Sunday, January 1, 2012

Comparison of Camera Phones

For two years the N900 was my digital camera. With the mobile phone replacing my digital camera I don't have to carry an extra device with me. Besides that my old digicam is broken and thanks to the N900 I didn't have to buy another one.
However, the good old days of the N900 are gone. Can any of Nokia's new phones keep up with the N900 camera-wise?

I'm going to compare the N9, the N950, and the Lumia 800 to the N900. I'm not comparing to the N8, simply because I don't have one, and it's known to be the best camera phone anyway.

The N9 is Nokia's flagship Qt device. It is mostly sold in countries where the Lumia devices are not on sale. Online retailers and some electronics stores sell the N9 in other countries as well. It features a 8 MP camera.

The N950 is not on sale at all. It got cancelled due to unknown reasons before it went on sale in late 2010. It also has a 8 MP camera, but rumour has it that the hardware is actually capable of 12 MP. You only get 8 MP out of it with the software, though.
In my opinion the N950 is not very good as an everyday's phone. It's a developer's device but not a reliable phone.

The Lumia 800 is Nokia's current flagship Windows Phone 7 device. It has stolen the design from the N9 right down to the retail box and its contents. The Lumia 800 and N9 look like twins. I assume both phones have exactly the same camera hardware with 8 MP.

The N900 is the legendary but aging king of Nokia's premium devices. It is a Linux box in your pocket, rather than a mere smartphone. Since the device is quite thick, it actually feels like a digicam in your hands. It is the only device with a movable lens cover. To take a photo, simply open the cover, aim, focus, and shoot. The camera has only 5 MP, but used to be one of the best (if not the best) cameras in mobile phones at its time.

Only the Lumia 800 got a dedicated camera button like the N900. That button is placed well and works with two steps (focus - shoot) just like the N900. During regular one-handed use, however, this button is a little disturbing on the Lumia. It is not as recessed as the other buttons and it breaks the otherwise beautiful design of the phone.
The N9 and N950 both don't have a camera button.

All of these phones use Carl Zeiss optics. So they should all produce good images in theory. The N950 is a little different here, because it bears no Zeiss logo. Only devices with Zeiss optics that passed the Carl Zeiss certification may use the logo. One can only speculate about the N950. Didn't it pass, or has it just never been submitted for certification due to being cancelled before going no sale?

None of these phone cameras can do optical zoom. If you need to zoom a lot, you should consider getting a real digicam.

Let's compare the most common situation: aim, focus, shoot with automatic settings. You can always get a lot more out of the camera if adjusting the various parameters. But for quick pictures you usually won't do that.
My scene for comparison is a look out of a window with the focus being on the traffic sign outside. Some curtain is visible inside the room, and lots of leaves are on the hedge and in the forest outside. So there are quite a lot of fine details to capture for the camera. A little reflection on the window pane makes focussing harder. The lower part of the image is quite dark. Digital cameras tend to produce a lot of grain in these areas.

These are the images taken by N900, N950, N9, and Lumia 800, respectively:

While images on the N900, N9, and N950 are easily accessible, the Lumia posed a problem. USB mass-storage mode or Bluetooth file transfer are not available. So I tried to upload the photo to SkyDrive and download it to my computer. But SkyDrive crippled the image's resolution even when attempting to download the "original image". So I sent the photo via E-Mail to me. This worked, but still, the image was crippled to 2 MP. So if I cannot get an 8 MP photo off the phone, I will compare the 2 MP photo with the others instead. Well done, Microsoft! The photo doesn't show more details in the gallery on the Lumia, either, so I'm wondering if the Lumia does save with a higher resolution than 2 MP at all.

Let's take a look at the traffic sign first. The N900 produces the sharpest result. But with 5 MP, the camera fails to capture the details. The sign is getting quite pixelated. The blurry image and the washed-out colors of the N950 are totally unacceptable.
The Lumia 800 and N9 are about on par. The 8 MP capture the details pretty well, but they're both a bit blurry. The colors are most natural on the N900 and N950. The Lumia is over-saturated.

Next we look at the curtain, which is supposed to be out of focus. None of these images appear to be clearly out of focus, though. The N950 produces a very blurry image. The colors are quite OK, except for the Lumia this time. The N900 and the N9 produce the best images, but the N900 shows more color artifacts. The most color artifacts are visible on the Lumia.

Look at the hedge now. Again, the N950 produces the worst result. The Lumia and N9 are lacking contrast, but the Lumia is slightly better than the N9 here. The N900 even though it only has 5 MP is the clear winner this time.

Now let's prepare for the really shocking results and compare the darker areas. The Lumia produces a very dark area that is too dark, but there is almost no color noise. The other phones produce very noisy images with the N900 being the worst. There is a tint of green in all images except on the Lumia, which is the clear winner this time.

To sum it up, the N950 is the clear loser in this comparison. It does not have and in my opinion does not deserve a Carl Zeiss logo.
Next comes the Lumia 800. While its camera is about on par with the N9, the fact that you cannot easily get your pictures off the phone in full resolution, makes it a bad joke. The colors are a bit over-saturated and generally a bit too dark on the Lumia 800, too.
The N9 scores second place. It has serious trouble under low-light conditions, however.
The N900 has problems under low-light conditions as well, but captures more color detail in general. With some software improvements, the N9 could beat the N900 one day.