HTC is taking a big chance with its new flagship One phone: It's betting that the megapixel race is over. Instead of 8 or 13 megapixels, the One has 4 "ultrapixels," using fewer, larger pixels to create better images.
This seems to be the way phone cameras are going, as the demand for higher quality images runs up against the simple physics issue of packing a lot of pixels into very small sensors. As you increase the pixel count, camera phone shots get noisier and have more trouble in low light situations; we've seen this with the 13-megapixel LG Optimus G, for instance.
Nokia pretty much killed off the megapixel race with the 808 PureView, which is a 41-megapixel camera that's really designed to take great 5 or 8-megapixel images by combining its little pixels into big ones. HTC does away with the little pixels entirely, using 4-micrometer pixels that are bigger than the Samsung Galaxy Camera's, Canon S100 digital camera's, and Nokia 808 PureView's, not to mention the iPhone's.
The bigger pixels collect more light, and more light equals more data, lower noise, and better low light performance. I saw a comparison of low light pictures from the One, the iPhone 5, and the Samsung Galaxy S3, and the One's images were far clearer and brighter.
HTC then piles on optical image stabilisation, fast autofocus at 1/5 second, and fast HDR to handle images with bright and dark areas. A lot of what HTC is doing here is similar to what Nvidia is doing with Tegra 4 and its "computational photography" engine.
HTC's danger is that megapixels are a great marketing crutch, an easily understood number. The company has to communicate why its 4-megapixels are better than the competitors' 8 or 13. Hopefully, the photos will speak for themselves.
Bringing your photos to life
As much as the ultrapixels are interesting, I'm even more intrigued to see how people use Zoe. Short for "zoetrope," the One's new Zoe mode records a 3 second video every time you take a picture. The videos get batched together with the pictures, and you can auto-create 3 -second "highlight reels" from the pictures and videos of events.
It isn't Vine, because it has narrative: Zoe exists to remind you that life doesn't proceed as stills. It puts your photos in context and makes them come alive, but it doesn't replace or supplant your photos, and it doesn't leave you stuck watching or choreographing long videos.
You can tweak the Zoe highlight reel, picking which images and videos you do and don't want to add, and then set it to one of six themes with background music. HTC will have an open SDK for people who want to develop more themes.
To share the Zoes and highlight reels, HTC will start a new online service called Zoe Share, letting One phone owners post videos online for free for 30 days. The company hasn't figured out what to do over the longer term, although of course the videos remain on your phone and you can upload them to services like Facebook and YouTube.
Ultrapixels are interesting, but Zoe could really change how we use our phone's camera. I'm excited to see whether it will create a new trend.