Getting snappy with Android: Can it replace Windows Phone as my pocket camera?

After several years with Windows Phone, I'm trying out two Android options instead.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

Over the years I've been using smartphones, there's been one feature I've enthusiastically adopted: the smartphone as camera. I used to carry a small pocket point-and-shoot with me everywhere I went. Now I don't, I just have a phone.

For a long time now that's been a Windows Phone. I've gone from Windows Phone 7 to 8 to 8.1, and finally to Windows 10 Mobile. But now I'm using something different, and have been carrying a couple of Android devices: a Samsung Note 5 and a Huawei P9. Both are excellent camera phones, with good quality sensors and well-designed lenses. The P9 goes a step further, with a dual camera designed in conjunction with Leica, giving it a range of features that I'd previously only found on high-end Nokia Lumias.

Modern Android cameras have a lot of built-in features. The Note 5 gives you panoramas, focus controls, slow and fast motion video, and even a basic VR capture mode where you can walk around an object and capture a 3D image that can be controlled by tilting your device. Similarly the P9 has tools for delivering HDR images, night and timelapse photography, special light painting modes, and even direct access to the device's monochrome camera. Both also offer plenty of in-camera editing options, including a set of tools for quickly adding colour splash effects on the P9, or tuning colours and exposure on the Note 5.

​There are plenty of photography options built into the Samsung Note 5's camera.

Samsung Note 5's camera offers plenty of built-in photography options.

Image: Simon Bisson

The combination of features on both devices makes them credible pocket cameras, capable of taking good, clear pictures, and applying appropriate processing effects when necessary. I've quickly grown fond of the P9's monochrome photography tools, and its colour effects are ideal companions to Instagram's library of filters.

I've also been able to find Android versions of some of my key photography apps from Windows Phone. Perhaps the most important of them is Microsoft's Office Lens, which lets me quickly take pictures of slides and whiteboards, and drop them into a OneNote notebook ready for annotation as part of my personal, searchable archive of meetings and conference sessions going back more than a decade.

Black and white imagery from a Huawei P9.

A black-and-white image taken with my Huawei P9.

Image: Simon Bisson

Finding those apps was the hardest part of my migration to a new platform, as perhaps the biggest problem facing anyone wanting to go beyond the built-in apps on their device is the size of the Google Play Store. It's easy to find big name apps like Photoshop and Snapseed, but there's a long tail of applications that's hard to explore. If you want a special effects app, for example, to add colour pop effects to an image, you'll suddenly find yourself presented with a long list of apps, with ratings that are all very similar.

Drilling into the app list lets you see reviews, but most of the time they're not particularly informative. That's a problem in most app stores, but coming to Android from Windows Phone, it's particularly obvious -- the sheer size of Google Play is a significant problem. Then there's the perennial issue of identifying the real reviews from real users, and trying to determine how their taste aligns with yours.

Photographic special effects in a Huawei P9.​

An example of photographic special effects done with my Huawei P9.

Image: Simon Bisson

Once you've picked an app, and installed it, you've now got to puzzle a way of building it into your workflow. That's easy enough with tools like Instagram, but even with an adaptive launcher like Arrow, it can be hard to quickly find the tool you want to use.

Photography enthusiasts were spoilt on Windows Phone. We had a separate class of app that could be launched from inside the camera, which integrated into the camera experience, not around it. It was also easier for developers to associate actions with applications, allowing users to quickly go from photo gallery to app and back again.

Despite those limitations, Android's photo capabilities are growing on me. They're powerful enough that I don't miss my lenses, and there are enough apps that are available on both platforms that the transition is relatively painless, too. With capable hardware, and effective software, Android is turning out to be as good a photography platform as Windows Phone. Now to find out what else it can do...

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