If you checked out our previews last week you've probably already seen the Pixon12 camera in action. It's a worthy piece of equipment and the first of its kind to hit the shelves. Now that we had some more time to play with it, we managed to put it through a series of tests that showed its performance in more detail. We also completed a little shootout between it and the Nokia N86 8MP, which at this point some people find as the Pixon12 toughest rival (at least before the Sony Ericsson Satio gets released).
Samsung M8910 Pixon12 sports a maximum image resolution of 4000 x 3000 pixels. It's an autofocus unit and boasts both xenon and LED flash. Those give the Pixon12 both an extra edge in extreme low light conditions and the video light functionality that's otherwise impossible with a xenon unit. A brief flash shootout (including the xenon-equipped Sony Ericsson C905) follows towards the end of the page.
Monitoring the user feedback of our two Pixon12 previews we noticed an interesting trend among the active photo critics on the web - somehow it became very fashionable to claim that the megapixel count is hardly that of an advantage. You know - that it's all about the quality of lens and stuff. While this is undoubtedly true in theory and in practice with some dedicated digital cameras, it is not quite so with the cameraphones.
The truth is that more than often manufacturers purchase in bulk the entire camera modules, including the lens, the sensor and some of the processing hardware. Then, all they do is tune the output by tweaking the processing settings.
That's the reason why the 12MP camera modules come with higher quality lens than the 8MP ones, which in turn most of the time outdo the 5MP modules and so on. Having tested our fair share of cameraphones we can safely conclude that it is extremely rare for a lower-resolution cameraphone to produce better photos quality than a higher-res one. So, in fact the megapixels mean something. Well, maybe not as much as the marketing tries to convince us but they do have an impact.
Samsung marketed the M8910 Pixon12 as sporting 28mm (in 35mm terms) wide-angle lens just as the Nokia N86 8MP. For those of you unfamiliar with the material, the 28mm lens gives you roughly 20 percent wider angle of view when looking in the viewfinder. As it turned out, the Pixon12 camera is actually using a 30mm, rather than 28mm lens, which is still wider than the 35mm competition but not what Samsung promised (and less than what Nokia N86 delivers). This was confirmed by both our field tests and the EXIF data recorded by the Pixon12 itself.
Another interesting discovery we made reviewing the Pixon12 is that it comes with a variable aperture like the Nokia N86. The Pixon12 however only offers two aperture values compared to the three available on the Nokia N86.
The Pixon12 shoots at F/2.64 to let a standard amount of light in and stops down to F/3.61 when light conditions allow it. Technically the photos at smaller apertures (indicated by a larger F-stop value) should be sharper and with greater depth of field than those at larger ones.
Just as on the Nokia N86 8MP though, Samsung didn't provide any kind of manual control over the aperture value. The handset decides which of the two values to use automatically. That is as good as it gets for almost every user out there, but why not give the few enthusiasts the choice.
Considering the rarity of the variable aperture in the cameraphone world we are surprised Samsung didn't mention the feature at the announcement. Due to the automatic nature of the aperture control we couldn't actually test whether the shots taken at F/3.61 are indeed sharper or not. Since Samsung have not included the variable aperture in their marketing materials, it's a fair guess the difference shouldn't be that huge.
User interface and features
The Pixon12 is pretty well geared when it comes to software features too. The basic anti-shake digital image stabilization, geotagging and viewfinder gridlines are all there and so is face detection, smile shot and blink detection. The ISO sensitivity can go as high as 1600.
The Pixon12 sports the Smart auto mode, which picks the best scene preset according to the shooting conditions and the subject much like the LG GC900 Viewty Smart (LG called it Intelligent shot). Compared to the regular auto mode, Smart auto gives the phone control over many more of the phone settings such as contrast, color balance, saturation, etc. thus tweaking the output to a far greater extent.
Finally, the Samsung M8910 Pixon12 sports tracking touch focus similarly to the iPhone 3GS. All you need to do is hold your finger over the subject you want to focus on and watch the cross-hairs follow it in the viewfinder. Once you press the shutter key, it will lock focus and proceed to capture the actual shot.
The camera interface is just about the same as on the original Samsung Pixon. Nicely touch optimized and surely one of the most comfortable camera interfaces on a touchscreen device so far, it also excels in terms of speed.
Furthermore the image saving process is also very quick as a 12MP photo only takes slightly more than a second to be recorded. With the automatic preview turned off, this could lead to some remarkable shot to shot time.
Against Canon 350D and Nokia N86
Last week we made two impromptu shootouts with the Samsung M8910 Pixon12. For the first one we went out of our usual ways, putting the handset against the good old Canon 350D DSLR camera and the point-and-shoot A610. A lot of readers were unhappy back then that we used a cheap ultra-zoom lens on the DSLR. So this time we went for the noticeably better Sigma 10-20 for the comparison. The aperture was stopped down to make out the most of the lens potential - F11 in one of the samples, F7.1 in the other, and all the crops are made from the central part of the image where the lens does best. We are throwing in Nokia N86 in the uneven battle too.
And outrageous as it may seem, we are still standing behind our last-week statement that under ideal lighting conditions, the 12MP cameraphone resolves as much detail as the 4 year-old 8MP Canon 350D DSLR.
And before you go quoting us left and right without mentioning the proper context, please note that we are talking about resolved detail only and we are NOT saying that this really is an equal game when it comes to noise levels or dynamic range. The large sensor counts big time when it comes to those, placing the DSLR in an entirely different league. But nevertheless a comparison like that is still a pretty good reference of the progress cameraphones are making.
Anyway, seeing the contenders side-by-side you can see why we are excited, the Samsung Pixon12 is so much smaller and it's something you will always have with you, which is certainly not the case with the DSLR.
You can also revisit our first Pixon12 vs 350D shootout over here.
Against Nokia N86
The next day resorting to our time-tested methods, we stood the Samsung M8910 Pixon12 against the Nokia N86 8MP. The Nokia N86 8MP cannot deliver 12 MP photos and lacks some of the software extras of the Pixon12, but sports a wider-angle lens as we mentioned and the rest of the features are pretty much on par.
Yeah, we know that the Sony Ericsson Satio is the only other 12 megapixel cameraphone and as such might has its right to be here. However the Satio is still in development and its camera needs more tuning before it is ready to face such a challenge. Rest assured though that we will do our best to compare those, once the Satio becomes available (or even gets close to releasing).
The resolution advantage is obvious in all of the samples. While not a bad cameraphone, the N86 doesn't have any edge over Pixon12 in any of the image quality aspects.
The Pixon12 resolves visibly more detail with the colors a bit more accurate than the Nokia. The noise levels are pretty much on par on both devices so you can rest assured that the dozen of megapixels doesn't have a negative impact on the image quality and instead, they're only bringing benefits to the table. By the way, despite the increased resolution the processing speed and usability on Pixon are also better.
On the other hand, the dynamic range seems better on the Nokia than on the Pixon12. On several occasions the Samsung lost more information in both the shadows and the highlights. But that may as well be the Pixon12 applying too much contrast enhancement in the processing algorithm set in the default Auto mode.
On the contrary the Nokia N86 produced less contrasty photos, but that can be easily fixed with post-processing on a computer if need be. However bringing back information lost due to highlight clipping (such is the case of Pixon12) is impossible. On the other hand if you aren't much into post-processing your photos you might as well like the punchier Pixon12 output better.
Against Nokia N86 in low light
We also took a couple of shots to test both cameras' low light performance. The EXIF data on both photos shows ISO200, so the results are perfectly comparable. The Pixon12 resolution advantage diminishes in those conditions but it has still has produced a photo with more detail. So much for the "more cramped 12MP sensors perform worse in low light" theory.
Against Sony Ericsson C905 and Nokia N86 - flash
Next in line is the promised flash shootout where we also included the Sony Ericsson C905, which is considered to have one of the most powerful flash units on the market.
As it turns out the Samsung Pixon12 again produces better results than its 8MP contenders. Sony Ericsson C905 puts up a good fight, but Nokia N86 with its incomparably weaker LED flash (be it 3rd generation or whatever) can't come anywhere closer to them.
Against Sony Ericsson C905 - flash macro
Both the Sony Ericsson C905 and the Samsung M8910 Pixon12 produced good results here - they manage to reduce the flash output and the images have turned out pretty usable. The Pixon12 takes more conservative approach by not allowing any highlight clipping, but this has resulted in a slightly darker image.
You are also welcome to check out the shootout from our second Pixon12 preview. Next to its S8300 UltraTOUCH and i8510 INNOV8 siblings it does look a clear winner. The resolution it provides is superior, the color rendering is more accurate and the 30mm lens is easily our choice for a walk-around camera. Actually, we prefer 28mm or even 24mm but among those cameraphones we'd take the Pixon12 any day.
More Samsung M8910 Pixon12 camera samples
Finally we snapped our resolution chart with the Samsung M8910 Pixon12. You can check out what that test is all about here.
In conclusion, we have to admit that we are pleasantly surprised by the Samsung M8910 Pixon12 camera performance. The high resolution, the decent noise levels and precise colors are its best assets and we are really pleased with the result. Furthermore from about a couple hundred photos that we took with the Pixon12 there are very few that are unusable (not counting those ruined by smudgy fingers on the lens). And that's a respectable achievement, indeed.
The video recording of the Samsung M8910 Pixon12 failed to impress as much as its still image quality. It manages D1 videos at 30 fps but the quality isn't anywhere near the best Samsung have pulled off recently.
And we aren't even talking the HD-capable Samsung Omnia HD here. The Samsung Pixon12 isn't even close to the S8300 UltraTOUCH, which is admittedly one of the best in the D1 category. We can pretty much say the VGA@30fps video by Nokia N86 8MP is better than the Pixon12 results.
Now don't get us wrong here - it's not that bad with the videos turning out usable on most occasions, it's just that we were in for a "wow" rather than an "oh" effect. The colors are washed out, and the resolved detail can hardly be called high (and you can tell the video bitrate is almost 4x lower than in S8300 videos). We may be too demanding here but with a still camera like that we just hoped for the best.
Here is a sample video taken with the Samsung M8910 Pixon12 camera so you can see for yourselves