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Camera Comparison: Nokia 808 PureView VS iPhone 4S VS HTC One X VS Nokia N8 VS Samsung Galaxy S3 VS Sony Xperia S

Nokia’s 808 PureView. It’s the best camera phone out now, there’s no doubt about that. The question is, how much better is it than the competition? The likes of the Apple iPhone 4S, HTC One X, Nokia N8, Samsung Galaxy S3 and Sony Xperia S have all raised the bar in their own respect, but how do they stack up against the 41-megapixel camera phone king?


Disclaimer: PureView shooting modes

The science behind the PureView technology is this: At full 38-megapixel resolution, it gets a good shot with lots of detail. At 5-megapixel resolution, it gets the most noise free shot possible with incredibly accurate colours, broad tonal range and depth. It does this by taking seven pixels and turning them into one pixel, picking the best colour for the job. In turn, all our shots were taken in PureView mode, 5-megapixels, except for two outdoor detail and indoor detail. Naturally, these being detail shots, it made perfect sense to ramp up the PureView’s pixels all the way up to 38 to show off its capabilities. For more mind-blowing detail check out our full review and watch Baked Episode 1.

The most obvious difference between the Nokia 808 PureView shot and all the rest is that the PureView is the only camera that didn’t produce any blown out whites. Anywhere. Now many would call the shot under-exposed, and we’d agree, it’s fundamentally a bit too dark. It was however an overcast London day and in terms of contrast levels and overall impression, the PureView captured it to the greatest effect. Detail is also on point. You can use the GB sticker on the back of the car as a point of reference. It looks rounder and the lettering less pixelated.

Second in the first round is the Sony Xperia S. With excellent dynamic range, it does a good job with the abundance of light on the scene leaving only the white houses slightly overblown. While the overall shot does look a little too saturated, detail is fantastic thanks to the 12-megapixel sensor. When zoomed right in, we can see traces of noise on the road – nothing damning in this round though, given the abundance of natural light. Third sits the Samsung Galaxy S3. With detail not far behind the Sony Xperia S and similar amounts of saturation overtaking the shot, it nevertheless produces a balance, well exposed picture.

It seems that the PureView has a tendency to take shots slightly darker than the competition thus far, with the close up of the puppet bearing the same trademark slight under-exposure. The quality of the image however is sensational. The amount of bokehing, even between the foreground hair and the puppet’s cheek behind really shows off the perks of having such a large sensor and lens on a mobile. The shot overall looks moody and atmospheric when compared to the rest and the level to which the background is blurred edges it well into camera territory.

Second in this round is the Sony Xperia S once again. The ease with which it focused, the blur in the background and clarity on the wiry hair not to mention the good overall contrast level gives the shot dimension. It also balance the background whites well, refraining from over-exposing them. The Nokia N8 pulls in third. While it’s more of a pain to focus with a greater nearest focal distance and no touch to focus, the subject looks curvaceous and smooth from a distance, but when you zoom in you see every nuance on the face.

Thanks to once again producing the best tonal range in the overall shot, the Nokia 808 PureView is the best able to capture low-light images. We wouldn’t expect it to get the best detail thanks to the final resolution being 5-megapixels in the face of 8 and 12-megapixel competition, but if you look at noise levels and the darkness of the room, the PureView communicates what things actually looked like. In contrast, the iPhone 4S made the picture look like it thought we wanted it to look, over brightening and losing the nuances of a dark room found in the shadowy sheets and adding noise in the process. In contrast, the HTC One S produced considerably less noise, but over softened the image, hurting the close-up of the shot.

The Nokia N8 comes in a very close second. Coupling excellent noise handling with impressive amounts of detail, the camera phone certainly stands the test of time, 3 years on from its launch. It delivers less contrast and more noise than the Nokia 808 PureView, but while the shot isn’t as atmospheric or clean, it’s certainly sharper. Third place is a tie going to both the HTC One X and Apple iPhone 4S. While we picked on these earlier, the HTC One X does deliver the least amount of noise out of the remaining handsets. Over-softened admittedly, when zoomed out or printed 6×4, things do however hold up. While the iPhone brightened the shot too much, leaking light in and totally over-exposing areas, it did deliver the best detail on the puppet, with the over-brightening being favourable to many users. 

Indoors and the blinds were closed in order to gauge how well the phones gets up close and personal to a puppet in a bedroom. Off the bat, all the phones do a fantastic job, but there’s one clear winner in terms of bokehing, the Nokia 808 PureView. It also manages to capture the most accurate pallor for our puppet’s face. The iPhone warms things up too much, giving our little Pinocchio a tan. Flattering for people, not for puppets.

Second in the running is the HTC One X. The f/2 lens delivers a good amount of blur in the background, colour is accurate and detail is high. Contrast levels are also good resulting in a nice spherical shading to Pinocchio’s pale, porcelain cheeks and making for a great photo. Next up it’s the Samsung Galaxy S3. While not as bokehy, it still hits the spot in terms of sharpness and it was quick to focus up close which is a god send when trying to capture your macro shot quickly.

You pull out your old LP, set it on a black chair about a metre away from your table. You then position your camera phone on the table with a self timer set to two seconds and take a perfectly still shot of your LP. Repeat with five phones you wish to compare against and there you have it, Recombu’s foolproof way of testing our camera phone’s ability to capture detail.

Now the Nokia 808 PureView shot is 38-megapixels, so we had no doubt it would win – the question was always by how much. Please, download the picture of the LP cover and see for yourself. We can read every serifed word with relative ease. Yes it’s a bit crispy, but it’s still mind bogglingly good. In this round, it’s little wonder that the next best phones are the Sony Xperia S and the Nokia N8, given their pixel power. Both packing 12-megapixel sensors, the Sony Xperia S comes third with more evident detail, though it does produce more noise in the shot and the detail is probably software enhance. Second place therefore goes to the N8. While detail is the less discernible, the shot is overall more pleasing and noise free.


From both personal experience and the controlled conditions of this comparison, this is definitely the easiest round to judge. The PureView is the hands down winner with its all-mighty Xenon flash, double as powerful as the Nokia N8 which in itself is a legend among smartphones.

What’s great about the PureView Xenon Flash which we haven’t seen on other phones is that it really respects colours. It keeps warm, fleshy tones in check without blueing them out, however doesn’t warm up cooler elements. In short, it makes things look like they should, just brighter – what more could you want?

Next up it’s the Nokia N8. You will be able to notice a bluer wash over the shot. While there’s no denying it’s better than all the other phones, PureView not counted when it comes to sheer brightness, the Nokia N8 flash is evidently behind its successor in terms of colour accuracy. With the Xenon flashes out of the way, third place goes straight to the Samsung Galaxy S3. Samsung supercharge their LED flashes making them the best on the block. This was the case on the Samsung Galaxy S2 and Note, and the Galaxy S3 is no different. Warm, bright, even, sure, it’s no Xenon but it’s as close as an LED’s gotten thus far.

User Interface

Our final test is user interface. This counts for a lot, so we’re listing all the smartphones from top to bottom and giving you a snippet of information as to why our leaderboard looks like it does. Specifically, we’re looking for a camera UI that balances ease of use with comprehensive feature set.

1 – HTC One X – Simple. Tweakable. Balanced
2 – Sony Xperia S – Best. Focus modes. Ever.
3 – Samsung Galaxy S3 – Customisable king.
4  – Nokia 808 PureView – Comprehensive, but confusing.
5  – iPhone 4S – So simple it hurts.
6 – Nokia N8 – Ow. 

Conclusion

And there we have it, another camera comparison wrapped up. The Nokia 808 PureView came out on top, proving that 5 years of R&D can indeed pull the best camera phone on the scene out of the bag. Second was the Sony Xperia S. The reason for this is the skew in these tests towards detail. The 12-megapixel sensor and software sharpening mean that in good lighting, the Xperia S will pull out the right shot every time. Drop the lights though and noise does become an issue. If that’s the case, then take a look at our third place phone, the Nokia N8. Let down by a dated UI and no touch-focus as well as cumbersome macro modes, the pictures really do shine bright 2 years after release delivering even, accurate images with fantastic dynamic range.

If Symbian isn’t your bag, the HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy S3 and Apple iPhone 4S are still the next three best mainstream phones on the scene. All of them deliver great pictures, with the One X being good with noise, the Galaxy S3 delivering reliable tap-focus and the iPhone 4S packing the simplest UI of the bunch. 

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