This Year-Old Smartphone Takes Better Photos Than the iPhone 4S

This Year-Old Smartphone Takes Better Photos Than the iPhone 4S

Summary: Digital camera marketing involves lots of specs. But there's one important one in which the iPhone 4 and 4S lag, and which this phone, surprisingly, wins at.


The specs on the iPhone 4S's new camera sound impressive: 8 megapixels, 1080p video, f/2.4 lens, improved image stabilization and LED flash. The description at Apple's Web site is mouth-watering, and the non-retouched images taken by the 4S are beautiful.

But would you believe that Nokia's flagship smartphone, the N8, actually takes better photos today than the iPhone 4S will?

I just read a very convincing blog by Steve Litchfield at All About Symbian explaining why that's the case.

It's not about megapixels, though the N8, introduced in September 2010, displays 12 megapixels.

Many of you already know that megapixels is the most over-hyped measure in camera marketing.

Rather, the single most important variable is the size of the silicon chip capturing the image. This chip is known as the CMOS sensor.

This Cambridge in Colour tutorial is a good primer about sensor sizes, lenses and f-stops. The two most important points are:

1) Megapixels don't matter. If you increase pixels but the CMOS sensor size remains the same, you just chop the pixels smaller. That not only doesn't improve image quality, but actually increases image noise.

2) Smartphone sensors are tiny. One reason is cost. The other is physics. Basically, because smartphones are so thin, sensors have to be very close to the lens. That limits the size of both sensor and lens. And that limits the amount of light that can be captured, which is the paramount factor around image quality. It's also why the true test of a digital camera or smartphone camera is an indoor or other low-light environment where you aren't using a flash.

The Nokia N8's sensor is 77% larger than the iPhone 4S, which means its raw light-gathering ability is 124% greater, according to Litchfield's table.

Which is why you end up with pictures like these (click on thumbnail to see the full version):

Source: Mac Morrison @ Flickr

Source: Mobilephotos@heidenstrom at Flickr

These latter two are particularly impressive, as they are taken in low light without a flash.

Source: Mobilephotos@heidenstrom at Flickr

Source: Mobilephotos@heidenstrom at Flickr

(Note: there is a Nokia N8 group on Flickr with 1,500 members and 14,000 photos you can also peruse).

Now Litchfield admits that the iPhone 4S's new back-lit sensor may significantly compensate for its smaller size. But he argues that the N8 beats the iPhone 4S on several other important features. The N8 is the rare smartphone with a brighter, whiter Xenon flash.

And "add in the use of Carl Zeiss optics in the N8 and add in the Neutral Density filter (for handling bright sunny conditions and ensuring that too much light doesn't get through to the sensor), and the N8 stays even further in the lead," he writes.

Litchfield does rate the iPhone 4S (note: its sensor is the same size as the iPhone 4's sensor) among the best smartphones, along with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and the Samsung Galaxy SII, and other Nokias including the N82, N86 and N95.

If you are not already an Apple-centric household and image quality is really important to you, I'd look seriously into the new Windows Phone-based Nokia phones when they arrive, especially the upper-end models. Or if you are into Android, the higher-end Sony or Samsung models could be the right choice, too.

Topics: ÜberTech, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility, Nokia, Smartphones

Eric Lai

About Eric Lai

I have tracked technology for more than 15 years, as an award-winning journalist and now as in-house thought leader on the mobile enterprise for SAP. Follow me here at ÜberMobile as well as my even less-filtered musings on Twitter @ericylai

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  • RE: This Year-Old Smartphone Takes Better Photos Than the iPhone 4S

    my n8 long ago became my pocketcarryanywherecamera"
    the image quality is THAT good
  • RE: This Year-Old Smartphone Takes Better Photos Than the iPhone 4S

    Comparing apples with oranges.

    The Nokia N8 definitely has a better camera than the IPhone 4S. In fact, it's probably one of the best cameras out there.

    However, as a phone, an overall mobile device, the Nokia N8 has utterly failed. Many telcos have already stopped offering the N8 with contract plans. Not a lot of demand for it, obviously.

    On the bright side though, installing Symbian Belle on the N8 may help make it more tolerable.

    Also, in other news, Nokia may release a 16MP camera Windows Mango phone in the near future. Samsung may also do the same with the Android Galaxy S3 next year. HTC is reportedly planning to release a 16MP snapper of their own.
    • RE: This Year-Old Smartphone Takes Better Photos Than the iPhone 4S

      @johndow1 I don't disagree with you at all. Very very few would go out to get a Symbian-based Nokia at this stage. I do think this is a big plus that Nokia brings to its new Windows Phones, and something they could do a better job of marketing to North American consumers.
  • RE: This Year-Old Smartphone Takes Better Photos Than the iPhone 4S

    I think the N8 sensor size is much more than 77% larger than the iPhone 4S. I think you have calculated the amount by which N8 sensor's diagonal measure is greater than that of the iPhone 4S. The N8's sensor area would be 38.2 mm^2 vs. the 4S at 15.5 mm^2 (according to this table from Wikipedia: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_sensor_format" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_sensor_format</a>). So the N8 sensor's area would be more than 2.4X that of iPhone. An even bigger difference than indicated.
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