P4u Smartphone Shootout: Mobile Cameras Go Head To Head

Smartphone Shootout

It wasn’t that long ago when you were lucky to get a photograph from a mobile device that resembled one of those grainy e-fits you see on Crimewatch, but these days the snappers contained within most smartblowers are good enough to rival yer actual proper ‘compact cameras’ (as people who work in Jessops like to call them). However, with a seemingly endless conveyor belt of high-end smartphones – each attempting to outdo the others with a veritable smorgasbord of functionality- it can often be hard to decide which to plump for, which is why the snapper a device sports is becoming an increasingly important factor in whether you spend your hard-earned cash on one blower over another. Why? Because most of the top handsets have a more than useful lens as standard, and there’s often little to separate the big guns in terms of photographic prowess. Or so you’d think.

You see, whilst the likes of Samsung’s stella Galaxy S II and so-called King of The Smartphone, Apple’s iPhone 4S, both rock more than adequate 8 megapixel cameras, and the Nokia Lumia 800 and Sony’s Xperia S have some impressive photography moves up their sleeves (the Sony piece has a whopping 12 megapixel cannon bolted to it ferchrissakes!), those specs are meaningless if they don’t deliver the goods under pressure. Magic moments don’t last for long and if it takes an age to pull your cannon from your pocket, well, they’re gone forever. What you need from your phone’s camera is a reliable, snappy snapper that’s not only swift, but can knock out an impressive final product and in the main, that’s exactly what you get from the aforementioned mobiles, but can piccie prowess be measured on megapixels alone? That’s what we were aching to find out and the reason why a trip out to the badlands of the Western frontier (well, a rural part of south Cheshire if you must know) was necessary for the inaugral P4u Smartphone Shootout in which we test how quick on the draw and how decent a picture these digital weapons can take  …

The Contenders

Now the more cynical readers amongst you will view this whole charade as an excuse for us to indulge our penchant for dressing up (isn’t Brokeback Mountain your favourite movie Dean? – Ed), but there is a serious side to proceedings, namely the mission to determine if the stable of smartphones could cut it photographically in the dusty plains of the Wild Wild West. Here’s how the posse lined up.

iPhone 4S

A Union soldier from Camp Cupertino, the iPhone 4S pulls no punches in the digital imaging stakes and has a great arsenal of weaponry to call on. Packing the 8 megaxpixel standard, the Apple-produced canister (that’s Cowboy for “gun”) has had a few improvements since the last time out, most notably in the form of a redesigned lens and the upping of megapixelage from the iPhone 4′s 5 megapixels to a fear-striking 8 megapixels. Other ammo includes an improved ‘backside illuminated’ light sensor, which helps no end with improving  image quality, and an f/2.4 aperture which is as wide as the Navajo plains meaning more of that light can get into the lense and perk up yer pics. Apple’s A5 chipset powers it all along and the bespectacled fella in the general store tells us that this is as powerful as the ones you get in them coveted DSLR cameras.

Samsung Galaxy S II

This blower has been on the wanted list for quite a while now, and the fact that it’s still being pursued by many is testament to what it’s got under its hat. Like the iPhone 4S, this six-shooter is infact an eight-shooter, but as that isn’t a Cowboy term, it’d be daft to refer to it as that. So we’ll call it an 8 megapixel camera. Because that’s what it is. The aperture outdoes that of the 4S, clocking in at f/2.6, but the lightweight slimline nature will help when it comes to swiftly whipping it out of a holster. However, whilst this lightning quick dual-core blower is fast in pretty much every other aspect, the lack of a dedicated shutter button could hinder performance in the quick-fire speed challenge. Only time will tell if this one ends up victorious, or is consigned to the bone orchard with the other slowpokes.

Nokia Lumia 800

The new guy in town is somewhat of an unknown quantity in the smartphone photography stakes, but whispers of its capabilities have found their way across the frontier  - an 8 megapixel sharpshooter with a precision Carl Zeiss lens doesn’t go unnoticed. The camera app in this thing is said to have been designed with the utmost diligence and features all manner of options, the most useful for quick-draw specialists being the automated setting for things like ISO and saturation, which might sound all technical but basically means that the grainy bits that make up an image are tighter and that colour looks good. This little number also has a dedicated trigger (Ok Clint Eastwood, just call it a dedicated camera button like everyone else – Ed), so that might give it an edge in the speed round.

Sony Xperia S

Another mystery man, this time from the east and the first time out for Sony as a lone gunman after dispensing with the services of Swedish mobile legends Ericsson. Now this device is packing a hefty 12 megapixel piece, but power isn’t everything and there’s been many a time where the so-called little guys have emerged victorious against the big guns – after all, what’s the use of having all that firepower if you’re not so quick on the draw? Unfortunately for those up against the Xperia S, that hefty snapper is beefed up by Sony’s Exmor R sensor (which makes taking snaps in low light settings as easy as breaking out of the county jail during a Sheriff strike), as well as an f/2.4 aperture lens. It’s not just that though as the Xperia S is said to have quite the hair trigger in that the dedicated camera button is said to enable the taking of pics in just 2.2 seconds from standby. Of course, this is useless if the person wielding it is as slow on the draw as an…erm…sedated Buffalo, but seeing as it’s yours truly who has it sitting in his holster, the challengers have good reason to be shaking in their boots (!).

Challenge #1 – Quick Draw

As you might have guessed from the title of this challenge (and due to the fact that we’ve already told you what we’re gonna do), this is where we test the reactions of not only the cameras bolted on to the fearless four, but also those of the outlaws using them. To start things off nice and easy, we challenged the snappers to capture a stationary horse. This involved each of the gunmen standing but 20 paces from the nag, cocking the safety on their device (they haven’t really got safeties) and shooting on the call of our independent adjudicator (the horse’s owner).

Surprisingly, the device with the biggest reputation – Apple’s iPhone 4S – was the slowest on the draw, capturing the mule in 5.9 seconds. Whilst not the kind of performance that Camp Cupertino would have hoped for, the comparative age that it took to come up with the goods was undoubtedly influenced by the absence of a dedicated shutter button. Yes, the camera app can be gotten to by double clicking the home button, but then it’s another two clicks before the picture is taken. The fact that it was absolutely freezing and its operator’s hands were almost encased in ice could also have been an influencing factor.

The next to fall was the speedy elsewhere Samsung Galaxy S II, with a capture time of 5.2. seconds. A shame for Samsung no doubt as the Korean sharpshooters have garnered a bit of a reputation over the past few years and this device is quicker than a speeding bullet in all other areas of its operation. Yes, the dual-core processing power contained within probably streamlined things, but the absence of a shutter button meant that the user had to go through the whole rigmarole of opening the camera app using the onscreen soft keys before being able to point and shoot.

It was no surprise then that the two handsets that avoided biting dust, ending up in the bone orchard and [insert generic Wild West term here] were the ones that had specially crafted triggers on board – the Nokia Lumia 800 and the Xperia S from Sony. Nothwithstanding the fact that the Sony effort has quickfire photography at its very core, the device itself is also quite expansive in terms of bodywork, which mightn’t be to everyone’s taste, but sure comes in handy when grabbing from a tight denim pocket. That claim of 1.8 seconds from lock screen to capture certainly held up, and a decent picture it was too.

Coming in a close second (and as such, progressing to the final face-off) was the Lumia 800. Again, the camera chops are something that has been bigged up no end by the Finnish chaps who make it, and again, the special dedicated shutter button makes it zephyr quick. Clocking in at 3 seconds from holster to picture, that responsive camera app courtesy of the Microsoft posse certainly did its job. Could it have been that little bit quicker? Well, we guess we’ll never know until Microsoft give manufacturers of Windows Phone kit the go ahead for some dual-core action.

Challenge #2 – Picture Perfect

After separating the four chunks of plastic and electronics in terms of speed, the next step was to see if the two left standing could hack it when it came to actually producing a decent image. After all, it’s no use being quick if the end result is more miss than hit. But how to test this? We did toy with the idea of trying to get each combatant to snap one of those jumpy little lizards and see how the pics came out (thus testing how nimble the two devices were AND how a colourful reptile would manifest itself in visual image form). Then we realised that we weren’t actually in the Wild West and without taking a trip to the pet shop, the chance of getting hold of a reptile of this nature were slim. Plus, we’d already used a horse in the first round and health and safety would be getting suspicious if we went down the animal route again. So, it was eventually decided that the best way to settle this would be the way that things had always been settled in these parts; a duel.

Last Man Standing

Image captured by the Xperia S

Pacing out in the dust and then turning to shoot on the count of five, the flashbulbs illuminated and the images were captured. The Xperia S was ever so slightly quicker on the draw, but that’s by the by as speed wasn’t being monitored here (and the slow unsheathing was probably more to do with the handler rather than the tech). As you’ll be able to see with your own dust and rheum-filled peepers, the colt from the Sony stable produced the superior image, a burstin’ with colour and sharper than the sharpest card sharp you ever come across. This was more than likely down to those darn Exmor R sensors doing what they do best, although the impressive HD Reality display did kinda help with our decision when viewing it back.

Image captured by the Lumia 800

That’s not to say the Lumia was completely shot to pieces though – its snap was more than acceptable, but it was ever so slightly washed out, a bit like the denims worn by a veteran rancher. You might have expected the precision engineered Carl Zeiss lens to have this Scandinavian shooter just edging it, but it wasn’t to be. Ain’t no shame in losing out to the Xperia though as this here test has demonstrated, if not exactly scientifically, that all the talk was justified.