Cameraphones are in a tough spot. They have to go against the laws of physics to get more megapixels, better low-light performance and so on. That's what keeps engineers busy but it's the interface design that sets up people's expectations.
A fast snappy camera interface, with easily accessible options will be more enjoyable to use and encourage people to actually tweak the settings before taking the shot. No one wants to dig deep in the menus just to get to the Sports scene for example - most just won't bother. However, using the best settings is crucial for a good photo, so even the best camera can be let down by a badly designed interface.
Interface looks and usability
Holding the Sony Ericsson Satio and the Samsung Pixon12 you'll immediately see that the UI designers of both phones were faced with similar challenges and made similar decisions.
The screens of both phones have a widescreen aspect ratio. The sensors are 4:3 though, so the actual viewfinder is in the center of the screen, a vertical bar of icons on each side.
Visually, they are similar too - grayscale icons with blue gradient marking the active selection. But here the Satio edges slightly ahead, at least aesthetically. The icons may be grayscale but they have a slight gloss to them for a bit more volume and the blue gradient is much more elaborate. The icons Pixon12 do look a little flat.
Tapping on an icon brings up a pop up menu with more settings. While in the Pixon12 things just pop up, in Satio they fade in smoothly.
Both interfaces are very snappy, but here the Pixon12 takes the lead - for example, when you change the scene mode in Satio, the scene mode icon takes three or four seconds to update. It wouldn't have been such a big deal, but it seems it's not the icon that takes its time.
It's the switching of the mode itself, which means it's a few seconds before you can shoot again. With the Pixon12, changes are noticeably faster, giving a better overall experience.
Menu structure and organization
As we already mentioned, both the Satio and the Pixon12 have the same arrangement for the viewfinder - it's placed in the center, with shortcuts arranged in vertical bars on each side. They are semi-transparent and can be hidden, which comes in handy when shooting in widescreen mode.
Both camera interfaces have practically the same set of shortcuts - shoot mode, scenes, flash, exposure compensation, gallery, extended settings and back.
Here's where the Satio and Pixon12 begin to differentiate. Take the scenes shortcut for example - the first thing you'll notice is the number of scenes (8 on Satio, 14 on Pixon12).
It's not just the number - in Satio scenes are represented just by their icon and selecting one simply switches it on. On Pixon12, each scene has a label underneath it and what's even better - selecting one displays a thumbnail and a short description of the scene.
The descriptions are one or two sentences long but can be very helpful to novices. For example, the Fireworks or Night scenes say "Keep camera still", or the Fall color scene says it "emphasizes red and green".
This won't magically turn you into a professional but it will help you get better pictures the first time around. And next time, you'll know what to do to get the same good results.
Satio has a different approach - while the Scene selection popup is on screen, there's an info button. Tapping it brings up another popup, which lists the scenes and what they do.
Judging the winner is tough here. It obviously depends on how advanced the user. The Pixon12 is more user-friendly but takes longer to set as it needs an additional click to store the selection of a Scene preset.
The extended settings are similar on both phones - tabs are used to separate settings into groups and since there are more settings that can fit on the screen, you need to scroll down to see all of them.
Satio does a little better here as it uses a scroll bar for smooth scrolling and it has the settings for both still images and video recording accessible simultaneously. Quite the opposite with the Pixon12 you need to switch to video mode to alter video recording settings.
Hardware camera shortcuts
Sony Ericsson Satio and Samsung Pixon12 have different approaches to starting the camera. Satio has a mechanical lens cover, which needs to be opened manually. It's an active cover which automatically starts the camera. Closing the cover, naturally turns the camera off. Pixon12 in turn is started by a dedicated camera button and the lens cover retracts automatically.
In both cases, the camera can be started even if the phone is locked so we have to call it even. The sliding cover of the Satio is big enough so that accidental smudges on the lens are unlikely. The Pixon12 has a piece a glass on top of its lens cover, and its proneness to scratches is a major drawback.
Hardware shortcuts are easier to use than on-screen ones - the tactile feedback offered by today's touchscreens is no match for pressing an actual button. But it's because of their touch operated nature that both phones have precious few hardware buttons.
If fact, besides the shutter key, the only camera related button on the Pixon12 is the dedicated button that launches the camera (and of course the volume rocker handles digital zoom).
Satio tops that with a button that toggles still shots and video recording and a dedicated Gallery button. There's no camera-launching button, but the active lens cover takes care of that.
Neither phone comes close to, say, the Sony Ericsson C905 when it comes to physical camera shortcuts, let alone the Samsung W880 AMOLED 12M monster - it even has a mode dial!
The occasional lag in the camera interface in Satio bugged us, but the UI seems more modern and the unprotected lens of the Pixon12 means you always have to be gentle in handling it or risk compromising picture quality