Cameras

The cameras in our Android phones have certainly gotten better than most would have expected.  The old standard of "it's a cell phone camera, it'll never be as good as a cheap point-and-shoot" is no longer valid.  The hardware is getting better, and the software is improving right alongside it, making the experience of using your phone as a camera enjoyable, and in the right hands, almost professional.  

The big news in Android last year on the camera front was the Samsung Galaxy S II's 8-megapixel rear shooter, and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus' "zero shutter lag" camera.  We decided that these two had to go head to head.  Hit the break to check it out.

The gear

In one corner, we've got the T-Mobile-branded Samsung Galaxy S II, and in the other we have the GSM Samsung Galaxy Nexus.  Now your Galaxy S II may not be T-Mobile branded, and you might be using the Verizon version of the Galaxy Nexus, but the camera hardware and software is the same as these two -- which means it's very good.

The "studio" is my office.  I've got 150 watts of 6500k compact florescent lighting in the overhead fixture, and a 36-inch square light tent was used with a 26 watt 5500k compact flouro lighting from the right, and a 6500k compact flouro lighting from the left.  This is the setup I use with my DSLR to take product pictures, and it's a pretty controlled environment.  For more information about what 5500k and 6500k means, have a look at Wikipedia.  The quick and dirty version is that 5500k lamps look like natural sunlight above or below the tropics, and 6500k lamps resemble the sun in the tropics at noon.  The higher the number, the more blue things look.

The phones were set to automatic everything, and held in my hands while leaning across (and on) a table to keep things steady.  For each phone, five pictures of each test were taken, and the best was chosen.  For the panorama shots, I swiveled in my chair.  Yes, this was as fun as it sounds.

If you're interested in the raw jpeg's that haven't been resized, grab them here.

The scene

Galaxy Nexus  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

Here you can see why we're interested in doing this.  As-is, out of the box, with no effects and everything automatic, you've got two great pictures.  I used items that most would be familiar with for these tests, and the colors, clarity, and focus looks great from both entries.  Even zoomed in (try it) they both look great, and it makes it hard to determine a winner from these shots.  But a bit closer inspection shows that the Galaxy S II does a better job showing the difference in the lighting color temperature, even with the big white area in the background to try to fool it.  Because of that. the Galaxy S II wins this round, but only by a nerd hair.  We're more than happy with either, but we have to have a winner.

Galaxy Nexus = 0

Galaxy S II = 1

With flash

Galaxy Nexus, with flash  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

The best way to ruin a decent picture-taking opportunity is to use your cell phone with its flash.  Superbright LEDs (that's a real model, look it up!) tend to wash everything out, and the software and optics in a cell phone just can't compensate for it very well.  While either one of these pictures would be just fine for sharing on Google+, neither are as good as the ones taken sans flash.  To choose a winner, I looked at how the Galaxy S II knocks the exposure value down to compensate for the bright flash, and makes the image dark.  I'd rather have the small areas of wash-out and a bright picture like the one taken with the Galaxy Nexus than one that's been manipulated to be too dark.  This round goes to the Galaxy Nexus.

Galaxy Nexus = 1

Galaxy S II = 1

Digital zoom

Galaxy Nexus  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

Both the Galaxy Nexus and the Galaxy S II have built-in digital zoom, and like using the flash, digital zooming is a great way to ruin a good picture.  Don't do it unless you have to.  Not heeding my own advice (we had to look) I zoomed in as far as possible with each phone and snapped some pics of the soup can.  While they look OK as a thumbnail, click them to see a bigger version.  Yeah, digital zoom sucks, and it sucks much more on the Galaxy Nexus.  Things look more grainy and washed out when you zoom in, and this is amplified with the Galaxy Nexus.  The Galaxy S II breaks the tie and wins this round.

Galaxy Nexus = 1

Galaxy S II = 2

Zoom detail

Galaxy Nexus  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

What's worse than using the zoom on your Android phone's camera?  Using the zoom then getting really close to grab a close-up.  Neither one of these looks particularly good, but the Galaxy S II is the clear winner.  It's sharper, less grainy and has far less noise.

Galaxy Nexus = 1

Galaxy S II = 3

Panorama

Galaxy Nexus
Galaxy Nexus

Galaxy S II
Galaxy S II

While panorama shots are mostly a gimmick, they are a very cool gimmick and pano-mode is available on both the phone's were testing here.  Taking a panorama of the city or the mountains from 500 yards away is one thing, but we wanted to get up close and make it harder.  There's not a lot of detail in either picture, but there's not really supposed to be -- the file sizes get shrunk and you lose a lot of the picture data during compression.  That's just how the panorama software on both phones works.  

This one's really a wash, because when dealing with small objects up-close you see every stitching defect.  Look at the Band-Aid box and the right side of the tent in the picture taken with the Galaxy Nexus, and look at the Sprint Hero box and soup can in the picture taken with the Galaxy S II.  I'm picking a winner on ease-of-use, and the Galaxy Nexus gave me less errors while taking the panorama shots in the tight confines of a light tent.  It gets the nod here, but we're not giving any points to either one.  This one was just a fun throw-away.

Galaxy Nexus = 1

Galaxy S II = 3

Front-facing camera

Galaxy Nexus  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

You shouldn't expect too much from the front facing camera on any Android phone.  they're just there for video chatting and conferencing, not for MySpace quality portraits.  But because video chat is something that's finally caught on, it's an important category.  Both pictures are clear enough, and show as much detail as we should expect from the lower quality sensors, but there's one big difference -- The Galaxy S II corrects the white balance under the bright white lights a bit too much.  That healthy glow you see in the picture on the right isn't very accurate -- I'm a nerd who has no color to my skin in winter.  The Galaxy Nexus shows me in all my pale, geeky glory, so it gets the point here.

Galaxy Nexus = 2

Galaxy S II = 3

 

Video

Samsung Galaxy Nexus:


Youtube link for mobile viewing

Samsung Galaxy S II:


Youtube link for mobile viewing

Both the Galaxy Nexus and the Galaxy S II shoot great video at 1080p.  Both also jitter a lot if you're not holding things steady, but that happens with most phone cameras while shooting in HD mode.  This was another tough one to judge, because both videos look pretty damn good.

In the end, the Galaxy S II is the winner, for two reasons.  One is the same we saw at the beginning; the color is rendered more accurately, and the left side of the can was  more yellow than the right because of the different lamps used.    While the Galaxy Nexus offers digital zoom while shooting in 1080p (and does a fine job), it also takes a bit longer to focus while zooming or moving around.  Since I have to pick a winner, the Galaxy S II get's the point.

Galaxy Nexus = 2

Galaxy S II = 4

Wrapping it up

Winner

Before the comments about "change the settings" or "use a custom white balance" arrive, that's not the point of this showdown.  If you're the type who digs into camera settings and knows just what to adjust based on conditions, this article wasn't for you.  Most users (ourselves included) just want to pull our phone out of our pocket, point it at the subject, and take a good picture.  That being said, let's continue.

The clear winner here is anyone using one of these two great phones.  There's nothing about either that makes it a bad choice, camera performance included.  But when we get down to the brass tacks, the Galaxy S II out performs the Galaxy Nexus in more ways when talking about the camera, as well as the most important test -- point and click.  Go back to the first comparison shots, and the way the Galaxy S II duplicates the light and shadows, and the level of detail it still offers is pretty hard to beat.  If you're buying an Android phone strictly for the camera, go buy the Galaxy S II and you won't be disappointed.