Fine-tuning a digital camera takes time and involves compromises. But if you want to be the best like our six competitors today, you can't afford to leave anything to chance when it comes to image quality.
We've literally spent days on end evaluating the performance of the phones in various conditions. We have scored a number of aspects of the image quality for each phone. We've prepared a batch of samples you can check out yourself, along with 100% crops to highlight our points.
We've posted full resolution shots for each phone later on in this article, but for convenience here are samples from each phone gathered into one place.
Here are the four crops we'll be using to test the daylight performance of each phone. You can find the full shots later on when we analyze each phone individually, but now let's see how they stack up against each other.
Resolved resolution. To evaluate the resolution, we have to see how much fine detail makes it in into the final shot. In Crop A you can look at the white lines at multiple angles, in Crop B check out the texture of the wall and in Crop C look at the numbers of the petrol station's price board.
The iPhone 4S resolves the white lines into thin, straight, sharp lines and keeps the most detail in the wall texture. It also presents the most readable numbers, making it the winner here with the Galaxy S II taking second place.
The Nokia N9 comes in last here along with the HTC Titan (broken up white lines in A, no texture in B, just noise and unreadable numbers in C).
Noise and noise reduction. Noise is readily apparent in areas of flat color and dark areas, which is why we'll be looking at Crop D. Do pay attention to the foliage and textures in the other crops though as noise can be removed, but at the expense of the fine detail.
Here, the Samsung Galaxy S II manages the least amount of noise without a big loss of detail - the sky is clear and the trees have leaves. The 4S comes in second with some luminance noise. The Sensation XE and Titan lose this round due to strong visible noise and smudged foliage.
Dynamic range. Next up is Dynamic range – that’s the amount of detail cameras capture in the lightest and darkest areas of the image in high-contrasty scenes. High contrasty scenes represent a significant challenge to cellphone cameras with extreme shadows and a really bright sources of light. With limited dynamic range comes the need for a compromise – the cameras have to choose whether they should lose the the details in the highlights or those in the shadows without really knowing which ones are trhe most important to you. We’ve evaluated how the cameraphones in this test tackle that challenge and we particularly appreciated the balanced approach. Crop C is a nice example of the camera dynamic ranges.
The Nokia N9 shows the least amount of clipping in both the bright (mostly the white objects) and dark areas (virtually nothing). The iPhone 4S is second with some extra clipping on the sunlit walls. The Sensation XE loses a lot of detail in the shadows as well as in the highlights, where the rest do fine, which puts it firmly in last place.
In the same crop we can judge how well each camera picked the most appropriate exposure. Where most phones tend to overexpose photos, the N9 is doing the best job. The 4S isn't far off either even though slight overexposure is evident on all of the samples we took with it. The arc S however, which consistently overexposes photos considerably, is the loser of this round.
Color rendition. Finally, let's look at the color rendering. Crops A and C have big areas of the three primary colors.
Potentially, the main issues here are the warm color balance giving things a yellowish tinge and the oversaturating to make colors pop changing them quite a bit along the way.
The iPhone 4S keeps things subtle (and closest to the truth). The colors come off cooler in the Galaxy S II photos but at least they aren’t oversaturated. The S II shares the second place with the N9, which produces photos with a slight tint to them too (a warm tint in this occasion). The other three are equally flawed so it's a three-way tie at the bottom.
Summary. Here are the scores we awarded each phone in the various categories for daylight performance. Not all weigh the same (some might prefer better dynamic range over color accuracy), so simply adding the numbers up doesn’t give you a definitive answer or a winner.
|GOOD LIGHT CAMERA SCOREBOARD|
|iPhone 4S||Nokia N9||Galaxy S II||Arc S||Sensation XE||Titan|
|Noise & NR||8||7||9||7||3||3|
The iPhone 4S emerged as the overall winner - while it didn't ace all categories, when you take everything into account its photos were the best. Others beat out the 4S in some areas but none mustered enough quality to top it as a whole.
Flash off. Let's evaluate the camera performance in poor lighting conditions with flash turned off first (Crop E). Their flashes differ in output, which will make comparing low-light shots hard if we don’t know how each sensor performs under the same lighting.
The crop gives only a limited view of the whole scene, so here are the full shots from all six phones if you want to have a close look at them as well.
The Galaxy S II and Nokia N9 are practically tie here with detailed, noise-free shots. The Xperia arc S does pretty well too, but leaves traces of color noise. The Sensation XE produces very noisy shots in the dark but keeps a lot of detail too. Still, its Titan sibling beats it out.
Flash on. Next, let's look at the flash performance - the subject is relatively close and the only source of light is the LED flash. That's Crop F.
Here the combination of flash/sensor of the Galaxy S II produces the best results with a usable noise-free shot (but with green tint in the shadows). The iPhone 4S has a weaker flash but there's a lot of detail and no tinting.
The Sensation XE struggled with the noise (including color noise) but it has a strong dual-LED flash and spot on colors. The N9 has a poor flash performance and failed to lit up the whole scene evenly despite its dual LED module. Its flash images also come up with lots of noise and a distinct color tint.
The Titan had a very strong flash but tinted the whole photos and left color noise. The arc S had great colors (and no tint) but also some color noise.
To give you a better look, here are the full resolution shots used to make the Crop F.
Summary. Time to summarize low-light performance. Here are the scores we awarded each phone for its performance in both flash off and flash on scenarios.
|LOW-LIGHT CAMERA SCOREBOARD|
|iPhone 4S||Nokia N9||Galaxy S II||Arc S||Sensation XE||Titan|
|Noise & NR||8||9||9||8||5||6|
|Flash power & exposure||5||4||6||6||8||7|
|Noise & NR||9||8||9||7||6||7|
Results here are almost too close to call - still, we're willing to rule in favor of the Galaxy S II as a whole but it's very hard to separate it from the 4S in this test. The Sensation XE managed to redeem itself somewhat after its poor performance in the good light test.