Last month, we tested the best smartphone cameras out there and declared the HTC One's ultrapixel camera the master of all. Now it's time to see how the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z measure up.
Today, we're comparing the cameras on five top smartphones: The Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920, and Apple iPhone 5. We tested them in four common situations, two in daylight and two in a blacked out corner of the office. The winner is the camera that gets flawless results with minimal hassle.
In all cases, we used the cameras as simple point-and-shoots. We didn't fuss around with special settings or filters for the simple reason that the most common use case for a smartphone is a quick, snapshot on-the-fly. Menus make you either late to work or late for your photo. We resized identical portions of each image down to a height of 900 pixels, which is a reasonable Facebook size.
Note: We tested the global version of the Sony Xperia Z, called the Xperia ZL. The two phones have identical cameras.
The shot of flowers above is a typical shot of something pretty on the street. We're looking for how well the cameras balance color and how well they render detail.
The Xperia Z, iPhone 5, and S4 all do a solid job, but the iPhone 5 wins here for beating the S4 on details and the Xperia Z on color. The HTC One photo gets the color right, but the photo is pretty fuzzy compared to the rest, showing the limitations of its lower-resolution 4-megapixel sensor. The Lumia 920's colors are way off, so it's the clear loser in this test.
Winner: iPhone 5 (by a hair)
Low-light without flash
In this test, we're trying to avoid the horrid blast of LED flash that you're better off not using if you can avoid it. While all of the cameras (except the iPhone) have a "Night Mode" setting, we did this test in automatic because we think a simple camera should be able to make that adjustment on its own if its necessary. Diving into a menu isn't something your average user is going to bother with.
Both the Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z are hopeless when the lights go down. We'd argue about which is worse, except what's the point? The iPhone 5's photo is gross with grain, but at least you can see the little statue. Both the Lumia 920 and HTC One perform well. The One has better color, but the 920's sharpness is exceptional so it's our cave-dweller of choice.
Winner: Lumia 920
Low-light with flash
Flash is a delicate art that's easy to screw up, but sometimes you've got no choice but to use it. Here, we're looking for the flash that softly illuminates the scene without blowing out details. It's incredible to see how much the expression on our statue's face changes depending on how the flash hits him. As in last month's test, the HTC One's gentle touch fills the scene with light without turning our friend into a sunspot. It's a tad dark, maybe, but so was the scene, no?
The S4 and the Lumia 920 each have their advantages. The former does a nice job with details in the foreground but casts a long shadow behind the statue. The latter does a better job filling the scene evenly but doesn't quite deliver when it comes to color and detail on the statue itself. Once upon a time, the iPhone's flash would have been impressive for being at all decent, but this image looks like it's bathing in the light of a flashbulb filled with egg yolk. The Xperia Z's flash makes our man look like a drunk looking into a cop's strobe.
Winner: HTC One
In this shot, we're looking at each photo's detail and exposure. The Lumia 920 wins on account of its detail and dynamic range. The sky is properly exposed, and you can still make out clean details all the way to the much darker brick foreground. The S4 and HTC One both do well on exposure, but we're partial to the S4's sharper details. The iPhone does a good job as well, but there is a lot of noticeable distortion in the tiny details compared to the other good shots. The Xperia Z photos is improperly exposed. Interestingly, when we did this test the last time around it was a brighter sunnier day, and we had a hard time picking a favorite between the Lumia 920 and the HTC One.
Winner: Nokia Lumia 920
The HTC One and Nokia Lumia 920 are still the best all around camera phones out there despite their idiosyncrasies. In particular, they're excellent in the dark. The HTC One's photos sometimes come out grainy and the Lumia 920 doesn't do a good job with color balance.
As for our newcomers, the Galaxy S4 takes solid, sharp photos in most conditions, and it was at least a contender for the top spot in several of the tests. Unfortunately it's terrible in low-light. Despite using entirely new imaging technology, the Xperia Z fell short more often than not.
The iPhone 5 is just over six months old and it's already feeling like a straggler. It's still solid, but Apple better have some new tech to juice this camera whenever the next iteration of the iPhone drops.