The amazing cameraphone tech that could kill compacts
2nd Mar 2014 | 11:00
It's more than just megapixels
The HTC One and LG G2
Now that smartphones have reached a plateau where any power increase is almost redundant, the camera has become one of the biggest battlefields.
Except in the case of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, but the less said about that the better.
Consumers are anxious to get their hands on the latest cameraphones too, as they've gone from a bullet point on the box to something that can almost compete with standalone compact snappers.
- Want to see them in action? Check out TechRadar's best cameraphones test
But while they're marketed in megapixels there's a whole lot more that goes into making a good cameraphone and quite a few differences between them, so we're taking a look at three of the most popular options on the market
While most flagship phones are focused on driving the megapixels up, HTC took a brave approach with the HTC One, by focusing on the size of the pixels rather than the number. It only has a 4 megapixel sensor, but those megapixels are dubbed 'UltraPixels', which literally just means they're bigger than the pixels you'd find on a standard cameraphone.
Camera sensors on smartphones are tiny, as increasing the size would cause it to take up more space on a handset and require a bigger lens too, so most smartphones have similar sized sensors and by upping the megapixel count you're really just jamming more pixels into the same space, which means making them smaller.
Smaller pixels take in less light which make them less able to accurately recreate an image and can lead to noise and other distortions.
Bigger pixels like those found in the HTC One can capture more light, 300% more light than many 13 megapixel cameras in fact, allowing for more detailed images. As more light can be taken in the HTC One also performs a lot better in dark environments than most smartphone cameras.
The only downside to this approach is that the images are lower resolution, so while they might look fine on your phone screen they don't fare so well when blown up.
As well as having bigger pixels, the HTC One's f/2.0 aperture is also larger than many of its competitors. For example the LG G2 has a f/2.4 aperture, where less f-stops equate to a larger aperture, meaning the HTC One's camera lens opens wider when taking photos and more light gets taken in.
The HTC One also has optical image stabilisation, which counters shaky hands by using a gyroscope to move the lens in the opposite direction of the motion, to avoid blurry images.
The LG G2 takes the opposite approach to the HTC One, packing 13 megapixels into a sensor of roughly the same size. In fact, at 1/3.06 of an inch it's actually marginally smaller than the HTC One's 1/3 of an inch sensor.
As mentioned above it also has a smaller aperture, so less light gets in and the pixels can capture less of what light does enter the sensor. On the flip side images captured by the LG G2 can be blown up a lot bigger than those from the HTC One without a noticeable loss in quality.
It also means that using the cameras digital zoom is a lot more viable. Most smartphone cameras don't have an optical zoom because it would require the lens to stick out, so instead they leverage their megapixels to zoom in digitally, lowering the megapixel count the further they zoom.
Obviously starting from 13 megapixels allows you to zoom further with less loss in quality than when starting with 4 as on the HTC One.
One thing it shares with the HTC One is that they both feature optical image stabilisation. This is something which is becoming increasingly common in smartphones but quite a few still don't have it, even at the high end.
The LG G2 also has a multi-point auto focus, meaning that it can automatically focus on up to nine subjects at once, even if they're moving, and it will automatically pick out faces and other things you're likely to want to focus on, so in busy images it's easy to ensure that everything you want to be in focus is.
But a camera is nothing without its lens, so LG has used scratch-resistant sapphire crystal glass to protect it.
iPhone 5S and Nokia Lumia 1020
The iPhone 5S in many ways sits between the LG G2 and the HTC One with its approach to photography, as it has an 8 megapixel lens, a 1/3 of an inch sensor and an f/2.2 aperture.
It also has bigger pixels than the LG G2, but smaller ones than the HTC One. To be precise each pixel in the iPhone 5S is 1.5 microns, while those in the HTC One are 2 microns and in the LG G2 they're just 1.12 microns, so the iPhone 5S can capture more light than the LG G2, but less than the HTC One.
Like the LG G2 it has a sapphire crystal lens but it doesn't have optical image stabilisation, though it mimics the effect with auto image stabilisation, which takes four photos in rapid succession and combines the best part of each into a single image.
But the iPhone 5S is more than just a middle ground, as it's got a killer party trick of its own. Because while the LG G2 and HTC One just have a single LED flash, the iPhone 5S has a dual-LED 'True Tone' flash.
One of the LEDs is white and the other is amber and for any given shot the iPhone 5S will automatically work out how much of each flash to use, from over a thousand possible combinations, to capture natural, true to life colours.
Nokia Lumia 1020
The Nokia Lumia 1020 is a bit different from the rest of phones on test, with technology distinct from its competition.
For starters, it comes in with a whopping 41MP sensor, which is plenty powerful and adds a whole host of technology to push the photo message on smartphones forward.
The Pureview technology contained within it uses a new technology called pixel oversampling. What this means is rather than one 41MP image, several images using different pixels are taken and combined into one 5MP image - the point at which Nokia believes is good enough for camera phones.
The Lumia 1020 uses six lens elements in the construction of its camera, using Carl Zeiss optics, to incorporate an extra glass sensor as well as five moulded plastic ones as well - this contributes to a much larger sensor, which is why it protrudes so far out of the back.
The aperture size, as you can imagine on a sensor this size, is a little lower than the HTC One, coming in at f/2.2. However Nokia believes that its combination of the oversampling Pureview technology, combined with a high-power backlight illuminated sensor (which puts fewer components in front of the pixel to preserve more light going in) more than makes up for that.
The Lumia 1020 also features OIS, as you might have guessed - the system resting on ball bearings to get a fluid shot with a stable image. It can handle much higher digital zoom thanks to the 41MP sensor, and can even output image files up to 38MP by using all the pixels at its disposal.
It's also got features like a high-power Xenon flash, which the rest on test can't add in simply because it's such a chunky unit - but with the protruding rear, the 1020 has found the space. Just be ready for that added heft.
Nokia has published a white paper on its camera tech used in the Lumia 1020, which you can view here to find out more on the technology.
All of these cameras are great in their own way and often in quite different manners. Going forward it's cameras like these, that are innovative and well thought out, that will be the best, not just those with the most megapixels.
- Apps can breathe new life into a cameraphone. Check out the best ones available for Android.