tim Cook's comments about a tough macroeconomic environment driving the weakness in iPhone 6s/6s Plus sales. However, I can't help but wonder if this lazy and uninspired camera improvement -- relative to what the competition seems to be bringing -- coupled with the recycling of the same dated display panels, doomed this pair of phones from the start.
Here's hoping that Apple delivers something genuinely groundbreaking along a number of vectors with the iPhone 7/7 Plus -- and with every future iPhone following them.