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By now, you've probably heard rumblings about why point-and-shoot cameras are supposedly doomed: Smartphones are the mainstream cameras of choice; the iPhone is the most popular device for uploading photos to Flickr; and all of the latest phones--Apple's new iPhone 4S included--have camera specs listed front-and-center as core features.
But the sacrifices you have to make when using a phone as your main camera are well documented, too. You won't find optical zoom lenses, big sensors, high-quality glass, or manual exposure controls in a smartphone camera. For most people, the compromises are greatly overshadowed by the fact that a smartphone is always in their pocket and that it can share photos instantly. Those two factors are a one-two gut-punch to lower-priced compact cams.
Unfortunately, camera specs for most of the latest smartphones look very similar: 8-megapixel sensors and HD video capture are standard-issue these days. Photo-retouching and -sharing features are built into every phone or are offered in the ever-expanding universe of mobile apps. If we compared smartphone cameras based on their specs alone, we'd see a 100-way tie at the top.
So let's ignore the monotonous parade of carbon-copy specs. The only way to compare smartphone cameras is to put them through their paces and examine the results--and that's exactly what we've done here. Our test cohort consists of the new Apple iPhone 4S and a handful of high-end Android phones: the Samsung Galaxy S II, the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide, the Motorola Droid Bionic, and the HTC Sensation 4G.
We also tested a couple of other devices alongside these smartphones. To see how much the iPhone 4S's new camera has improved over the previous version, we included last year's Apple iPhone 4 (the black one) in our test group. And for a control subject, we used a stand-alone camera--the Nikon Coolpix P300--to see how the best phone cameras compared to a well-respected pocket camera.
The basics of the PCWorld Labs' subjective testing procedure are as follows: We shoot a batch of test images and videos in the same lighting conditions and at the same tripod location with each camera; then we print out the test images, and a panel of five judges looks at the unlabeled printouts and unmarked video clips. The panel rates each sample on parameters such as exposure quality, color accuracy, sharpness, and distortion levels, and we tally those evaluations to assign each device an overall imaging and video score. Click here to read in-depth details about the PCWorld Labs' camera-testing procedure.
Here are the results of our head-to-head tests, along with the sample images and video clips shot with each device. Again, the scores are the ones given by our panel of judges; we've provided the sample images and videos so you can view them and form your own conclusions. Judging from the radically different scores we saw from individual judges in our own subjective tests, we expect a few arguments on this one.