SnappyCam 3.0 and iPhone 5S’ camera (Update 3)

SnappyCam Pro is, as the name suggests, a burst-shooting app, and it recently received a huge 3.0 update.

The app can now take full resolution (8 MP) continuous images at a mind-blowing 20 frames-per-second on the iPhone 5 and 12 frames-per-second on the iPhone 4S. By comparison, the “best shot” mode on the Galaxy S4, manages just 7.5 frames-per-second at full resolution, while the Galaxy S3 does a meagre 3.3 fps at full resolution. According to the developer, SnappyLabs, their app SnappyCam even beats it’s competition on the App Store, by as much as 4 times.

In order to achieve this, SnappyLabs, or rather its founder John Papandriopoulos, who is SnappyLabs’ one-man ‘team’, had to create new JPEG algorithms specifically optimised for ARM processors, and also write up many other parts of the app from scratch to allow the image compression and decoding to happen as fast as possible. You can read more about the technical aspects of this update on his blog post here.

SnappyLabs’ Herculean efforts, which required over a whole year’s worth of research and development, required John to essentially reinvent JPEG compression. And the results of that are already showing, as the app has become the number 1 paid app on iTunes charts in many countries across the world.

To put the incredible way this app uses available resources in perspective, consider this: 1080p (~2 MP per frame) video at 30 fps involves processing about 60 megapixels’ worth of data each second, while SnappyCam manages to process approximately 160 megapixels’ worth of data per second. I know that the metrics aren’t exact, and that processing the audio simultaneously must be a non-trivial burden on the video recording process, Nevertheless, SnappyCam should easily come close to processing about twice the data on the Apple’s hardware than Apple’s own software in the same time. That is truly remarkable.

4K beckons

But despite all that, what intrigues me most about the app is the hidden potential that has been unearthed right from within iOS and using absolutely standard hardware with absolutely no modifications. The developer claims that the app takes the hardware to the absolute limit it can be taken to. So right now, with the current hardware, it can take 20 3264*2448 shots per second. Interestingly, 4K (or UHD), with a resolution of 3840*2160 isn’t too far away from that number, at just 0.3 MP more than the current maximum resolution. If the rumours are indeed true, and the iPhone 5S does indeed have a 13 MP sensor from Sony, that little gap should be filled up quite easily. And if like other iPhones before it, the 5S has twice the performance of its predecessor, I bet that it might be possible for the folks over at SnappyLabs could push it that bit more to achieve proper 30 fps 4K video recording.

The Apple angle

Then again, why wouldn’t Apple decide to take the task upon itself? What if Apple decided to implement 4K video recording in the next iPhone themselves?

Retina iPad vs. HDTV pixel count

Apple has thus far been at the forefront of bringing high-DPI displays to the masses. The first mass-market smartphones, tablets, and laptops to have “Retina displays” or anything comparable were all made by Apple. The 3rd- and 4th-generation iPads, 13″ and 15″ Retina MacBook Pros, 27″ iMacs and 27″ Thunderbolt Displays, and even the long discontinued HD Cinema Displays and more recently discontinued 17″ MacBook Pro all have resolutions exceeding the 1080p that video is currently shot at. With Retina iMacs and 4K Thunderbolt Displays for the new Mac Pro being very real possibilities in the not-so-far future, it’s not hard to imagine that Apple might want to scale up the video recorded on their own devices to make use of the additional pixels.

That you can record a video on an iPad – but please, don’t – with a resolution which Apple themselves loved showing off as much lesser than that of the screen on that very machine has to be bugging at least a few people around Cupertino (I hope).

Self-created 4K coupled with 4K content from the iTunes Store would certainly increase the value of the Apple ecosystem manifold. It could also vastly increase the value proposition of AirPlay, with perhaps a 4th-gen 4K-compatible Apple TV hockey puck, and something like this might just set the stage for Gene Munster’s coveted Apple-made television set too.

iPhone 5S

Keeping with how ‘S’ iPhones go, I don’t expect the iPhone 5S to deviate significantly from the iPhone 5 in terms of the external hardware and design. Instead, the focus should be on under-the-hood improvements, with a new optics system and a possible fingerprint sensor being the two major rumoured changes, along with a possible switch to IGZO displays for better battery efficiency, and possibly NFC, although iBeacons in iOS 7 might possibly have rendered it redundant.

If the fingerprint sensor is indeed hit with yield problems and thus removed from the final product, the onus of being the standout feature will rest on the camera alone. Several body leaks so far have pretty much confirmed that there is a lozenge-shaped dual-flash present in the iPhone 5S, with two separate temperatures. And since this is an iPhone we’re talking about, it would take something of astronomical proportions for it to be able to live up to the standards set by its predecessors.

The lozenge-shaped dual-flash of iPhone 5S

Given Apple’s integrated approach wherein they design the software and hardware themselves, they don’t have to wait for their chip or OS maker to design 4K-compatible hardware but they can go ahead and design it themselves, but this does not apply for the camera sensor. However, leaks suggest that the upcoming Sony “Honami” might actually support 4K recording, effectively fix the only remaining bottleneck against a 4K camera on the iPhone 5S, since Sony is also the supplier for the rear cameras and the ISP, as Naren Balaji points out on Twitter, on iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.

Being one of the first – and maybe even first, if the “Honami” doesn’t drop before it – products on the market with the ability to shoot 4K seems like a really good advantage and standout feature to me, and would also help differentiate the 5S not just from the iPhone 5 it will succeed, but from the also imminent budget iPhone in a way that doesn’t make the latter look downright bad, (which I think would be one of Apple’s toughest tasks this fall, but that’s for another piece, another day).

If nothing else, Apple could just ship it as the ability to oversample 1080p video, which wouldn’t be any less of a feat.

Like with Siri, I don’t think Apple are above buying out SnappyLabs to save them a year of R&D and 30,000 lines of code, although it just might be too late if they wanna put that into the next iPhone, which is supposed to drop in about a month or two. But any way, I don’t know about you guys, but if I were in charge of accusations and hiring at Apple, I’m pretty sure I’d be making a call to SnappyLabs soon.

UPDATE 1 (17/08/2013):

1.) In 9to5Mac’s roundtable post regarding the all-but-confirmed 10th September iPhone event, Mark Gurman, said that he believes that like previous ‘S’ upgrades before it, the iPhone 5S will double flash capacities and have 32, 64, and 128 GB SKUs with no 16 GB variant. The increased storage capacities would be really helpful in storing the high-resolution and therefore high-memory videos. Also, the last time the iPhone got a storage bump was with the iPhone 4S, which also introduced 1080p recording.

2.) On the 51st episode of The Talk Show podcast hosted by John Gruber, MG Siegler said that he has heard whispers of “some sort of a television product” – not the one from Gene Munster’s wet dreams – potentially with a new interaction method to be launched as soon as this November. Jump to the 1:27:00 mark to hear exactly what he has to say. The only possible interpretation of this to me is a 4th-gen Apple TV.  Given 4K support in the new Mac Pro,  I really wouldn’t be surprised if, in combination with a faster chip and newer WiFi standards, it supported 4K mirroring and was able to play 4K from iTunes in the Cloud and other sources.

UPDATE 2 (02/09/2013):

1.) Acer have just unveiled the Liquid S2, their new 6-inch flagship phone, which comes with 4K recording built-in, putting to rest any notions that 4K in a phone is simply impossible.

2.) The upcoming Samsung Galaxy Note III is also heavily rumoured to be carrying a 4K camera. That Samsung is willing to put a 4K sensor in what has been one of their heaviest sellers and co-flagship models (along with the Galaxy S series) suggests to me that 4K-capable sensors are now really for mass production.

UPDATE 3 (06/01/2014):

I’m delighted to share the news that Apple has indeed acquired SnappyLabs, exactly five months to the day from this augural-in-retrospect post. I’ve now got my fingers crossed that the rest of it will also come true within 2014!

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