Samsung might have everyone mesmerized by its foldable Galaxy Fold phone (for now), but if you really want to see weird and wonderful phone innovations, you need to look at what Chinese tech companies like Oppo are doing.
Though less known outside of Asia, Oppo has quickly catapulted itself to the front of the mobile consciousness thanks to string of breakthroughs over the last few years. First it created the 5x optical zoom lens that used a periscope design, then the Find X and its motorized camera top, and at Mobile World Congress 2019, the company introduced another world’s first for a phone: 10x optical zoom.
Cramming 10x optical zoom into a smartphone is a hell of an engineering feat. Look around at most smartphones and even the best, including the iPhone XS and Galaxy S10, only have cameras capable of 2x optical zoom.
To achieve 10x optical zoom in a phone, Oppo’s included three cameras to cover a broad range of focal lengths from 16mm to 160mm.
There’s a 48-megapixel main camera, an ultra-wide camera (equivalent to a 16mm lens), and a telephoto lens (equivalent to a 160mm lens). The 10x optical zoom uses a periscope and prism system similar to the one Oppo pioneered with the 5x optical zoom a few years back.
Though the phone is slated for a release in the second quarter of the year, Oppo wasn’t quite ready to show off a final design. Demo units available for media to try out the 10x optical zoom were covered in a bulky case to hide the phone’s design. Aside from the triple camera on the rear and USB-C port on the bottom, the only other thing we know about the phone is it’s got a notch.
But just how good is the 10x optical zoom? It definitely works, but it still needs more polish.
Despite dozens of demo units available for tech reporters to test out, the pre-production camera software was very hit-or-miss. It was often difficult to control the amount of visible shaking on the screen, which was being countered by the built-in optical image stabilization.
Up to 10x zoom, subjects look mostly sharp. I noticed some blurriness around the edges of a shots taken on some phones, but not on others.
Below is a photo shot at 10x optical zoom. It looks good zoomed all the way in.
There’s also a 20x zoom option, but then you’re playing with digital zoom, which as you probably already know is nowhere near as good as optical zoom.
At 20x digital zoom, the photos look like mashed potatoes.
Occasionally, you might be able to get somewhat sharp results at 20x digital zoom, but you’ll see a lot of visible on-screen choppiness as the camera tries to stabilize the frame.
Still, even though Oppo’s 10x optical zoom wasn’t fully baked, the technology is promising and is yet another way smartphones are killing any need for a real camera.
As I said on Twitter, 10x optical zoom on a phone is overkill for most people, but at least Oppo is trying something new. In many ways, Oppo and all of the many Chinese phone maker at MWC remind me of old Samsung from years ago — trying new things even if they never stick. Maybe innovations like 10x optical zoom ultimately don’t make sense on a phone, but it at least gives Oppo a way to differentiate its phones from the status quo. And lord knows phones need unique features to keep them from all looking the same.
In addition to unveiling its 10x optical zoom technology, which will launch in a phone sometime in the second quarter of the year, Oppo also used its press event to announce a 5G smartphone powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 855 chip and X50 5G modem. Oppo was pretty light on details for the 5G phone, but confirmed four European carriers as partners.
I wish I was more excited for another 5G phone announced at MWC, but it’s not easy to get all jazzed up for a device that few people will be able to use when 5G networks aren’t even properly in place yet.
MWC and 2019 will see a ton of companies announce 5G phones — Samsung’s gonna release an S10 5G version is coming in the second quarter of this year — but until 5G networks are up and running (which won’t happen until 2020 at the earliest for most of the world), these first new 5G phones might well not exist.