By Matthew Wade
Are mobile phone cameras a viable alternative to standalone snappers?
In the last few weeks, the mobile phone cameras available here in the Middle East have finally hit the five megapixel mark - with Sony Ericsson, LG and Nokia leading the way.
This achievement marks a potential turning point, as it means these phones are now comparable to average resolution, standalone digital cameras, at least that is in terms of their quoted maximum resolutions (their other specifications still lag a little way behind).
The truth however is that we're still some time away - we estimate up to a year - from the majority of camera-phones offering five-megapixel cameras.
Instead the current average, as we see it, is cameraphones with two-megapixel models.
As this ‘average' figure is itself on the rise, we chose in this article to test key vendors' 3.2-megapixel cameraphones; our thinking being 3.2 that this will likely be the ‘new 2MP' within months, if not weeks.
The dual aims of our test were these:
To compare how 3.2-megapixel cameraphones compare, quality-wise, to a similarly specified digital camera (in our test, Canon's Digital Ixus 430, set at three-megapixels).
To evaluate how different 3.2-megapixel cameraphones compare against each other - in terms of their image quality and feature sets.
Our approach was:
We decided to take four test images with each 3.2-megapixel cameraphone and the test Canon camera, the thinking being that this group of shots roughly represents the likely usage of a normal cameraphone.
Shot 1A ‘macro' close-up (of a flower), in daylight, using applicable camera settings.
Shot 2A portrait person shot, in light home conditions, using default (or 'quick') settings.
Shot 3A ‘landscape' shot (of a tower), taken in bright daylight conditions, using applicable camera settings.
Shot 4A portrait person shot taken inside, in low-light conditions, using applicable camera settings.
We used 3.2-megapixel camera phones from three phone vendors: the Sony Ericsson Cyber-shot K770, Nokia's XpressMusic 5610 and the Samsung SGH-U700. (Motorola declined to send a cameraphone for our test, whilst LG does not currently offer a 3.2-megapixel model.)
Next we compare these cameras' respective camera functions and features...
Test image 1: macro close-up
As expected, the Canon Ixus' shot is the most well defined colour-wise and its leaf edges are ultra crisp. Of the cameraphones, the Nokia's shot is the crispest and its resolution appears easily the finest, followed by the Sony Ericsson and then the rather lackluster Samsung. The Samsung's shot also appears a little over-yellow. Best cameraphone for sunny outside close-ups then? The Nokia.
Test image 2: default setting portrait
The Canon's colour representation was closest to the original environment (we were able to tell largely by the colour of the shot's wood-panel background). Again the Nokia cameraphone ruled the roost colour-wise (with the Samsung again the bottom-placed straggler). However when we zoomed in on the model's face - using the same degree of zoom for each phone's shot - it was the Sony's portrait shot that was the best defined, followed by the Samsung with the Nokia a surprising third. Round two to Sony then.
Test image 3: landscape shot
The Nokia struggled most to cope with the very bright landscape conditions, overcompensating by making the image over-dark. The Samsung's shot was again the most blurred when examined closely, whilst the Sony's image was a little overexposed (light and washed out) but not too much so as to be unusable, so passable overall. Not a winning display by any of the cameraphones however, when compared to our standalone digital camera, but the Sony Ericsson is the best on offer here.
Test image 4: low-light portrait
An interesting test in that we got to see how the devices with built-in flash units (the Canon camera, Nokia and Samsung) compared to the non-flash, torchlight-only Sony Ericsson. The result was, as expected, that the Sony's shot was by far the darkest. A shame , as this picture's clarity was as good as the Nokia's. The Nokia's flash was more balanced - in that it didn't create a white circular surround around our model like the Samsung. The Samsung's image clarity was also the poorest. Best for dark indoor shots then? The Nokia.
What we learnt
Whilst our quick exam was restricted by the number of cameraphones featured (namely those that we could secure from regional vendors for this feature), we were able to glean some interesting information about which cameraphone model does what best (and therefore which phone firm's 3.2-megapixel camera componentry is best), and how these compare to a similarly specified digital camera.
Cameraphone vs the real thing
In terms of this latter camera comparison, the digital enthusiast is still best placed at present to buy a standalone device.
Based on our Canon-based tests, a standalone camera's colour representation will likely be more accurate, and it will feature a host more features than even the Sony Ericsson's comprehensive list (bar its lack of proper flash), such as ISO settings for example.
A digital camera will also, crucially, have a flash built-in, and just as importantly, it will feature some form of optical (or physical) zoom. Whilst true that the Samsung phone tested here does offer a zoom function, this is a digital zoom, and as such inferior to the real thing - as it effectively just zooms in on the same pixels, with the subject shot from the same distance away, rather than the optical zoom's approach of pushing the lens physically closer to the subject.
Our exam didn't turn up an overall leader from the three devices tested, instead the Nokia and Sony Ericsson battled it out for the win across our four test shots, and in truth came out fairly equal.
The inside light portrait shot winner was Sony, with the dark shot winner Nokia, thanks to its phone's flash unit (far superior to the Samsung's halo-creating flash). The Nokia also performed best in our daylight macro (closeup) flower shot test, but the Sony did slightly better (though still unimpressively compared to the Canon) in our daylight landscape test.
As such it's very difficult to recommend the better cameraphone vendor overall. This particular Sony phone's feature list is easily the longest, however our test model didn't include a proper flash - a real waste, and the Nokia's menu system meanwhile is quicker and easier to navigate. So for the unconcerned ‘happy snapper', the XpressMusic 6610 is probably the better bet.