Camera phones on test: HTC One X, iPhone 4S, Xperia S, Galaxy SII, Lumia 800

Cameras are one of the main battlegrounds for modern smartphones, with each manufacturer looking to point out why theirs is better than the next rival. 

"With ImageSense, HTC One rivals traditional digital cameras with improvements to every part of the camera", says HTC; "iPhone 4S includes an all-new camera with the most advanced optics of any phone", says Apple; "leading Carl Zeiss optics" says Nokia. So, who do we believe, and, more importantly what difference does all the spec-talk about sensors and apertures make in real-world use?

To put it all through a realistic, real-world experience, Pocket-lint took five leading smartphones for a quick London stroll on a sunny afternoon to see what results we got. We tested the HTC One X, iPhone 4S, Sony Xperia S, Samsung Galaxy SII and Nokia Lumia 800, taking the same shots at the same time in the same locations and here we line up the results for you.

We didn't tinker with settings, we just pulled out the phone and took the shot as most users will do most of the time. You'll note that the HTC One X was shooting in 16:9 (the default), but otherwise the aspect of the shots is the same. Likewise, we didn't edit the images, all of which you can find in the gallery below.

All the phones are equipped with an 8-megapixel sensor, except the Sony Xperia S, which offers 12 megapixels. 

The photos

First up, we hit a row of Boris Bikes on the Embankment. Perspective, colour and lots of detail to be had in this shot. You can see how the images compare in the merge we've done, above.

The contrast from the iPhone 4S is perhaps the best; richer colours are exhibited by the iPhone and the HTC One X, although the latter has a slightly pink tinge, obvious in the sky. Comparatively, the Nokia, Samsung and Sony shots are all slightly more yellow but, generally speaking, they all look good.

Around the corner is some great architecture at the back of the Savoy Hotel on Savoy Hill. You'll probably never see it because it's mostly where the staff hangout and smoke. The glossy, white-faced bricks look great against the dark windows. 

Again, a good set of results from our phones. The contrast of the iPhone comes to the fore and again we see that yellow tinge on the Nokia and pink tinge on the HTC. In this case the Samsung Galaxy SII picture is brighter, but in the process, there is very little colour to the sky. In this case, the extra megapixels of the Xperia S mean you can dive in and extract a little more detail.

The entrance to the Thomas Neal Centre combines lower light, mosaic floor detailing and access to loads of shops. We squatted in the doorway to grab this shot. In this case the Samsung Galaxy SII is a warmer photo, because of the slow shutter speed, although the speed isn't wildly difference across the devices.

 

But that slower shutter speed means a softer photo with more handshake evident. When you crop in, you'll find that the Xperia S has introduced a lot of noise in the floor, which destroys the detail, but on a camera phone this probably doesn't matter as the rest of the shot looks natural.

Hunting out some colour in Neal's Yard, we find that the Lumia 800 is softer and lacks the vibrancy of the other shots we've taken, the Xperia S and the iPhone acquit themselves well, with painted facades of the buildings every bit as engaging as they are in the flesh.

The Union Jack hanging outside the Covent Garden Hotel on Monmouth Street sees more perspective and the evident pink tinge of the HTC One X. In this case the Nokia produces a colder, bluer, result.  We like the result from the Xperia S, which has a richness to the brickwork, although the SGSII performs well, giving a nice natural result.

Alfresco dining in Covent Garden presents a tricky shot. Plenty of shadow detail and the low sun on the right tests the cameras a little more. The Nokia stumbles, producing a shot that's too dark and dominated by the shadows; all struggle with the bright side-lit conditions. It's also easy to see that the iPhone has colour in the sky, something that's characteristic of its photos.

Finally we find a pansy in Soho Square. To see how well the phones will cope with a little closer detail, the problem here is getting them to focus. In the case of the Lumia 800, it struggles, so we had to back off a bit, and still failed.

The other phones perform better, with the iPhone and the SGSII both giving rich colour and the Xperia S and One X offering up some nice detail.

Conclusions

So what can we take from this? Importantly, one of the things that this quick test demonstrates is just how variable the results can be and how wide the difference is in colour. You probably wouldn't notice this until you compare shots directly. Our test also doesn't cater for these devices offering a wide variety of settings, some of which are genuinely useful and some little more than a distraction. But, as far as the differences of the cameras go on these top smartphones, this is what we thought.

HTC One X

The HTC One X is fast to focus and capture, with an interface that's fuss free. Unfortunately the device we had was plagued with a pink tinge, so the results never really come out too well.

iPhone 4S

It's hard to deny that the iPhone produces great shots. The interface doesn't offer any options and it isn't very fast to capture those shots, which are obvious criticisms. But it is consistent in its performance, which is an important point.

Sony Xperia S

The Sony Xperia S offers a higher-resolution sensor than the other devices, although in practice this doesn't make a huge noticeable difference. What the Xperia S does offer though is a nice interface, easy to control and the benefit of a physical camera button. Although focusing isn't as fast as the HTC One X, it does feel like you get more control.

Samsung Galaxy SII

The Samsung Galaxy SII produces some great shots, although exposure is sometimes a little varied.

Nokia Lumia 800

The Nokia Lumia 800 doesn't perform especially well in our tests, with very varied results produced. Exposure seems to be a problem. It also lacks the speed of some of the other devices.

Let us know your winner in the comments below.