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Five phone cameras? Three? Galaxy S10, PureView, Xperia take different tacks

The escalating number of cameras on phones sure seems like it's getting out control. But there's a method to the madness.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Cast your mind back to the heady days of 2012 when Nokia scored an award for launching the best new device at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The winner was the Nokia 808 PureView, a Symbian-powered phone that boasted a camera with 41 megapixels.

Seven years later, there's a new PureView in town, but this time it's less about the megapixels and all about the number of lenses.

Phone-maker HMD launched the Nokia PureView 9 on Sunday at the Barcelona mobile show, and once again there's a huge focus on the device's camera technology. This time around, the phone boasts a crazy-high number of cameras -- five on the back, and six total if you're also counting the one on the front.

The megapixel one-upmanship war is largely over now -- in large part because people have realized that more megapixels doesn't automatically equate to a better camera and better pictures. But the mobile industry, being the competitive market it is, the battleground has shifted, and this time it's all about how many lenses you can fit on one phone.

As with many trends in the mobile world, we can look to Apple for popularizing the idea of having more than one camera on the rear of a phone when it unveiled the iPhone 7 Plus back in September 2016. Since then we've seen increasingly more cameras on phones, and it's hard to know where all this madness might stop.

"For me, I think four is enough," said George Zhao, CEO of Honor, in an interview at MWC. "Maybe we need another solution, a smarter solution -- not just adding cameras." 

Honor has so far only included a maximum of three cameras on its own phones (although its parent company, Huawei, put four lenses on the Mate 20 Pro, unveiled in October), and this seems to be a popular option. At MWC this year, it seems that many phone manufacturers have settled on three as the real sweet spot when it comes to number of cameras. This setup usually includes one standard phone camera, one wide-angle lens and one telephoto.

"We were kind of late to be equipped with multiple cameras," said Sony's mobile chief, Mitsuya Kishida, also in an interview in MWC. At this year's show, Sony unveiled the Xperia One, its first flagship since Kishida took up his post. It comes with three rear cameras, but for Kishida, the underlying tech is more important than the number of lenses.

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In the past, Sony Mobile has collaborated with Sony's consumer camera division on its phone cameras, but the Xperia One is instead built in collaboration with the company's professional imaging business. This quality for him is what will make the real difference in the photographs the phone produces.

"I don't think personally the number of the camera matters, but how we make it and how we accomplish it as a whole application [...] including software," Kishida said. "That that is going to be the key."

So what'll you buy?

CNET's senior mobile editor Andrew Hoyle, also a photographer, specializes in reviewing phone cameras and has some thoughts on the real benefits of a bigger array of lenses.

"More lenses does not necessarily result in better-quality images, but can allow for some cool, creative shooting," he said. "The super-wide-angle lenses on the Mate 20 Pro and the S10 Plus give really high-drama, impactful shots that you'd previously only be able to achieve on DSLRs -- they're certainly a great way to jazz up an Instagram feed."

Whether it's worth investing in a phone with multiple cameras can also depend on the overall price of the device you're buying, said IHS Markets analyst Gerrit Schneemann. If you're buying a flagship phone, those cameras are all likely to be high-resolution and paired with the latest AI-driven software, giving you the best of all worlds.

In the midrange and budget sectors, to keep the overall cost lower but still incorporate all the lenses, they're likely to be lower-resolution and have less-advanced features due to lower computing power. If this is the case, you could be better off choosing a phone with just one really great camera.

As for the "ideal" number of cameras, it totally depends on who you're talking to, said Schneemann. "Google would argue one is enough. For the likes of Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and now Samsung, multiple cameras drive experiences and price differentiation."

Samsung's new Galaxy S10 features three cameras on the back and one on the front, while the Galaxy S10 Plus ups the count with a second front-facing camera.

The purview of PureView

For HMD, the ideal number is five -- but it's not arbitrary, explained CEO Florian Seiche in an interview at Mobile World Congress.

"The approach we have taken on the Nokia 9 Pure is truly unique in the sense that we are actually taking the picture with all five lenses simultaneously for every shot we're taking," he said. "The innovation part this time is around this computational photography."

For the Nokia 9 PureView, HMD has partnered with Light, a company that has created a multilens camera, to bring its technology to phones. Unlike its rivals in the smartphone space, which have separate lenses for different photography styles, the PureView uses all the camera lenses at once to fuse together an image.

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Seiche described a deep collaboration with Light as key to deciding how many lenses to include (Light has 16 on its own device). "This is really to showcase the maximum that's possible," he said of the PureView. The company wanted to make sure it struck a balance between "what's the limit you can do on a smartphone and still have great performance."

"The sheer engineering effort to integrate the technology is impressive, but the proof of whether it was worth it and whether consumers will be interested will come from the quality of images the Nokia 9 PureView can deliver," said analysts at CCS Insight in a blog post.

In order to attract the more ambitious amateurs and photo pros, it also shoots in raw and comes with Adobe's LightRoom CC editing software built in, so you can carry out post-processing on the phone.

In such a crowded marketplace, Seiche is hoping the uniqueness of the technology will help the Nokia 9 PureView stand out from the crowd. At $699, the phone also undercuts many of its flagship rivals in price, which could be to its benefit if it's able to deliver on its promises.

"Nokia is betting it can take mobile phone photography to the next level, but with the ability to refocus pictures available on so many rival devices, the Nokia 9 PureView will need to produce truly outstanding results."

Watch this space for our full review of the Nokia 9 PureView and all the other phones launched at MWC this year -- whether they have two cameras or five.

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