What am I trying to prove anyway - and to whom? Testing four new Android smartcams

The longer I write this blog, the more I wonder what I'm trying to prove anyway - and to whom. This post is another fine example of what we in fact already know. Like: low ISO only works well with long exposure time, the bigger the sensor the better the result and in the end the Nokia 808 PureView wins. 

Of course I'm overdoing it a bit, but there is some essential truth in the fact that since I've been looking for the very best imaging quality in smartphones, in over three years there is no company that actually managed to completely outperform the last Symbian flagship: Nokia really gave it all it had with the 808 PureView.

I know only one exception: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 seems to be a better performing all-rounder, although its JPG compression is quite disappointing. Yes, it offers RAW, but still. By the way, it's highly likely Nokia sold more of the 808 PureView than Panasonic sold its CM1 - and that's saying something. Of course, another fantastic smartcam is the Nokia Lumia 1020, although detail is not as brilliant as on the 808 and there will always be the issue with the yellow tint. After that it's not completely clear what the runners up are.

But the contest is not just about imaging quality. People interested in the "smartcam niche" usually want a perfect blend of a smartphone that 1. fits their general needs best and 2. makes the very best shots - but 1 is usually more important. That's why the iPhone 6 is so popular. That's why the 808 PureView never was. That's why even the best smartcam technology wasn't able to make Windows Phone a popular platform. However important it is to me, the camera comes second.

Microsoft noticed the same thing and simply has stopped producing high-end flagships a while ago - the Lumia 1020, 1520 and 930 didn't do them much good, and everybody noticed it's the cheaper (cheapest) devices that get people into the Windows ecosystem - and that's what matter most to Microsoft. Don't get me wrong by the way: I've seen some great images coming from some of the more affordable Lumia's as well (like the 640 XL lately, which I'm still waiting to test). That makes for a very great "blend" as well: an affordable smartphone with a very decent camera. Good enough for most. And I read Microsoft is working on a new flagship, so there's still hope! :-)

So who is reading this blog? Not sure - some people only visit to see if there's something new out there that might actually replace their 808 PureView. Some are just as fascinated by the steady camera improvement of just about every major smartphone company. Apple has been making a slow and steady progress with each new iPhone, but Apple users don't really care to compare so there aren't interested in what I'm doing here.

It's obvious though the most impressive innovations of the last years have been realized on the Android platform. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has better camera specs than even the fantastic Note 4. Sony released an improved version of the Xperia Z3, adding a + to the number (although it looks there are no changes in the rear camera). The LG G4 is the new contender with a large sensor, whopping f /1.8 aperture, a maximum of 30 seconds exposure time and even the possibility to shoot RAW. HTC just released a major update for its One M9 especially addressing the camera. 

So in this post I'm looking at all the new high-end Android contenders - G4, Z3+, M9 and S6. And yes, I'll compare them with the best smartcams I know; the 808 (the Smartcam King on Symbian) and DMC-Lumix CM1. For who? For you I guess, wherever you are. Trust me, you'll be seeing some interesting stuff here :-)

Settings LG, HTC and Samsung
The G4 has three modes: a simple mode that will fire as soon as you touch the display, a basic mode where you can choose panorama for instance and a manual mode which has just about everything (only the f/1.8 aperture is fixed). You'll see a .JPG button on the left, touch it and you'll shoot in raw .DNG as well.

The exposure time of the HTC One M9 is limited to a max of two seconds. Of course, you'll need to go to Manual to change shutter speed, ISO, white balance and so on. The camera UI of the HTC One M9 works with "sliders"  you can open, set and close. You'll have to close them when you want to focus on a spot in between the sliders, otherwise you'll change your settings. In the screenshot below you'll see how the software interprets slower shutter speed as "exposure correction" (+1.6 in the example below).

You'll find a RAW Camera app on the HTC One M9 as well. Here's what the settings menu looks like. Again, you can open each of the sliders seperately and close them when you're done. 
So we have three devices being able to shoot RAW: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1, the HTC One M9 and the LG G4. Both the Panasonic and the LG will allow you to shoot .JPG and RAW at the same time.  Only Sony (pun intended) and Samsung aren't able to capture RAW just yet.

The Sony Xperia Z3+ has a much shorter exposure time: 1/8 second. The Xperia Z3+ like its predecessor won't let you change the ISO settings if you choose maximum resolution in Manual Mode. Why is beyond me. There's not anything new I could share from the Camera UI of the Xperia, so I'll just refer to this post about the Z3. One advantage of the Z3+ over the other new Androids, it has a real shutter button - like the Panasonic, only (much) smaller.

To conclude, here's the screenshot from the manual mode you'll find on the Samsung Galaxy S6 - not as elaborate as on the LG G4, just simple and efficient. Lowest ISO is 100 just like on the HTC One M9, whereas both the Xperia and LG offer ISO 50.  

Back in the basement
For this comparison, we're back in the basement you've seen in my  previous post. This time however, I had two tubes with neon light turned on. It isn't exactly low-light, but it's not extremely bright either. Why didn't I choose to test the LG G4 with its 30 second exposure time in the extreme dark conditions you've seen earlier?

Well, I did: the LG G4 simply couldn't focus in near darkness, which is somewhat of a disappointment knowing it uses laser technology. It has in fact the same issue as I noticed on both the Honor 6+ and Huawei P8 - in extreme low-light that is. It's a different story in just a bit better circumstances, but still. 

I'm looking at a selection of 15 different shots and the bottleneck is simple: if you can't influence shutter speed, there's hardly any room to fool around with the lowest ISO settings to minimize noise.. So both the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the Sony Xperia Z3+ can only capture pretty dark shots at low ISO. No wonder at shutter speeds around 1/7 or 1/8 second. Here's what I got from both at ISO 100. Please note the focal length of both devices is exactly the same.

Samsung Galaxy S6 (ISO 100, 1/7 second)

Sony Xperia Z3+ (ISO 100, 1/8 second)

Now detail isn't bad. These are the crops from the resized result (to 8MP, being the smallest resolution in this comparison). Again,Samsung Galaxy S6 first, Sony Xperia Z3 second.

Please keep in mind I only had to resize the result coming from the Galaxy S6 in this case, the Xperia Z3+ was on 8MP already. The shot on the Xperia Z3+ seems to have a bit more "bite" to it and that's correct if you compare the originals: I simply got a sharper result with it - please remember I make several shots on each device and select the best. Don't forget to compare the originals on Flickr (link below).

Now if you can choose shutter time as well, it's easier to get a brighter result of course. In the case of the 808 PureView, you can't choose shutter time, just ISO - the software will adjust. So let's start with one of the results I got from it - I'll limit myself to what I got with ISO 100 and 0.5 second.

Nokia 808 PureView (ISO 100, 0.5 second)

Crop is from the resized (8MP) original (34MP).

I'm sure you can imagine a crop from the 34MP original is even more impressive - again, all shots are on Flickr. From the LG G4 I chose the shot I captured in ISO 100 and 0.5 second as well).

LG G4 (ISO 100, 0.5 second)

You can see the result is a bit more yellowish, although I put white balance on auto. The crop is from the resized version (original is 16MP):

Do note the result is a bit brighter than what I got from the Nokia 808 PureView - not sure why that is (edit: the larger aperture of course!). And yes, I do tend to prefer the shot I got from the Nokia 808 PureView in this case, but I might have chosen a bit shorter exposure to compare.

The last of the new Androids is the HTC One M9 which recently had a very big camera update. This was captured at ISO 100 and 0.2 second - no wonder it's much brighter. But the crop (below) certainly misses the "bite" we've seen earlier.

HTC One M9 (ISO 100, 0.2 second)

Not focused very well? True that. But I'm sorry to say, I've been making several shots with the HTC One M9 and unless its major update, I hardly got anything better than this. But I will share the crop I got from its result on Auto (ISO 500, 1/14 second) - darker, but definitely better. The best result I got from more than a dozen shots, but detail still isn't that good. 

HTC One M9 (auto, ISO 500, 1/14 second)
And finally, here's what I got from the Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 - ISO 125 and 0.5 second shutter time. Of course, the crop comes from the resized version.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1

As you can see, even with a bit higher ISO, the result is a bit darker than what I got from the LG G4. I guess your mileage may vary.

Conclusion so far
This is just a very limited amount of crops from resized versions of a few shots from just once scene - hope you understand how limited this is! :-)

It's way too early to write anyhing in general about the LG G4, apart from the fact it won't focus in near darkness - other than that, it really looks like a serious contender and I'm looking forward to do a lot more testing the next weeks. 

Low-light is a condition many photographers just love to use to see what a camera is capable of. I'm not too fond of it myself to be honest but I understand the point. Obviously, with their limited maximum exposure, the Galaxy S6 and Xperia Z3+ have a disadavantage: there's nothing to compensate the choice of a low ISO value (when you refuse to use the flash that is). Still, I think they've done a pretty good job in this comparison, and I'm actually surprised by the way the Xperia Z3+ performed.

With the HTC One M9 and the LG G4, there are more variables to play with. The HTC One M9 exposure is limited to 2 seconds, which is less than the Nokia 808 PureView offers (2.7 seconds), but not bad in itself. The LG G4 boasts 30 seconds maximum exposure and ranks second in this comparison (the Panasonic has 60 seconds maximum).

The shots I got from the HTC One M9 in this test have been underwhelming, but I'm not even half way testing it against the competition. I'm pretty excited about all the devices I'm able to work with now, especially since the LG G4 looks very promising.

The Xperia Z3+ has surprised me against the Samsung Galaxy S6 in this case, but I can't understand some of its limitations (like not being able to change the ISO setting in full resolution). You can fool around with all settings using the full 16MP of the Galaxy S6 anyway.

And yes: the Nokia 808 PureView wins. 

Bonus: design (a matter of taste)
Just some more thoughts about the design of these new devices. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 is a monster according to some, but I simply love its design, since however bulky (I loved the 808 from day one as well), it's unique and simply screams it's a camera - people are very surprised to find a full-fledged smartphone in there running on Android Lollipop even.

One thing though: the Lumix DMC-CM1 is the most unpocketable smartphone I ever used - due to its thickness and delicate lens construction even more so than the 808 (which many people considered to be too thick) - or the Lumia 1520, which is simply huge, even larger than the iPhone 6 Plus. So if you really want to be able to carry a smartphone in whatever trouser pocket, I don't think the CM1 is a good choice.

The other four devices in this test are quite pocketable, although they're all quite large - the LG G4 being the largest. Design-wise, my version of the LG G4 has the a similar leather cover as the CM1. For some reason everyone wants to believe it's real leather - or some sort of thin layer of leather glued to plastic (how?). But leather being a natural product there simply is no way LG would be able to produce the exact same leather cover for hundreds of thousands of devices.

So the luxury cover of the LG G4 might really look and feel and (some say) even smell like leather, it is "faux" leather. Is that a bad thing? Well, it will cost you €50 where I live, but that's what you pay for great design - not necessarily for a natural product. And I think it looks and feels fantastic, natural or not. But the G4 still is pretty close to a phablet, size wize with its 5.5 inch display.

Surprise though, the Xperia Z3+ is next as far as height and width are concerned (with a 5.2 inch display!). Sony has managed to put all the Zen it could find into its design. Especially in the black version there is nothing that sets it apart - it's just there. It has a glass front and back, round corners, it's definitely very stylish, but well, kind of boring to my taste - in black that is.

The HTC One M9 might be smaller concerning height and width, but definitely is a whole lot thicker - and heavier. I'm not sure if I like the full metal body of the M9 - no, I'm sure I don't in fact. Some think it feels "cool" but quite often I sometimes found it became uncomfortably warm when using it. Not a great fan of the interface either, but again, taste is personal and I have to say HTC Sense has improved a lot over the years.

Might be worth to know that both the HTC One M9 as the Xperia Z3+ have stereo front speakers next to the display, making for a fantastic audio experience, especially on the HTC One M-series. If audio is important to you, these might be worth your consideration. I was suprised to find the Sony comes without a headset though, but you can buy a fantastic Sony in-ear headset with automatic noise cancellation (aroud €50).

The Samsung Galaxy S6 is the smallest and definitely most pocketable device in this test, and although it has a glass front and back like the Xperia Z3, there is so much in the design that really sets is apart - even more so if you have the Edge version (which does affect the price but doesn't affect the camera). 

Being all on Android, as far as design goes I think my choice would be:
1. Samsung Galaxy S6 (Edge),
2. LG G4,
3. HTC One M9 and
4. Sony Xperia Z3+.
Again, taste is personal. The interesting thing for me however, is see if the order is still the same after I'm done testing all cameras on these devices. So that's what I'm looking forward to the coming weeks. Hope you're looking forward to the results as much as I am.

I promised you the originals: they're in a dedicated album on Flickr as usual. I'll ask you for a contribution again too - this website doesn't support itself and I'll add you the list of sponsors (hope you'll feel inspired to hit that donate button this time, it's been awfully quiet lately).