Phone camera shootout: 13 Android phones put to the test

We tested 13 Android phone cameras to see which one was the cream of the crop in capturing still images and video.

Over the past month, how many photos have you taken with your smartphone versus your stand-alone camera? Sure, for special events or portraits, you'll probably want to use an advanced point-and-shoot, an interchangeable-lens camera, or a DSLR--but when you're on the go, a phone with a good camera is more than sufficient. At the very least, you'll want a phone capable of taking photos that are decent enough to share, whether it's with your Facebook friends or via email to your relatives.

Most new Android phones have a 5- to 8-megapixel camera, as well as a handful of automated in-camera settings. Pretty much all phones have a flash these days, as well as the ability to capture video. Many higher-end phones support high-definition video capture at 720p; many dual-core phones, such as those powered by a Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, support video capture up to 1080p resolution. And unlike Apple's iPhone, many Android phones allow you to tweak basic camera settings, such as white balance and exposure compensation.

When you're shopping for a phone, you might be tempted to go for one that has a camera with a higher megapixel count, or one that shoots video at 720p or 1080p. Those are important specs to consider, but they don't tell the full story. In fact, two phones with 8-megapixel sensors can take very different-looking photos, as you'll see from our test results.

The Contenders

We tested the cameras on 13 Android smartphones across five carriers. For T-Mobile, we tested the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide, the HTC Sensation 4G, and the LG G2X. The Motorola Photon 4G, the Motorola XPRT, and the HTC EVO 3D all represented Sprint. For Verizon, we tested the LG Revolution, the Motorola Droid X2, the Motorola Droid 3, and the HTC ThunderBolt. We used the international LG Optimus 3D (which is the same as the LG Thrill 4G) on AT&T, as well as the HTC Inspire 4G. And lastly, we tested the Motorola Triumph from Virgin Mobile. (Editor's note: At the time of our testing, we did not have any recent phones from Samsung or other manufacturers. We will continue to update our tests with more upcoming phones.)

The majority of the phones in this head-to-head offer 8-megapixel sensors, with the exception of the EVO 3D, the Optimus 3D, the Triumph, and the XPRT, all of which have 5-megapixel sensors. The phones are pretty evenly divided between 720p and 1080p HD video (see our video-quality ranking chart for more). The only phone that does not capture HD video is the Motorola XPRT, which shoots at a 720-by-480-pixel resolution.

How We Tested

With each phone, we used a truncated version of our regular testing methodology for point-and-shoot cameras. Our analysts in the PC World Labs shot a still-life scene using automatic settings in an artificial daylight environment; we turned the flash off to test exposure and color levels. We then shot an image of a target resolution chart to test how well the camera sensor could capture sharp details. We judged the still-life photos for exposure, color accuracy, and sharpness; we scored the photos of the resolution chart based on sharpness and distortion.

We used printouts of each image to rate each component of image quality. We printed all test images using a Fujifilm Pictrography 3500 Silver Halide Printer, and we recalibrated the printer after generating each set of test shots. We printed the images in an 8-by-10-inch format, and then asked a panel of judges to evaluate them under 5000K floodlights. Each judge rated the images for exposure, color accuracy, sharpness, and distortion with one of five word scores: Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, or Superior.

For video testing, we shot a moving scene of a miniature Ferris wheel and train. We fixed each phone to a tripod, and we took two test clips. While shooting each test clip, we played the same audio clip through speakers to evaluate how well each phone picked up sound. In the first test video clip, we shot in bright indoor lighting. In the second test video clip, we shot with the overhead lights turned off and a floor lamp turned on behind the camera to evaluate low-light footage. We judged all videos on the same scale as still images, using a 30-inch HP LP3065 LCD monitor, precalibrated with a Pantone ColorMunki.

*Sensors measured in megapixels

As you can see in our chart, the HTC-made T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide is the clear winner for the best still images, with an overall image-quality score of 82 (out of 100). Following the Slide are the HTC Sensation and the Motorola Droid X2. Oddly, the lowest-ranking phone is another HTC model, the EVO 3D.

The MyTouch 4G Slide did quite well across the board, receiving the highest overall scores for exposure, color, sharpness, and lack of distortion. Its lowest score, 74, was in the distortion test; the scores in that test, however, were fairly low for all of the phones we tried. It wasn't exactly a close finish between the 4G Slide and the second- and third-place phones, either: The 4G Slide scored significantly higher in all categories, even in lack of distortion.

The MyTouch 4G Slide is marketed primarily as a camera-centric phone, so it is satisfying to see that the test data backs up T-Mobile and HTC's claims. In our hands-on tests, the MyTouch 4G Slide wowed us with its multiple shooting modes and settings, its powerful flash, and its fast-reacting shutter. The 4G Slide's camera has a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, which is a type of low-light-optimized sensor that's being used in more and more point-and-shoot cameras these days, and it really does work well for dim situations without a flash. The 4G Slide's F2.2 lens has a wider aperture than those in many recent cameras, which also translates to better low-light shooting without a flash.

In our hands-on tests of Motorola phones, we've criticized images taken outside and inside for having a slight bluish tint, which is usually the sign of an automated white-balance issue. The bad news is that our tests pretty much confirmed this problem: The XPRT, Droid 3, and Triumph all received low scores for color accuracy in our still-life test shots. The good news is that the X2 and the Photon scored quite well. The Photon is the most recent phone we've reviewed from Motorola, so perhaps the company is working to improve this aspect of its phone cameras. Disagree with us? Check out our gallery of test images.

The top three phones for overall video quality are almost completely different from the top three for still-image quality. The Motorola Photon 4G, which shoots 1080p video, snagged the number one spot with an overall score of 84.8--significantly higher than our second- and third-place phones.

The HTC Sensation (which also took second place in our image-quality tests) received a video score of 80.5, while the Motorola Droid 3 earned a mark of 80.4. Surprisingly, the MyTouch 4G Slide didn't even rank among our top five camera phones for video, managing just a ninth-place score of 75.2. To be fair, many of the phones that ranked above it scored only a few tenths of a point more. The lowest-scoring phone for video across the board was the Motorola Triumph, with a diabolical score of 66.6.

None of the phones did well in our low-light video test, which wasn't unexpected. Have you ever tried to shoot a concert, or your friends in a low-lit restaurant or bar, with a phone? The results usually don't look so great. Surprisingly, the Motorola XPRT, which was fairly middle-of-the-road in all of our tests, shot the highest-rated low-light video of our test group, with a score of 78.2.

The LG Optimus 3D scored the highest for audio quality, with a score of 79.4. The phone with the lowest audio-quality score for video was the Motorola Triumph, at 64.2.

Conclusion

When it comes to still photos, the MyTouch 4G Slide is hard to beat. Not only did it score very well in our image-quality tests, but it also comes with a slew of shooting and editing features, and it's one of the fastest phone cameras in shutter response. The Photon is the phone to buy if you plan on shooting a lot of video, but don't expect superb results in low-light situations. It does have the added bonus of an HDMI port, so you can view those lovely video clips on your HDTV.

We'll continue to do testing throughout the year, and we'll update our test results as we get in new phones. In the meantime, be sure to check out our slideshow of our favorite Android photo apps to get the most out of your phone's camera.

Exposure and Color Accuracy Tests

Click to enlarge each photo. Photos are in order of overall score.

This story, "Phone camera shootout: 13 Android phones put to the test" was originally published by PCWorld.

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