Following on the heels of the HTC One (M8), the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 are finally hitting the shelves. But before we unleash our full reviews tomorrow, we decided to pit these two camera phones’ cameras against each other to see which one’s best. And we have a winner.
This April is kind of a big deal in the smartphone world, as it’s the month that Samsung, Sony and HTC all released their high-end flagship Android phones for 2014. These successors to the Galaxy S4, Xperia Z1 and HTC One each boast next-gen specs and make their respective cameras one of their primary selling points.
In case you missed our review earlier this month, the HTC One (M8) has an UltraPixel camera with just 4 Megapixelsâa shockingly low count compared to the Galaxy S5′s 16 Mpx (in 16:9) and the Xperia Z2′s 20 Mpx (in Manual mode).
We’ve always made a point of saying that resolution isn’t everything and that picture quality depends on a lot more than just the pixel count (the sensor and lens play a rather large role in it, too). That said, we consider 8nbspMegapixels to be a bare minimum if you want to be able to zoom in and crop a photo and still have it look good and detailed. The HTC One (M8)’s low-resolution camera, for instance, undoubtedly drags down its picture quality. The GS5 and Xperia Z2, by contrast, are armed with four and five times as many pixels as the M8, not to mention what their makers insist are excellent backlit sensors that perform just as well in daylight as at dusk.
We just had to dig deeper. Here’s what we found after four days of hardcore testing.
Good Lighting: Galaxy S5 Wins
According to the laws of the universe, a new smartphone needs to be better than its predecessor. To date, the 13-Megapixel Galaxy S4 is still in the Top 10 of camera phones, thanks largely to consistent picture quality across its modes and settings. Does the Galaxy S5 take things up a notch? Yes, it does. The higher sharpness provides even more detail, a boon for when you want to zoom in and crop a photo in one precise area of the frame.
Noise is kept to a minimum on the GS5 and pictures are sharp all across the frameânot just in the centre. As for the colours, the white balance does its job, providing a fairly neutral image.
And what about the Xperia Z2? It should be said, the disappointing picture quality from the Xperia Z1′s camera didn’t exactly live up to Sony’s advertising claims that using technology developed for its DSLRs would necessarily mean top quality for its smartphones. Worth noting, the Z1′s lens issues popped back up on the subsequent Z1 Compact. Now the Xperia Z2 is meant to up the ante and correct these flaws, but using the same exact sensor. Sony has modified the Bionz image processor to deliver sharper, more detailed pictures than the Z1, which for itself focused primarily on light intake and gave the results one might expect (pictures with lots of light and lots of noise).
At the end of the day, the Z2′s camera isn’t much better than the Z1′s. In fact, when viewed at 100% size, the pictures we took in our studio were less good than last year’s model. This is due to the lens, which at a focusing distance of some 80 cm doesn’t exploit its full potential, far from it, providing less sharpness, less detail, etc. When you’re shooting outdoors with a longer focal distance, the pictures are more consistent, but not as much as on the Galaxy S5, whose photos are still sharper all across the frame. Photos taken on the GS5 are heavily enhanced, but they look better and are sharper, even though they’re several million pixels short.
Don’t forget: the Xperia Z2 only takes 20.7-Megapixel photographs when you’re in Manual mode; in Auto they’re 8 Megapixels. That’s another drawback compared to the GS5, which gives you the best of its abilities, or close to it, by default.
Basically, we feel the Galaxy S5 is a perfect any-circumstances camera phone, whereas the Xperia Z2 is also excellent, but only with urban or landscape photography. For “social” photography when you’re trying to take a picture of several people standing at close distance, or, really, any subjects less than three metres away, the Z2′s picture quality simply collapses in on itself (the only exception being portraits, which it’s good at).
Low Lighting: Xperia Z2 Wins
Samsung says that the GS5′s sensor takes excellent, detailed images in low lighting, even without the LED flashâa flash that tends to overexpose every living or inanimate object within range. Personally, we prefer shooting without a flash whenever possible. It’s less aggressive and not as annoying to those around you. Unfortunately, when you leave the GS5′s flash off, the pictures lose all their detail. It’s a step up from the GS4, but the Xperia Z2, One (M8) and Lumia 1020 are still better in low lighting.
Sony Xperia Z2′s camera
The Xperia Z2 is also a step up from its predecessor in low lighting, providing more detail and overall more flattering picture quality. It comes closer to the One (M8)’s performance, just with more red (the One M8 takes colder shots, while the GS5 stays neutral). After testing both phones’ cameras inside-out, we can confirm that the Z2 does take in more light than the GS5, even when there’s a fair amount of it, resulting in greater detail in shadowy areas. Plus, the flash doesn’t blow subjects out and makes for much nicer images with good colours.
Speed Focus: Galaxy S5 Wins // Interface: Tie
When it comes to ease-of-use, the Galaxy S5 is exemplary. The autofocus is especially fast, similar to the HTC One (M8). It can focus multiple times successively with remarkable speed, even in low light. That’s a huge plus for the type of camera one wants to whip out and take photos of friends with in a split second. The interface isn’t that different from the GS4′s, but it’s just as fun and exhaustive as ever.
The GS5′s camera interface has tons of filters and editing tools, plus HDR and panorama modes. Whereas HTC gave the One (M8) the impressive UFocus, which by default allows users to change the focal point of any photo after having already shot it, Samsung’s equivalent mode only works if you remember to select it before taking your shot (and even then, it only works at certain distances). Due to the extra processing required, pictures take longer to save in this mode. But once it’s saved, you can change the focal point, creating a fairly natural image. That said, on the whole, HTC and Nokia’s equivalents give better results.
The Xperia Z2′s interface is largely based on the Z1′s, with multiple picture modes and effects at the bottom of the screen. Sony has successfully carried its digital camera ecosystem over to its mobile phones. Superior Auto is the default mode, which automatically takes 8-Megapixel photos; for 20.7 Mpx, you have to switch into Manual. There’s a physical camera button, but we found the touchscreen control easier to use, in terms of both speed and stabilisation.
It’s a user-friendly interface that we found just as enjoyable to use as the GS5′s and One (M8)’s. It has filters, augmented reality effects (now in video mode too), HDR, panorama and selective focus. The Z2 doesn’t have the option of changing the focus after shooting, but it does have several background blur options with varying levels of defocus, for somewhat less “natural”-looking results than on the GS5 and One (M8).
The Z2 is remarkably speedy, taking less than a second for each shot and making it relatively easy to take several pictures in a row. That said, the GS5 is a tad faster.
Full HD 4K/Ultra HD Video: Xperia Z2 Wins By A Hair
Both Sony’s and Samsung’s phones take great videos. The Z2 is fast and there’s a handy quick record button (a big red “REC”) on the interface just next to the camera button.
The real difference comes in 4K/Ultra HD mode (which the HTC One M8 does not have). Here, the difference is in Sony’s favour. The GS5′s UHD movies show more ghosting and the function takes longer to get toâthe Z2 has a dedicated mode that’s quick to find, whereas on the GS5 you have to go into the submenus to turn it on, at which point all videos are shot in 4K, until you go back into the menus to deactivate it. The Z2′s interface makes it easier and faster to switch between the two.
And The Final Winner Is… Samsung Galaxy S5
A worthy successor to the Galaxy S4, the Galaxy S5′s camera function is just as much of an all-round pleaser as before, but with slightly better results in low lighting and more detail across the entire frame. The Xperia Z2 is basically what the Xperia Z1 should have been last year; it takes good photos, especially in low light, but doesn’t necessarily reach the summits of smartphone cameradom (there are still issues with the lens, and the highest quality are only in Manual mode.
The Galaxy S5′s camera function is fast and reliable, with all the essential tools ready for use the second you open the interface.
Samsung Galaxy S5 vs Sony Xperia Z2: Camera Duel