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Take a look at the iPhone 7 Plus that Apple announced today. The dual-camera system on the back is among the phone’s most prominent features.

Apple says the twin 12-megapixel cameras — one with a 28mm wide-angle lens, the other with a 56mm telephoto lens — capture better shots when you zoom in. There’s even a new icon in the phone’s Camera app that lets you quickly jump to 2X for authentic optical zoom via the telephoto lens, and it goes up to a 10X digital zoom that’s actually not that noisy.

This is not the first time a smartphone has featured two rear-facing cameras. LG, Huawei, Xiaomi, and HTC have all previously developed phones with dual cameras. But they don’t all get the same effects.

Apple’s marketing of the technology puts an emphasis an upcoming software update for the iPhone 7 Plus that will give users Live Previews when in Portrait mode. These will show bokeh, or blurred backgrounds, that are generated with the help of both cameras. “Say hello to the world’s best photo op,” Apple says on its website.

The depth map generated with both cameras in the iOS 10 Camera app's upcoming Live Preview mode, which will be available only on the iPhone 7 Plus.

Above: The depth map generated with both cameras in the iOS 10 Camera app’s upcoming Live Preview mode, which will be available only on the iPhone 7 Plus.

Image Credit: Screenshot

The process entails recognizing people and faces and then building a depth map. Onstage today, Apple vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller called it “a big breakthrough in photography.”

That does sound compelling. Still, other companies have beat Apple to the core breakthrough of squishing two camera lenses into the back of a single mobile device.

The technology varies

On the Huawei phones, for example, one of the 12-megapixel cameras captures color information, while the other picks up light. If you look at the P9’s cameras, you’ll see the Leica brand name just to the right, reflecting that the phone was “co-engineered with Leica.” Huawei says the device takes advantage of a Picture Quality Algorithm that it jointly developed with Leica. The end result, Huawei says, is better photos in low-light conditions.

LG’s G5, meanwhile, employs a regular 78-degree 16-megapixel lens alongside a very wide 135-degree 8-mexapixel wide-angle lens. LG pitches the technology as a way to take wide photos without having to step back to fit everything into the frame. LG’s new V20 phablet comes with dual cameras that use a similar system — when you’re zoomed out, you’re seeing footage from the wide-angle lens, and as you zoom in, the camera seamlessly switches to the telephoto lens. The trouble is, the photos the cameras produce have been noisy in my early testing.

The dual cameras on LG's V20.

Above: The dual cameras on LG’s V20.

Image Credit: Jordan Novet/VentureBeat

Xiaomi’s recently announced flagship Redmi Pro sports a primary 13-megapixel camera and, below the fingerprint reader, a secondary 5-megapixel camera for picking up depth information. The result is what Xiaomi calls “real-time hardware-level bokeh” — that is, a clear subject in the foreground before a blurred background.

HTC’s One M8 from 2014 was similar: It included a primary 4-megapixel “UltraPixel” camera and a 2-megapixel secondary camera dedicated to collecting depth-of-field data. But the results were not impressive.

The potential is there

But this new iPhone with dual cameras could be different. If the P9 is any indication, it will be fun to use.

My colleague Paul Sawers was impressed with the device during his hands-on time with it. He wrote:

In bright conditions, I didn’t notice a huge disparity between the cameras on my OnePlus 2 and the Huawei P9, but the colors were a little more natural on the P9. Perhaps a professional photographer with a keener eye would be able to notice more of a difference. However, as the light fades, the P9 definitely continued to shine. Another thing I observed was that the autofocus was noticeably faster, with less messing around required to set a simple shot up — this is especially important when trying to take photos of kids, animals, or any other subject prone to disobeying a photographer’s commands.

I also like the dual cameras on the P9. The photos from both cameras are stitched together at any focal length.

The way you can adjust the focus of a photo after you’ve taken it is interesting, although not every person I’ve shown it to has been extremely impressed. Still, it’s something no iPhone has been able to do.

And I’ve found that the dual cameras on the P9 capture more detail than my iPhone 6s. Dark colors look darker, bright areas look brighter, and there’s less discernible noise at greater distances.

San Francisco street photographer Ken Walton spent some time with the P9 earlier this year, and he liked the dual cameras. “It’s really, really making all the difference,” he told me in an interview. “I finally feel like I could do real work — like, a serious photograph.”

Developers of third-party photo applications will also be impacted. “When you use the AVCaptureDevice class for video or photo capture, you can choose to use the dual camera device to gain these features, or to specifically use only the wide-angle or telephoto camera for more manual control,” Apple says in its developer documentation.

What it means for Apple

On top of all that, the iPhone 7 Plus is the first iOS device to get a dual-lens camera. Until now, the feature has been limited to Android devices. Inevitably, iPhone and iPad devotees will be curious — many will want to try it and find out if the excitement is justified.

And it’s a nice complement to the refreshed Photos app for iOS 10, which is now available for everyone, by the way, not just developers and beta testers.

Together, the Photos app and the dual lenses could enable a sufficiently interesting photography experience, one that could help boost Apple’s position following two quarters of declines in sales of the iPhone — and of Apple’s sales in general.

In the next few weeks, we’ll get to review the iPhone 7 Plus, and you’d better believe we’ll be looking carefully at the implementation and the power of its dual cameras.

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