Now almost every mobile phone, from dual-core powerhouses to cheap feature phone have a camera, so you can snap photographs and upload them to Facebook or email to friends within seconds. Many of the better camera phones can now match and even surpass basic digital cameras, as phone manufacturers use superior sensors and lenses.

Nokia was one of the manufacturers to produce phones with really good cameras. Early success include the N90 and the N93; a mobile phone with a unique flip-out screen that clearly influenced the Flip range of camcorders. Sony Ericsson had success too with the Satio a Symbian handset with excellent 12-megapixel camera and Xenon flash.

Here we’re pit five top camera phones against each other: the Apple iPhone 4, Nokia N8, Samsung Galaxy S2 and Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc. We've also thrown in a wild card in the form of the Samsung Omnia 7; a Windows Phone 7 handset with HD capability.

We’ll take a series of pictures and movies using each mobile phone to see which is our camera phone of choice.


The contenders: specifications

Apple iPhone 4
Significantly improved since the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4’s 5-megapixel camera phone with few tweakable features. Two to be precise. Flash and HDR mode, which combines a selection of pictures to bring out detail in shadow and highight areas. Luckily Apple is addressing this with the iOS 5 update, which adds lots of new features like crop, enhance and red-eye and also turns the volume control into a shutter.

Resolution: 5-megapixels
Video: 1280x720p 30fps
Flash: LED
Internal memory: 16Gb/32Gb
Lens aperture: Not quoted
Screen: 3.5-inches 960x640 pixel IPS/LCD Retina Display


Nokia N8
Unsurprisingly Nokia has equipped the N8 with an exhaustive selection of features, including adjustable: White Balance, Sharpness, Colour, Contrast, ISO and Face detection along with a smattering of scene modes. Pixel rating is the highest on test of 12-megapixels (although 5-megapixels are adequate for most people) and it’s the only handset here with a Xenon flash. Take photos using the dedicated shutter button, alternatively tap the screen. The screen is excellent is one of the best in bright sunlight.

Stills: 12-megapixel
Video: 1280x720p 30fps (via update)
Flash: Xenon
Internal memory: 16Gb, microSD
Lens aperture: Carl Zeiss f/2.8
Screen: 3.5-inchs OLED 640x360

 

Samsung Galaxy S2
Over the years Samsung has consistently produced solid cameraphones. Here it's flagship S2 phone has an impressive smattering of features including: White Balance, Metering, ISO, Face detection, Scene modes, EV, Anti Shake and Blink Detection. There's no top shutter, instead take pictures by tapping the screen. A useful extra is Outdoor Visibility, which makes the screen easier to see in bright sunlight.

Stills: 8-megapixel
Video: 1920x1080p 30fps
Flash: LED
Internal memory: 16Gb/microSD
Lens aperture: Not quoted
Screen: 4.3-inch Super AMOLED 800x480


 

Samsung Omnia 7
Like other Windows Phone 7 handsets the Omnia 7 had to follow Microsoft’s strict build requirements, which extended to photographic capability. This means the Omnia 7 has a solid camera shutter and 1280x720p HD movies. Features are impressive and include: contrast, medium, saturation, sharpness, EV, metering and Anti Shake along with Wide Dynamic Range.

Stills: 5-megapixel
Video: 1280x720p at 23fps
Flash: Power LED
Internal memory: 8GB
Lens aperture: Not quoted
Screen: 4-inch Super AMOLED 800x480


 

Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc

Sony Ericsson has added some really useful features to its latest crop of mobile phones, including a Sony Exmor R CMOS sensor. The Reality Display screen is excellent and is was easy to see in bright and dim conditions. Features are impressive, including: EV, White Balance, Metering, Image Stabiliser, Scene mode, Smile Detection. The Arc’s shutter feels a bit flimsy and its position on the far end can make it awkward to hold with one hand, alternatively you can tap the screen to take a picture.

Resolution stills: 8-megapixel
Video: 1280x720p at 29fps
Flash: LED
Internal memory: 320MB
Lens aperture: f/2.4
Screen: 4.2-inch Reality Display 854x480
 

Test 1: Artificial light
Flash off, all settings on auto, stabiliser on if featured

Apple iPhone 4 and Nokia N8

The Apple iPhone 4 produces the most unnatural photograph; here turning a pine bookshelf bright yellow examined closely fine detail isn't as sharp as the N8 or S2 either, although colours are very bright. The Nokia N8 produces a  sharp, detailed picture with natural colours, is a little dark perhaps.


Samsung Galaxy S2 and Samsung Omnia 7

The S2 produces the sharpest photographs here, although our test picture had a pinkish tint and colours (the red of the playing card) lack punch. We found the Samsung Omnia 7 far more sensitive to camera shake than the others, resulting in softer shots when examined up closely. However colours and the exposure are fairly accurate.


Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc

Here colours are natural, if lacking a bit of punch (again the detail in the playing card) and examined closely detail isn't pin sharp, with more more visible noise.


Winner: Nokia N8

 

Test 2:  Natural light
Flash off, all settings on auto, stabiliser on if featured. None of the pictures are full resolution; they had to be compressed for web.

Apple iPhone 4

The picture is very sharp - you can make out all the detail in the bricks on the white post - but pixels are more visible, especially in the sky and the area on the front left is a bit too red.

Nokia N8

A good effort, up close it isn't pin-sharp sharp, but colours are bold and accurate and it's good at handling shadow detail

Samsung Galaxy S2

Colours are generally accurate and up close detail is sharp. Colours perhaps lack the punch of rivals

Samsung Omnia 7

Detail in the trees is soft and not as sharp as any the others here (we can barely read the signs) and there’s more of a problem with image noise. Colours lack punch too.


Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc

Examined closely detail is very soft (you can barely make out the brick patten on the pillar), but conversely the text on the sign is very sharp - artificially so. Artefacts are especially visible on the pavement on the right. It handles contrast pretty well though.


Winner: Apple iPhone 4/Nokia N8

 

Test 3: Night shot

We’ll admit, most people aren’t going to be taking photographs in the dark using smartphones all the time. However, we wanted to see which phones was best.. All phones had the flash and stabiliser on (if applicable) and automatic settings were used.

 

Apple iPhone 4 and   Nokia N8
Both of these produce pleasing results. The former is brighter and warmer with more fine detail up close, while the N8 with it's Xenon flash has less noise and you can see more of the subject


Samsung Omnia 7 and Samsung Galaxy S2

Producing a dark very noisy picture, the Samsung Omnia 7 (left) is easily the worst, the Galaxy S2 is marginally brighter, showing more of the subject.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc

Sony Ericsson’s Exmor R for mobile CMOS sensor helps produce a bright photo, where you can see almost the whole subject - even from 20 feet away.  The picture is sharp with lots of detail, although coloured image noise is more visible when examined closely.


Winner: Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc

Test 4: Shooting movies

Please not all the footage has been compressed for YouTube

Apple iPhone 4

Unsurprisingly, 720p detail is not as sharp as the full res S2, however it's still one of the best here. Colour rendition is perhaps a bit warm, but footage is very smooth. All in all very impressive

Nokia N8

The frame rate here is 25fps (the update for 30fps is available now, so we will update the footage as soon as possible), which means action is not quite as smooth as we would like, however that’s pretty much our only complaint. Footage is sharp with lots of detail - far more the the Omnia 7 and Arc and elsewhere colours are natural. Audio is impressive too - you can even make out bird song along with cars.

 

Samsung Galaxy S2

The Samsung Galaxy S2 is the only phone here that shoots in 1920x1080 and in terms of the clarity of detail it’s apparent straight away. At the start of the movie you can see the detail in the leaves and the trees on the island and you can even read the word ‘Channel’ in the distance. However colour rendition isn't natural as the Nokia though, audio performance lacks clarity. In addition, twice we noticed the movie flick out of focus for a split second as we panned around.

 

Samsung Omnia 7
The Samsung Omnia 7’s HD video produces decent rather than amazing footage. Colours seem more muted where they should be bright. Contrast isn’t amazing, it’s overly dark in shadow areas, yet the white of the building is too bright. Fine details isn’t as sharp as the N8 or S2 and you can see more artefacts on the water/sky and slightly lower frame rate of 23fps means footage isn’t not as smooth. Audio is pretty good and not dominated by the cars - you can even hear bird song

 

Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
We’re not impressed with the Sony Ericsson Arc's performance here. Overall the movie is far too soft, even though it’s HD. Colours seem a touch warm and less natural - the blue sky (in particular) isn’t accurate. However action is smooth thanks to a steady frame rate of 30fps. Audio is dominated by the sound of the louder vehicles on the road behind though.

Winner: Nokia N8

 

Best camera phones: verdict

Picking a winner for this test is tricky, no one handset excels at everything and even the less impressive phones will be fine for the odd snapshot.

The Samsung Omnia 7 offers a good range of features, but the shutter seems more sensitive than rivals, leading to more issues with camera shake. Stills just aren’t sharp enough and HD movies are soft with drab colours and more artefacts than rivals.

Sony Ericsson’s equipped the Xperia Arc with a good selection of features, a great screen and a sensor that produces best on test low-light performance. Overall we found stills aren't as sharp as we’d like and HD movie performance is the worst here, it’s very soft.

The Samsung Galaxy S2 is a solid performer, full HD footage is very sharp, although audio quality isn’t as clear as we’d like. Stills are good, but outclassed by other camera phones here.

We really like the iPhone’s camera. HD movie footage is sharp and smooth, although colour rendition isn’t as natural as the N8, stills are sharp and low light performance is solid. Our main issue is the lack of features, which the iOS 5 update will resolve.

So that leaves the Nokia N8. Stills are consistently sharp with natural colours, it’s even passable in low light. We’re really impressed with HD video performance, footage is sharp, with excellent audio and it handles changes to lighting conditions better than some others. The Nokia N8 might not have won every category, but consistently solid performance with stills and movies makes it our winner.


Overall Winner: Nokia N8