HTC 10 vs HTC One A9 camera comparison or: Why Ultrapixels are a bad idea

The HTC One A9 was one of my favorite Android phones to be produced in 2015. With a review right around the corner, I can say that the firm's latest flagship - the HTC 10 - will be among my favorite of 2016. Well, at least during the first half.

The HTC 10 is a delight to use, but one thing bothers me: the camera. When we compared it to the Microsoft Lumia 950 and the iPhone 6s Plus, it was clear that - like the other Ultrapixel cameras that the struggling firm has used - the photos were overexposed, creating an oversaturated image that often looked blown out with inaccurate colors.

Of course, those other Ultrapixel cameras were a measly 4 MP. We blamed the poor photos on the low resolution (which wasn't fair to begin with) and the fact that when cropped or zoomed, the images would rapidly degrade.

Now, it's time to prove that Ultrapixels are just a bad idea. We're going to compare the HTC 10's camera to the One A9's. As far as specs go, the 10 should win all the way. It has a larger sensor and larger aperture. One uses phase detect autofocus while the other uses laser focus.

Let us show, once and for all, that HTC does a better job with its cameras when they don't go the Ultrapixel route.

HTC 10 HTC One A9
Resolution 12 MP, Front 5 MP 13 MP, Front 4 MP
Video 4K - 30 fps, Front 1080p - 30 fps 1080p - 30 fps, Front 1080p - 30 fps
Aperture f/1.8, Front f/1.8 f/2, Front f/2
Camera features OIS, laser focus, dual LED flash, 1.55 µm pixel size, Front OIS, 1.34 µm pixel size, LCD flash OIS, dual LED flash, PDAF, Front 1/3" sensor size, 2 µm pixel size

When HTC calls something a pixel an Ultrapixel, it means that it's large. For example, the One and the One M8 used 2 µm, which is huge. In theory, larger pixels should create an image with less noise, and that's true.

Unfortunately, HTC seems to want to oversaturate the images as well. Yes, this creates more vivid colors and to the layman, it probably makes for a prettier picture. Sadly, it also distorts the colors.

Let's take a look at some samples.

HTC 10 HTC One A9

As we can see from the samples, there are some big problems here. Note the purple/blue flowers toward the top. Those are blue in real life, but they are most definitely purple when taken with the 10's camera.

I keep saying that these photos are overexposed, but how about if I prove it? The 10 actually has a pretty nifty slider mechanism when you tap to focus that allows the user to adjust the exposure. If you're not familiar with what that will do, it will also darken the image.

Both of these photos are taken with the HTC 10.

Normal Adjusted

To take that second picture, I had to turn the exposure all the way down, but the resulting blue is pretty true to life.

You'll also notice in the images above that the lighting looks blown out in comparison with the One A9. This is also due to the way the One A9 meters the photos. When it focuses on a light, it handles it well, but the rest of the image can be very dark.

Still, the blown out photos from the 10 can once again be fixed by adjusting the exposure.

As we can see, when trying to tackle this in a low light setting, fixing the lighting can cause the image to simply be too dark. Of course, you can then try playing with the Pro settings to get the desired effect.

Of course, with the One A9, the user has the option to tap to focus on the light. This will cause the photo to be metered differently, which will end up causing it to be too dark.

HTC 10 HTC One A9

Now, we tap to focus on the One A9, and lower the exposure on the 10.

The moral of the story here is that it's great to have exposure controls, but you shouldn't need to use them frequently. At least, they shouldn't be necessary to get accurate colors.

It's fair to say that most users want to take their phone out of their pocket, snap a photo, and put it back in their pocket, not missing their shot. Forcing them to use manual controls goes against the essence of what is a smartphone camera, assuming that the idea behind a smartphone camera is to capture the moment from wherever you are.

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