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The Cameras on Today's Smartphones

Hub Associate

These few months have been exciting times for the smartphone consumers. 2 years ago, it would have been either iPhone or Samsung Galaxy phones. Today, we have a myraid of brand devices that are equally impressive.

Want waterproof smartphone? Go for Sony Xperia. Want multi-tasking or pen annotation, Samsung is still the choice. Want transformable phone-tablet? It's Asus Padfone. Want awesome stereo speakers? HTC is the best. Still prefer iOS? There is the latest iPhones.

Want camera?

Recent consumers have placed great emphasis on mobile photography, and device makers are sparing no effort to make that function a key differentiator. The most surprising move is from HTC, who downsized their image sensor to a meagre 4-megapixel. Their justification is that most consumers will not need such a high pixel count since the photos are mainly used for social sharing, which does not require high resolution anyway. It also saves upload bandwidth and allow HTC to deliver more useful features like Zoe and Video Highlights which helps you capture the fleeting moments without fail.

Other makers are taking the traditional approach of pushing the pixel count. Nokia Lumia 1020 has a 41-megapixel sensor, the highest ever on a smartphone.

Samsung takes a radical approach of integrating proper smartphone features in a camera, starting with the Galaxy Camera last year, then improving into the Galaxy S4 Zoom. Even the NX mirrorless line is not spared: the Galaxy NX Camera runs on Android with SIM capability to connect online.

Which device to get depends on what you are looking for. Are you a shoot-and-crop person? Are you an image-archivist who swears by optical zoom lenses for the best image clarity? Are you a social sharer that uploads tons of images and care more about file upload size than image quality? 

There are a few categories of camera phones that are available in the market:

1. The mainstream high-pixel phones, like Samsung Galaxy S4 (13MP), ASUS Padfone (13MP), LG Optimus G2 (13MP)
2. The pixel-optimised phones with low pixel-count, like HTC One (4MP), HTC Butterfly S (4MP)
3. The super-high pixel count phones, like Nokia Lumia 1020 (41MP)
4. Hybrid phones with compact camera sensor size, like Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom (16MP)

In this review, I shall attempt to compare a few smartphones (and a mirrorless camera) to see the image quality difference.

Shot in AUTO mode, uncropped. (click here for the original images)



When viewing these images in low resolution, there are no major quality differences except for the white balance and exposure. Lumia tends to be under-exposed, possibly to retain highlights.

Below is a native 100% crop from the 4 higher-res devices, excluding the HTC Butterfly S. Check out the net details. (download the file to see in higher resolution)

What do you see? The Lumia 1020 details are comparable to an APS-C sensor mirrorless camera. The other 2 devices fail to produce any details of the net.

Here's the uncropped full image for reference.

Here's a final set of images of the fire extinguisher. (download the individual files to scrutinize the images in original resolution)

Zoom it in, how much of the text on the fire extinguisher can you see? (Below taken with Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, 16MP at 10x zoom)

Again, Lumia did very well in resolving details. But nothing beats the S4 Zoom ability to do optical zoom to capture in full 16MP.

Have you formed your own conclusions? See if it matches mine:

1. Nokia Lumia 1020 captures amazing details, beating S4 Zoom. It is definitely no match for larger-sensor cameras like Samsung NX20, but you are getting a lot for its size.
2. With Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, you can do optical zoom which obviously delivers far greater details than using Lumia 1020's "high resolution zoom".
3. HTC Butterfly S captures the lowest pixel amount, but the quality is still good - as long as you don't pixel-peep or crop too much.
4. ASUS Padfone Infinity is probably how most other good-quality smartphone cameras would look like. In other words, good enough.
5. All the devices deliver above-average image quality.

Other than image quality, you also have to consider the operation aspect of capturing images with these devices:

1. Nokia Lumia 1020 is the slowest among the devices. Slow start-up, slow AF lock, slight shutter release lag.
2. HTC Butterfly S helps me to capture the moment. It offers the fastest start-up and capture. HTC Zoe is also a unique feature that lets you capture moving stills and compile video highlights.
3. Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom offers the compact camera feature: optical zoom. It offers best of both worlds. However, when you zoom out to 10x, the image stablizer is not robust enough to stop handshake. Multiple takes is required to get the best shot.

Which one works for me?

I have been using my HTC Butterfly S for a month. Despite a low pixel count, I do not see any quality issues while viewing my photos on my phone or posting on Facebook or Instagram. If you are like me, then you really shouldn't be chasing pixels. In fact, thanks to smaller file sizes, the phone operation is speedy and I can capture my images quickly without delay. This is more important than high pixel count.

But once a while, I like to zoom in to images and check out the details that would otherwise have been ignored. That's when the Lumia 1020 delivers. It is so amazing to be able to crop and straighten images that still preserves the details as if it was shot zoomed in.

For camera users who like to shoot distant or small images zoomed in, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom lets you do that. This device can be used to zoom in and capture small objects like flowers, insects.

Just no clear answer, eh?

Although you do observe differences in image quality at the pixel level, at the end of the day, the intent of the image will lead you to choose the best phone to get. If image quality detail is all that matters to you, I would say, get the Lumia 1020. And why not? Even if you hate the lack of WP8 apps, I would just get it for the sole purpose of photo-taking with the convenient option of posting images using readily-available social sharing apps. I would definitely opt for the Lumia 1020 anytime over the S4 Zoom, as I personally am not a fan of slow zoom lenses.

What's comforting is that the camera modules in smartphones in recent years are absolutely good enough to document your life's memories, there is no need to carry another dedicated compact camera. It is so pocketable, so much features, and as they always say, the best camera is the one that you have with you.



Chester likes to share his thoughts about the latest gadgets on his blog.
Twitter/Instagram: @musicdiary
Windows™ Phone Expert

Definitely love the image quality on the Nokia Lumia 1020! Smiley Very Happy

Senior Advocate

why is there no Xperia Z1?

New Commentator

why no Xperia Z1 ??

Hub Associate

Hi RogerBlack and soon_sps, the Xperia Z1 was not available during my review period, so I was not able to make comparison.