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.
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.