HTC One X / iPhone 4S / Lumia 800 shootout: Cameras

For me, at least, the camera is one of the most important features on a phone. I'm a photographer, but I know it's not practical to carry around a DSLR on my person all the time. For this reason, my phone better have a good camera.

I used each phone for a few weeks and tested the cameras over that time, just using the built in application to see what I could do.

This is the second in a four part series that takes a deep look at the three devices:

Specifications

First off, let's talk specifications. After a certain point, megapixels really don't matter, but with the series of devices in this shootout, we've got an interesting similarity. They are all 8-megapixel shooters.

Highlights from each device are slightly different, the Lumia 800 brags a Carl Zeiss lens, the iPhone is a specially designed Apple-built camera and the HTC One X actually has a dedicated image processing chip. You can talk all day about how great the camera is on paper, but it's when you get it into your pocket and start using it in real life that it truly can fall down.

  Lumia 800 iPhone 4S HTC One X
Megapixels 8.0 8.0 8.0
Actual Resolution 3264 x 2448 3264 x 2448 3264 x 1840
Lens Specification f/2.2 Carl Zeiss f/2.4 Apple f/2 HTC
Flash Dual LED Single LED Single LED
Instant share Facebook / Skydrive Photo Stream Google+
Front facing camera No 1.3MP 1.3MP
Other     Built in effects

Software / Performance

The software that comes with a phone can be the make or break of the device, no matter how great the camera is. The camera included in iOS and the one in Windows Phone are very similar, with very basic functionality, whereas the camera included with Android 4.0 includes a ton of functionality. Despite the similarities in how simple the iOS and WP7 camera applications are, they perform very differently.

As mentioned previously, a camera can look great on paper and then not actually deliver on that promise, and I found that to be very true of the Lumia 800. Whilst the device is great in principle, the camera is not great in practice by any measure.

These days on smartphones, it's generally expected that the camera will include tap to focus -- which the Lumia has -- but it doesn't perform as it should in my opinion. On Android and iOS, you tap to focus the photo on the element you want in focus, then you take the photo yourself. On Windows Phone, you tap the screen to focus and it just snaps the picture after quickly focusing. This means it's essentially useless for macro photography, and I wasn't able to get the device to focus on the small details.

The Lumia camera couldn't figure out the best white balance settings and didn't reproduce colors like I'd expect in some situations. This is very apparent in the sample photos I've included at the end of this article. It's a very good camera, and the application is up to the task, but I think that it could improve with some work on the white balance sensing.  The software does have some handy functionality, too; it's blazing fast, allows you to review photos by just swiping from camera view and offers automatic upload to Skydrive.

The Lumia 800 camera isn't bad. It's just not great. It's almost what you'd expect out of a phone camera at the start of last year. 

Additionally, there seemed to be a lack of camera extension applications. On iOS and Android, there are an abundance of camera replacement apps -- Camera+ for example -- which many users use to replace the default one. However, on Windows Phone it seems that this has not become a trend, and that editing photos should take place outside of that context and after they are taken. I couldn't find a huge amount of apps that even did this well, except one created by Nokia called "Creative Studio." On Windows Phone it seems to me that it's more about snapping that photo now and dealing with it later, which is fine for many users who probably don't want to edit their photos anyway.

On the HTC One X side of the fence, the built in camera -- ImageSense -- is rich in features, and offers a ton of functionality from the get go. You can add filters on the fly from inside the stock camera app while taking the photo, and after the fact. HTC (and the quad-core in the One X) seems to have abolished the camera lag I was expecting to see from my many experiences with other Android devices. It's fast, simple to use and even offers on the fly switching to video recording without opening another view or even having to load, which is something I've yearned for.

The iPhone 4S is the gold standard, as far as mobile cameras are concerned in my opinion, and evidence from flickr's statistics backs that up in terms of the amount of users uploading photos from that device. What's impressive, is that the HTC One X camera feels almost as good as the 4S camera is. HTC's spent a good amount of time on getting this camera right, but haven't quite nailed it. Colors are often washed out, or don't reproduce quite like the iPhone 4S does, as you'll see in the below comparisons. Additionally, the camera doesn't seem to pick up as much detail as the iPhone 4S' does, although your mileage may vary. The One X is very good at everything else, though. Macro photography works a charm, landscape and portrait photography are beautiful too.

The iPhone 4S and the HTC One X are close to being as good as a point and shoot camera, so maybe it's time to stop carrying around two devices and give the phone camera a shot again.

Comparison Photos

I took a series of photos on all three devices (and probably looked ridiculous doing it) in various situations you might expect to use them in. Whilst this isn't an extensive set of photos, it gives a good idea of how each camera performs in a variety of situations.

What I didn't realize until writing this review is that the HTC One X shoots in a slightly different manner, the lens has a wider viewing angle, which ends up making the pictures wider and sacrifices some vertical pixels. To give an example, the HTC One X saves pictures at 3264 x 1840, while the iPhone 4S saves them at 3264 x 2448. It's not a huge difference, but it's enough to notice.

The photos for the comparison section are at the end of this article.

Verdict

The HTC One X camera is not quite as good as the iPhone 4S. The 4S camera still remains the gold standard in phone photography (a quick look at Flickr's data below supports this), but the One X is so close that many may not care about the small issues. 4S photos aren't DSLR quality, sure, but the device fits in your pocket and you're able to snap life as it happens. This makes it almost perfect for replacing your point and shoot, you don't need to carry a second device anymore. This is true for me, I barely use my DSLR anymore and the majority of my photos are taken on the 4S because they're good enough.

The data on Flickr stands up for this; the original iPhone 4 was more popular than the Canon 5D Mark II for a very long time, with the iPhone 4S about to pass it in popularity

As for the Lumia 800, whilst it's great in theory it really under-performs in some situations and doesn't reproduce color quite as true as the One X or iPhone 4S, despite it having very similar hardware. It's not a bad camera by any measure, it just doesn't take great photos like I've come to expect on this years smartphone. It seems that the problem isn't with the hardware, it's to do with the software.

It's worth noting that if you really want to do macro photography on your phone, this may not be the device for you. I was endlessly frustrated when trying to take macro photos which are a breeze on other phones. Tapping to focus just takes the photo, and lightly pressing the camera button didn't focus either. That f/2.2 looks great in theory, but the phone software just can't handle it correctly yet.

Sample photos

Birds


iPhone 4S


HTC One X (Blurs around edges are the cage, not the camera)


Lumia 800

 

Trees


iPhone 4S


HTC One X


Lumia 800
 

Piano (low light)


iPhone 4S


HTC One X


Lumia 800

Macro


iPhone 4S


HTC One X


Lumia 800

More detailed comparison shots for the HTC One X can be found here.

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24 Comments

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1632 x 1224 - Again WTH?

Did you have the resolution turned down in the settings to 2MP by chance? Because that is EXACTLY the resolution you get at that setting...

In our tests, EVERY image set to 8MP came out as 3264 x 2448 on the Nokia 800.
(The SAME as our iPhone 4S)

As the phone and the 'setting' DEFAULTS to the 8MP setting, you either had to change it on purpose are did it on accident or are just trying to intentionally mislead people.

I suggest you update the 'spec' sheet and re-shoot some photos.

(You do realize that most countries have advertising and slander laws that would take issue with your 'published' specifications for the Nokia 800 if they were to find out about this review, that is presenting a hard technical 'fact' incorrectly on purpose, right?

This is the same reasoning that should get you back to realizing that Nokia COULD NOT advertise or sell this phone as having an 8MP camera if the resulting images were only 2MP, as there are laws in most countries preventing this, right?)

We tried several ways to get an incorrect image size from the Nokia 800, 700, 900, and an HTC Trophy, the only way we could get the resolution you posted from even the 5mp devices was to set it to 2MP mode before taking the picture.

Even the HTC Trophy with a 5mp camera puts out 2592 x 1944 images (5MP), and if the Nokia 800 was only producing 1632 x 1224 images, it would NOT be an 8MP camera, it would be a 2MP camera. AND IT IS NOT...

(I wish I had an HTC One X here to see if the 'reduced' resolution you list for the image is even accurate.)

Just had a chance to look at the Photos...

The Nokia 800 Macro Shot? How?

I have been trying to reproduce this shot, and even pulled in a tech. We had trouble reproducing this bad of a shot, in fact even on the lower end 5mp HTC Trophy, let alone the Nokia 800.

Hit to focus on a location in the distance, notice how the plants in the background have focus?

Also turning off Macro mode on the camera (yes there is this option) would give a 'long' focus when just using the shutter button to initiate focus.

We were also able to reproduce this by hitting the shutter button while focusing on the items in the background then jerking the camera down to focus on something up close as the shot was happening if there was enough light variance that the shutter delayed long enough.


Owen, either you have a REALLY defective Nokia 800, or you are being dishonest. PERIOD.

The 4S camera still remains the gold standard in phone photography

'Standard' as in people using them aka popularity, which has NOTHING to do with image Quality.

1) There are some 5mp phones that will stomp an iPhone 4S

2) The iPhone does 'image processing' aka AutoCorrect after snapping the picture, this destroys RAW pixel data; however, for people that don't know better they think the iPhone 4S Camera is doing a better job, when it is the AutoCorrect that is giving it the edge. (Hit AutoCorrect on the Nokia 800 after taking the shot, and notice how it starts to look like the iPhone 4S results.

3) The HTC Titan II would take issue with any assertion that the iPhone 4S is 'good enough' when replacing an SLR. Its 16mp camera can compete with dedicated 16mp cameras, and blows away any other phone camera currently available.

simplezz said,
The iPhone4S and the HTC One X seem to do much better than the Lumia 800 in low lighting conditions.

Lumia 900 is terrible in low-lighting conditions, so it doesn't surprise me. I think Nokia forgot to include a BSI sensor, that's why their WP camera's suck so much.

As a slightly off topic aside, a lot of people make a fuss about the Carl Zeiss lens when they really shouldn't... literally the only part of the whole camera assembly that has anything to do with Carl Zeiss is the lens glass, which doesn't make a huge amount of difference on these devices, and it certainly doesn't magically make pictures better.

...These things not do video too then? I hear the One X does 120FPS slowmo video? (Used to love that on my LG Viewty and LG Secret)

Edited by ~Johnny, Apr 28 2012, 8:40am :

Chica Ami said,
Wow look how the Lumia fails at the shots. Guess the iPhone is the king in terms of camera quality on mobile devices. =D

Honestly, I prefer the One X. Especially the speed it takes photos at

Chica Ami said,
Wow look how the Lumia fails at the shots. Guess the iPhone is the king in terms of camera quality on mobile devices. =D

Until you hit 'AutoCorrect', that the iPhone is doing automatically. Then the images start to look the same.

As for 'king', you might want to check out the 16mp HTC Titan II, it will make most dedicated cameras cry, let alone anything on a phone.

There is also the 41mp Nokia phone, but since it is using the older OS and won't appear on a Windows Phone until later this year, it isn't in the same 'smartphone' race. However, its image quality will best a good DSLR most of the time.

iPhone is 'king' in your head, but reality... Not so much.

Lumia 800 has a native camera resolution of 3264x2448 .. why would you put the wrong info in the table ?? And why would you downsize the Lumia 800 pics for the comparison ?? And why would that picture be out of focus ?? This IS a very funny review ..

Also, you can upload pictures from the Lumia to Fb, Skydrive, Picasa, and to any service that registers itself to the Pictures Hub ..

Note to reviewer again - you need to open your mind when reviewing, not publicly tell why you think what you own is better ..

deathvirus_me said,
Lumia 800 has a native camera resolution of 3264x2448 .. why would you put the wrong info in the table ?? And why would you downsize the Lumia 800 pics for the comparison ?? And why would that picture be out of focus ?? This IS a very funny review ..

Also, you can upload pictures from the Lumia to Fb, Skydrive, Picasa, and to any service that registers itself to the Pictures Hub ..

Note to reviewer again - you need to open your mind when reviewing, not publicly tell why you think what you own is better ..


What I put in the table is what came out of the device every time on full resolution. I explained in the review why the picture is out of focus, I struggled to get it to focus in Macro mode on small detail.

I also downsized the photos for the sake of bandwidth, sorry. I'll try upload the full sized ones and link them from the smaller ones later today!

I'm just explaining it how I see it.

Why is the picture so much smaller on the Lumia? Surely it's not 8MP if it's that much smaller. Infact how can the pictures be different sizes when they're all apparently 8MP?

McKay said,
Why is the picture so much smaller on the Lumia? Surely it's not 8MP if it's that much smaller. Infact how can the pictures be different sizes when they're all apparently 8MP?

These images have been reduced down. Their original sizes will be different.

Camera Lenses are round and place an image onto a rectangular sensor. The aspect and resolution of the image is a combination of the two.

Whilst they won't all be exactly the same number of pixels they will be approximately the same when you do WxH=

Some Camera eg. Panosonic LX3 can taken 3 different aspect ratios all with the same MP equivalent, and without "cropping" a larger image (which is what many cameras do to achive different ratios).

lt8480 said,

These images have been reduced down. Their original sizes will be different.

Camera Lenses are round and place an image onto a rectangular sensor. The aspect and resolution of the image is a combination of the two.

Whilst they won't all be exactly the same number of pixels they will be approximately the same when you do WxH=

Some Camera eg. Panosonic LX3 can taken 3 different aspect ratios all with the same MP equivalent, and without "cropping" a larger image (which is what many cameras do to achive different ratios).


Exactly what this guy said, thank you

If you're going to compare cameras the first rule is to try and be reasonably consistent taking shots. Obviously deviations will occur because of lens size and picture ration but in my opinion these aren't consistent enough to be a good comparison:

The bird photo has vastlydifferent amount of surrounding scenery - consequently the colour and light balance should change between the shots.

One of the tree images has the sun coming straight into the lens causing glare and over contrast, the other two are shaded by the tree.

One of the plants isn't even in focus. A Lumia 800 can definitely focus at that distance.

Also to my understanding the Lumia does have half press focus, and when focusing if WP fails to focus on the area selected, it pauses briefly... you can tap again (as many times as you like) and it will keep refocusing before taking the photo.

lt8480 said,

One of the tree images has the sun coming straight into the lens causing glare and over contrast, the other two are shaded by the tree.

One of the plants isn't even in focus. A Lumia 800 can definitely focus at that distance.

Also to my understanding the Lumia does have half press focus, and when focusing if WP fails to focus on the area selected, it pauses briefly... you can tap again (as many times as you like) and it will keep refocusing before taking the photo.


I tried both of those and it didn't work, as explained in the article. I couldn't for the life of me get it to focus. I spent about 10 minutes and tried it on a few different objects and it just wouldn't work.

In the sun shot, I took it from the exact same spot, five seconds later. It's just how the camera interpreted it. They're just meant to give a general idea.

Owen W said,

I tried both of those and it didn't work, as explained in the article. I couldn't for the life of me get it to focus. I spent about 10 minutes and tried it on a few different objects and it just wouldn't work.

In the sun shot, I took it from the exact same spot, five seconds later. It's just how the camera interpreted it. They're just meant to give a general idea.

The sun shot is a terrible comparison shot and you know it. At one second, a leaf could be blocking the sun, and at another second, the sun could be coming through full power. I can't believe you actually think that gives you a good "general idea"

Set the mode to macro first on the Lumia.

I tried the same thing and it didn't come out blurry like yours.

Enron said,
Set the mode to macro first on the Lumia.

I tried the same thing and it didn't come out blurry like yours.


I just tried it and it was still very hard to get it to focus on small objects.

Owen W said,

I just tried it and it was still very hard to get it to focus on small objects.

It should be able to focus without issue. I always set my Scene to Macro and my Focus to Macro on the Lumia 800 and do the half press of the shutter button and I don't have any Macro shooting issues.

Owen W said,

I just tried it and it was still very hard to get it to focus on small objects.

On the Lumia 900, the Macro mode is broken where once you focus it the first time, it won't ever re-focus and you're stuck at that focus level. Idk if the 800 still has that bug.