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Samsung S21 Ultra vs. Oppo Find X3: Which is the future of zoom?

Phone-makers are trying to figure out what to do next with phone cameras. Samsung and Oppo have opposite ideas.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's no question about it: When it comes to phones, Samsung is the king of zoom. Last year's Galaxy S20 Ultra introduced the Space Zoom function, which went up to 100x magnification, and 2021's S21 Ultra made it even better with improved image quality and much-needed stabilization. (Huawei's P40 Pro has similarly impressive zoom capabilities, but its lack of Google services means it's not a phone you'd want to buy.) But now that we're at three-digit zoom, you may be wondering where we go next. Chinese phone-maker Oppo thinks it has the answer in the Find X3 Pro. 

The Find X3 Pro is an excellent Android that comes with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a pricey "premium" phone. A beautiful, 120Hz display, 5G support, the fastest processor currently available; all the good stuff. But it also has something different in its microscope camera. 

The Find X3 Pro can zoom 60x, but not the way you'd expect. Its 3-megapixel macrolens acts as a microscope, letting you see the most infinitesimal details of objects. Zoom in on a jumper and you can literally see the threads holding it together. For instance, here's the back of a hoodie. 

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A hoodie. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

And now, here's the same hoodie using the Find X3 Pro's microscope lens. 

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The threads holding it together. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Freaky, right? There is a catch. I didn't take these two shots from the same distance. While the microscope lens zooms in 30x optically or 60x with a hybrid zoom, it only really works when the camera is 1 to 3 millimeters away from the subject. In other words, you have to smoosh the phone into the object you're photographing for it to work. 

In a world where the adjective "unique" is overused, the feature is, right now, truly unique. While Samsung, Apple, Google, Huawei and pretty much everyone else is trying to figure out what to do next with cameras, Oppo is offering a new, fun gimmick that could turn into a legitimate feature. 

Is Oppo's microscope camera actually useful?

You probably won't need the microscope lens for any utilitarian purpose -- unless you're an amateur microscopist. Instead, it's purely for the mania of it. You'll go around your house shoving your phone into objects to literally see what they're made of. The results vary, but it's undoubtedly a fun process. 

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A throw.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

See this throw blanket? Pretty average right. Not when you zoom up 60x. 

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The same throw, under a microscope camera.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

The reason I've used two examples of threads in a row is that, for this to work, you need to be able to shove the camera into the object you're photographing, which means it can't be flimsy. Many of my attempts at capturing mega close-up shots of flowers didn't work because the phone would just push them away, making it difficult to get the lens close enough.

So you'll need to get creative. And again, that's where it gets fun: Seeing something and wondering what it would look like under a microscope.

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Can you guess what this is?

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

That picture above? It's a coffee bean.

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It was delicious coffee the whole time!

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

This was another good'n. This azure blue looks like an ice fissure, but it was just a humble face mask. 

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A 30x microscope zoom. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET
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The deep blue was a lifesaver the whole time. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

You'll get a lot of photos that won't work, as they'll just look like vague blobs of color. But then every now and then, you'll hit something that makes you laugh or genuinely impresses you. For instance, I wanted to see what happened if I pressed the phone onto my girlfriend's eyes. Please enjoy the blood vessels in her iris.

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What happened when I put my partner's eyes under the microscope camera.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Can't do that on a Samsung. But on the flipside, you can't zoom out on the Find X3 like you can on Samsung's Ultra phones. While the Find X3's zoom extends "only" to 20x magnification, the S21 Ultra goes all the way to 100. But though this sounds practical on paper, it's difficult to take advantage of without a tripod. Even then, photo quality is usually lacking. There's an island in the middle of the bay photographed below, for example, which the camera barely picks up.

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There's an island in the middle of this bay, but you can barely see it. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Zooming 100x allowed me to see a gazebo deep in the island, which is remarkable. That said, the image isn't clear and it's full of noise. It's certainly exciting to see so distant a subject, but it's difficult to take usable photos zoomed in so far. 

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Using the phone's space zoom, you can see not only the island but the gazebos on it. 

There are exceptions, like taking photos of planes high in the sky. One of my favorite shots I've taken this year was using the S21 Ultra and snagging a close-up of the moon. 

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The sky in the middle of nowhere.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET
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The best photo I've taken this year. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

The 100x Space Zoom is more marketing than substantive feature. Where the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra stands out is in its shorter, but still impressive zooms. For instance, compare the 20x zoom of the Find X3 Pro to the S21 Ultra.

While playing around with the Oppo's microscope zoom is a lot of fun, it currently lacks a proper utility But that doesn't mean it always will. 

So what next? 

Right now, the Oppo Find X3's microscope zoom is a gimmick that works. It's not useful, but it's definitely a lot of fun. Even my partner, who is typically of the "if it's not on an iPhone it doesn't matter" persuasion, couldn't resist snatching the Find X3 to try the camera. The result were several extreme closeups of my nose, eyebrows and arm hair, all of which are too disgusting to show here.

Some new camera features are no-brainers. When Huawei introduced Night Mode on the P20 Pro and ultrawide-angle cameras on the P30 range, they instantly became fixtures. Others start as gimmicks and then become accepted features. When 50x zoom was first introduced on the Huawei P30 Pro, it was a gimmick. But now that image quality and stabilization have improved markedly, such a zoom is now a legitimate feature in both Huawei and Samsung flagships. 

All of which is to say that what matters most is what Oppo does next. Samsung is sure to keep refining its Space Zoom cameras, so that mega-long zooms become more useful and less gimmicky. It's possible that Oppo's microscope camera is a one-hit wonder, but it's equally possible that it'll be honed and improved -- so that you don't need to press right against the subject, for instance -- to the point that it becomes commonplace in even Galaxies and iPhones. 

Most flagship phones already have a preposterous amount of camera lenses on their back. Oppo may have just given them a good reason to add another.