The Best Smartphone Cameras of Summer 2013

The Best Smartphone Cameras of Summer 2013

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Each year sees the inexorable increase of megapixels in smartphone cameras. In 2011, 5MP imagers were all the rage. Last year, all the bleeding-edge smart cellies were equipped with 8MP sensors. This year, the top-rated phones include 13MP chips.

As we all know, more megapixels do not equal more quality, although they do amplify otherwise underwhelming results from tiny lenses. Smartphone camera art has advanced, though, thanks to continually improving processing that is producing images and features able to challenge stand-alone digital camera results.

Where increased resolution has made a difference is in the front camera, somewhat for video chats but mostly for self-portraits shot at arm’s length. Most front cameras are now at least 1MP, with some super phones offering 2MP front imagers.

On the video side, nearly all new smartphone models include at least 720p recording, but the new marquee models all provide Full HD 1080p recording.

Here are the consensus best smartphone imagers on the market. None, with one notable exception, is head-and-shoulders above any other; each model seems to excel at one or two shooting situations (indoor without flash, outdoor with flash, etc.) while performing subpar at others.

Samsung Galaxy S 4 Zoom

Camera specs: 16MP rear camera, 1/2.33-inch sensor; 1.9MP front camera; 10x optical zoom (24–240mm); 1080p video at 30 fps, rear camera; Xenon flash; geotagging; face/smile detection; HDR mode; panorama; 960×540-pixel, 256-ppi, 4.3-inch Super AMOLED touch-screen display; 8GB of memory.

Here is the notable exception mentioned previously. Samsung has taken its popular Galaxy S 4 smartphone and boosted the imaging chip from 13MP to a 16MP BSI (backside-illuminated) CMOS sensor, then tacked on a true 10x optical zoom lens array—complete with optical image stabilization and a Xenon flash. On the S 4 Zoom’s 4.3-inch touch screen, users see graphic representations of a camera’s function rings and can twirl through them via the lens’s zoom ring. The S 4 Zoom’s physical and smart capabilities are combined in In-Call Photo Share, which lets users grab and text an image to whomever they’re conversing with. At press time, Samsung had yet to announce S 4 Zoom U.S. availability. samsung.com

Apple iPhone 5

Camera specs: 8MP rear camera; 1.2MP front camera; 1080p video at 30 fps rear, 720p at 30 fps front; LED flash; geotagging; face detection; HDR; panorama; 1,136×640-pixel, 326-ppi, 4.0-inch touch-screen Retina display; 16/32/64GB of memory.

Overall, the winner and still critical smartphone camera champion. While there’s nothing new within the iPhone 5 since we last wrote about it in January, there have been a plethora of both add-on lens attachments to enhance or enable macro, zoom and 360º still and video recording, as well as a multitude of app photo filters. But what’s intriguing is what’s coming any minute in iOS 7—a new Polaroid-like square image, likely designed to enhance Instagram posting; an array of built-in filters previously available only though third-party apps; iCloud photo sharing that lets friends and family contribute to the user’s photo stream; and AirDrop, which lets users instantly share photos with nearby iOS 7-using folks. apple.com

HTC One
Camera specs: 4MP rear camera; 2.1MP front camera; 1080p video at 30 fps rear, 720p at 30 fps front; optical image stabilization; LED flash; geotagging; face/smile detection; HDR; panorama; 1,920×1,080-pixel, 469-ppi, 4.7-inch touch-screen Super LCD3; 32/64GB of memory.

Don’t be fooled by the mere 4MP resolution. HTC claims the One’s UltraPixel camera delivers 300% brighter photos than competing smartcams via a f/2.0 aperture lens and its BSI sensor with larger pixels—correctly reasoning that larger pixels capture more light, which results in clearer, brighter photos in low-light conditions. The One’s five-level “smart” flash adjusts the phone’s distance to the subject to create the right amount of illumination, and the wide-angle front camera can capture a wider group. It also offers a few fascinating photo features, such as unwanted object/people removal and especially Zoe. In addition to regular stills, Zoe captures 3–4 seconds of video—a VideoPic. The One then assembles these VideoPics into a highlight movie, complete with music and transitions. htc.com

Samsung Galaxy S 4
Camera specs: 13MP rear camera; 2MP front camera; 1080p video at 30 fps, rear and front; dual video/image capture; LED flash; geotagging; face/smile detection; HDR; panorama; 1,920×1,080-pixel, 441-ppi, 5.0-inch Super AMOLED touch-screen display; 16/32/64GB of memory.

Where the Galaxy S 4 is superior to all smartphone cameras is in its display—at 5.0 inches it provides a more generous framing view, and its Super AMOLED does a better job at cutting through direct sunlight than other cellies, so users can better see what they’re shooting. Feature-wise, dual view uses the front camera to insert the still or video shooter into a small window of the image being captured with the rear camera. Photos can be automatically gathered and sorted by time, place or event to create a Story Album, which can be swiped/paged through on-screen like a real book or made into a hardcover photo book through Blurb, an online digital photo album construction site. samsung.com

Nokia Lumia 928
Camera specs: 8.7MP rear camera; 1.3MP front camera; 1080p video at 30 fps rear, 720p at 30 fps front; optical image stabilization; Xenon flash; geotagging; face/smile detection; panorama; 1,280×768-pixel, 334-ppi, 4.5-inch AMOLED touch-screen display; 32GB of memory.

This Verizon-specific Windows Phone 8 adds Carl Zeiss optics, a more sophisticated 5-element lens and a Xenon flash to the already impressive Nokia PureView-enabled low-light camera in its sibling Lumia 920 and its T-Mobile cousin, the aluminum Nokia 925. The 928 also includes Nokia’s smart shoot function, which can capture 10 5MP stills in a burst; users can either then pick a “best shot,” combine group shots with different facial expressions into a single frame, or “action shot,” which combines all 10 shots into a single frame to illustrate movement. There’s also automatic still and moving object removal, while motion focus lets users blur the background in a video to emphasize the primary subject. nokia.com

LG Optimus G Pro
Camera specs: 13MP rear camera; 2.1MP front camera; 1080p video at 30 fps, rear and front; image stabilization; LED flash; geotagging; face detection; HDR; panorama; 1,920×1,080-pixel, 400-ppi, 5.5-inch TFT touch-screen display; 32GB of memory.

Capturing a 360º image usually requires an add-on lens and special software, but not with the LG Optimus G Pro. Its unique VR panorama mode creates zoomable and pan-able 360º Photospheres, originally unveiled in the Google Nexus 4. The Optimus Pro’s 5.5-inch screen provides easy framing but adds a bit of tablet-like awkwardness. Just like a digital camera, the Optimus G Pro offers an intelligent auto setting, which you’d think would simply be the default camera setting, and it includes the cheesy Cheese Shutter—just say “cheese” and the phone snaps the photo. lg.com

Sony Xperia ZL
Camera specs: 13MP rear camera; 2MP front camera; 1080p video at 30 fps, rear and front; image stabilization; LED flash; geotagging; face detection; HDR; panorama; 1,920×1,080-pixel, 441-ppi, 5.0-inch TFT touch-screen display; 16GB of memory.

Rather than intelligent auto mode, Sony added in superior auto mode, which automatically analyses a scene and ambient lighting conditions then activates a number of digital-camera-like lighting-specific scene modes to compensate. For instance, if the Xperia senses a lack of light, the superior auto night scene mode snaps on. Since Sony is the only digital camera maker also in the smartphone business other than Samsung, Xperia is laden with a number of digital camera features, including a physical camera shutter button and manual exposure, ISO and metering options. sony.com

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