Amaze 4G, iPhone 4S, Nokia N8, Nokia N9 camera phone shootout

There is little reason to carry a dedicated point and shoot camera today thanks to the high quality cameras on smartphones. Check out this shoot out of four high end camera phones.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

Cameras on today's smartphones are getting better all the time and in many cases people are leaving their point and shoot behind. On a recent vacation to Vegas and Hawaii my wife and I only brought along the Nokia N8 for capturing photos. I decided to test out some of the newest devices and put together an image gallery and video below from the HTC Amaze 4G, Apple iPhone 4S, Nokia N8 Symbian device, and Nokia N9 MeeGo device. There are other contenders, but these four are representative of the latest and greatest available today.

As you can see in my image gallery I captured the following photos to compare each smartphone:

  • Pitch black flash shot
  • Macro of haunted house
  • Macro of a flower
  • Auto shot of haunted house
  • Auto shot of flower pot on rocks
  • Yard shot
  • Yard shot with HDR enabled (not included in my scoring)

Image Gallery: Check out several sample photos taken with these four smartphones in various situations.
Image Gallery: 4 candidate smartphones
Image Gallery: Close up with the Nokia N9

Some phones have a ton of settings and some have hardly any (see my software section below), but to conduct a real world test I left everything in auto mode, except for the macro shots and the two HDR shots, since most people never mess with the ISO, white balance, and other settings available. You can get better photos by using some of these advanced settings. The photos were unaltered, except to be resized to fit our ZDNet gallery dimensions.

I ranked each photo from 1 to 4 in a direct comparison to each phone and present the totals of my rankings in the table below with 1 being the 1st place phone so that the lowest total score is the winner in my comparison. Some were very tough to call and as you will see in the end the winner could have almost been anyone of these four phones. I went into this shootout thinking the Nokia N8 would smoke everyone and easily blow away the competition. Keep in mind though that this was a limited test of some real world situations where I take photos and some devices excel in more specific areas. Read on below to find out how my ratings shook out and take a look at the photos yourself to see if you agree.

The Competitors

HTC Amaze 4G

I have been using the HTC Amaze 4G for almost two weeks and am trying to hold out buying one for myself until I see a Nokia Windows Phone. Like the myTouch 4G Slide before it, the HTC Amaze 4G is likely the best camera phone HTC has ever made. The Amaze 4G has an 8 megapixel camera with dual LED flash and the most full featured software suite available on a smartphone today.

You will find the following scene modes on the HTC Amaze 4G, along with dedicated camera and video recording buttons:

  • Auto mode: Software figures out best mode and lets you just point and shoot.
  • SmartShot: Captures multiple images and puts them together to make the best shot.
  • SweepShot: Captures panoramic images with a cooling sweeping motion.
  • ClearShot HDR: Bright settings mode for HDR image capture.
  • BurstShot: Capture multiple photos in a quick burst.
  • Night mode: Good for low light situations. Remember the Amaze also has a f/2.2 aperture.
  • Action mode: Capture fast moving objects.
  • Macro mode: Capture close up objects. Check my image gallery for proof of this.
  • Portrait mode: Used to capture an individual with blurry background.
  • Manual mode: Gives you full control of the capture experience.

New Apple iPhone 4S owners are also impressed with the shutter speed and ability to take photo one after the other so quickly. Guess what? The HTC Amaze 4G and Nokia N9 are even FASTER than the iPhone 4S and I have NEVER seen smartphones as fast with the camera as these two phones.

Another great feature of the HTC Amaze 4G is the hardware buttons for both the camera and the video recorder that let you launch each and capture still and video from the standby/screen off state. There is also an onscreen capture button too if you prefer that method. Video capture supports 1080p on the Amaze 4G.

Apple iPhone 4S

The iPhone 4S has the best camera that Apple has ever had in an iPhone with an upgrade to 8 megapixels, f/2.4 aperture, face detection, and pinch to zoom. The iPhone 4S is very responsive in going from capturing a picture to being ready for the next one, but as I mentioned above the Amaze 4G and Nokia N9 are even faster. BTW, you can open the camera right from the lock screen by simply pressing the Home button twice and then tapping the camera icon that appears.

You will notice that the iPhone 4S camera software is the most basic of all of these device with very few options for you to change. The thing is, the majority of people don't want to mess with settings and just want to be able to point and shoot. Apple's camera software still takes decent macro shots or low light shots without any manual change in settings. You can toggle the flash on and off (no red eye mode), toggle the grid, and toggle HDR mode. That's it for any settings in the software.

To zoom you pinch and zoom on the display. To focus on something other than what the software picks up you can tap on the display to do so. You can also perform editing of your photos on the iPhone 4S.

You can capture video in 1080p high resolution on the iPhone 4S.

Nokia N8 Symbian device

The Nokia N8 has been out for more than a year and has served in the role as the leader of all camera phones with its 12 megapixel camera, Carl Zeiss lens, f/2.8 aperture, and Xenon lens. There are a LOT of things you can do with the Nokia N8, in terms of manual settings and taking advantage of the hardware in the camera and if you search online you will find many fantastic photos taken with the device. When I travel I have been taking the N8 as my point and shoot and have been very happy with it.

The camera software in the N8 has been improved over the last year and even though things such as panorama and HDR are not in the default software, that's all I am using for this comparison, you can find 3rd party apps to enable these functions. There is full 12 megapixel mode and 9 megapixel wide screen 16:9 mode. I kept it at the highest resolution for this comparison.

There are several settings in the N8 software so take some time scrolling through the menus. Modes include the following:

  • Automatic
  • Custom
  • Close-up
  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Sport
  • Night
  • Night portrait

You will also find red-eye flash mode on the N8 and the Xenon flash really cannot be beat by any LED flash camera phone. Video is also captured 720p high resolution.

Like the Amaze 4G there is a physical capture button on the Nokia N8. You cannot launch it from a locked device though.

Nokia N9 MeeGo device

The Nokia N9 is the first, and likely only, MeeGo powered device coming from Nokia. It launched in a few select countries and unfortunately we won't see it here in the U.S. from Nokia directly. I included it here since it is one of the newest devices to hit the streets and given that Nokia excels in camera phones I thought it worthy of a look. Imagine my surprise after using it and making my judgements. Make sure to check out this article where Damian Dinning discusses the N9 camera he helped create.

The Nokia N9 comes with an 8 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, f/2.2 aperture (matches that of the HTC Amaze 4G), and some amazing features detailed in the Nokia Conversations article. I thought the HTC Amaze 4G was fast at taking a shot and then being ready to take another, but the Nokia N9 even beats out that phone and the iPhone 4S.

In my first round of photos I had the N9 scored lower because I switched and used the macro mode on the device that actually took terrible macros that were not clear. I switched back to auto and found those to be some of the best macro shots so you may want to keep it in auto mode for close up shots. Settings and modes on the N9 include the following:

  • Automatic
  • Macro
  • Landscape
  • Portrait
  • Night
  • Sports

You will also find a red-eye flash (only the two Nokia devices have this option), different aspect ratios, face detection and much more in the settings. Nokia includes editing software on both the N9 and the N8.

Summary table and my pick for best camera phone »

Comparison Table

Here you can see my selection of first through fourth place in each of the six situations that I took photos. The lower the score the higher the ranking as it was simply a 1 through 4 rating scale between all four phones. Only the iPhone 4S and HTC Amaze 4G have integrated HDR support and the iPhone 4S won in that comparison. Only the Amaze 4G has integrated panoramic support too.
HTC Amaze 4G Apple iPhone 4S Nokia N8 Nokia N9
Pitch black, flash 2 3 1 4
Macro-Haunted House 2 3 4 1
Macro-Flower 1 3 4 2
Auto-Haunted House 1 2 3 1
Auto-Flower Pot 4 1 2 3
Auto-Yard 4 1 3 2
Total 14 13 17 13

What about video?

I took a short 15 second video sample with each phone, embedded below. It looks to me like the best one was the HTC Amaze 4G, then the Nokia N8, iPhone 4S, and Nokia N9. The N9 seemed to lag and skip a bit for some reason (maybe there is a setting I missed). Both the HTC Amaze 4G and Apple iPhone 4S support 1080p video recording while the Nokia N8 and N9 support up to 720p video.

I have used the N8 quite a bit for video over the past year since it has excellent zoom capability that still allow you to capture great video and see that these others have that now as well. I didn't test out the sound quality extensively on video and will need to perform more testing.

Is there a clear winner?

As you can see the results were very close and one of the top three could easily be the winning one with a bit of judgement difference. I was surprised that the N9 and Apple iPhone 4S tied though as they were the two I thought least likely to win. The iPhone 4S has very limited settings, but it turns out that the software combined with great optics does a fabulous job. This just goes to show though that consumers just want to point and shoot and Apple knows how to make that experience the best. I also did not expect the N9 to do so well and this is very encouraging to me as we are likely to see a Windows Phone 7 device with this same form factor, rumored and shown as the Sea Ray.  The HTC Amaze 4G would easily be the winner if you were looking for a phone with every mode of shooting available and I though of giving this phone more points for the panoramic support, HDR, burst mode, etc.

Looking at the table above, if standard non-macro shots are what you take the iPhone 4S is the winner. If you take close up shots, then the HTC Amaze 4G is the winner. The Nokia N9 is great in both of these situations though so that may be the one to get if you take photos in differing situations. As I state below, they are all quite good and you will likely be happy with any of the four.

The Nokia N8 disappointed me a bit though in this particular test, but after using it for a full year I can say it serves well as a point and shoot replacement and think maybe this selection of shots wasn't optimized for its strengths. It does poorly with macro close up shots and I had two of them in my comparison so that didn't help. That said, the Nokia N8 is still a champion at mobile photography and my little non-scientific test wasn't optimized for it. Just take a look at some of these sites to see amazing Nokia N8 photography (you can find many more online too):

All four of these are good camera phones and you will likely be satisfied with any of them. Look through the photos in my image gallery and let me know what phone you think is the best at taking photos.

[poll id="37"]

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