Smartphones are increasingly rated on their camera prowess, and these two flagships bring the best quality they can.
Both Samsung and HTC have tried a variety of camera strategies over the years, and in 2015 have settled on something that is likely the best complete package each has produced in some time. The Galaxy S6 has cut back on unnecessary software features and simply puts together high-end components with some great image processing. The One M9 finally gave up on UltraPixels and Duo Cameras on the back of the phone to go for a more "standard" 20MP sensor, and kept the same solid camera interface.
Both the One M9 and Galaxy S6 are clearly able to take great photos, but in a world where both of these flagships are fighting to take up space in your hand, we want to put them head-to-head and see which one comes out ahead.
1. Testing method
The goal of this comparison is to see how both phones handle photography in a few different situations while handheld, particularly in auto mode. This best represents the way smartphones are used for pictures — pick out a scene, take out the phone and snap a picture. Because the M9 doesn't have an Auto HDR mode like the Galaxy S6, when the scene called for it we manually switched to HDR.
For reference on some of the shots, we also took the same photo with an Olympus E-PL5 camera using a 15mm (30mm equivalent) lens to give you a better feel for the scene. None of the photos were edited after the fact, though we chose to set the Galaxy S6 to 4:3 and One M9 to 10:7 aspect ratios to closely match one another and the Olympus camera. (And because folks are asking, yes, this M9 has the camera update. The phone we used is the Euro model and has had that camera update for a month.)
You may notice slight differences in framing between shots due to the photos being taken by hand and the differences in focal lengths between the cameras. All images will be shown side-by-side and properly labeled — click each image to view it larger in the window, and use the arrows on the picture to see the comparison picture. Due to web page restrictions the images are limited in their size, but you can view and download high-resolution versions from this Google+ post.
A note for mobile users: Due to the number of images, the comparison will be best viewed on a computer and will not fully load in the Android Central App. Our apologies — we hope you can view the full story on a computer!
2. Daylight photos
In photography, light is the currency you use to buy good photos. Even with other limitations like small sensors and lenses — like the ones in our smartphones — taken into account, you can always take a better photo with more light. During the day there's more light coming into the camera and the software doesn't have to work quite as hard or make compromises to take a clear, accurate photo. But that's not to say that taking great photos is easy in good lighting — these phones still have to process tons of data to push out images that look great.
Galaxy S6: left / One M9: right
Galaxy S6: left / Olympus: center / One M9: right
As we've seen before, the Galaxy S6 does an excellent job in good lighting conditions. The 16MP shooter and f/1.9 lens combine to take crisp photos, and the auto mode does a great job of choosing when to turn on HDR to properly show the full scene (most importantly, without making the photo look "fake"). The camera does tend to choose warmer white balances than the actual scene, though it isn't enough to be bothersome. It seems every photo with the GS6 is bright, crisp and colorful — with very few exceptions.
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In contrast, the One M9's camera is frustrating to use at times. The camera has a rather narrow dynamic range that leads to photos often coming out dull and low in contrast. Further, the camera has trouble exposing properly in scenes with a variety of lighting situations, generally leading to photos that are far too bright or too dark. HDR can fix the issues with exposure and varied light in many cases — though it too can sometimes go overboard — but because there's no auto HDR mode available you'll have to choose for yourself when to use it.
The main reason why the camera is frustrating is that it can take absolutely great photos. In many cases the One M9 captured photos on par with the GS6 in full auto mode, but a majority of the time it chose the incorrect white balance, exposure and ISO, doing an injustice to the scene. If you're willing to tinker in the amazing manual mode you can fix a lot of the M9's shortcomings — mainly by limiting max ISO, increasing saturation and reducing sharpness — but we'll contend that that shouldn't be necessary every time you want to take a good photo.
The Galaxy S6, for whatever reason, is able to do all of this thought automatically and choose correctly a vast majority of the time, whereas the One M9 requires a bit more massaging to take a good picture. The quality ceiling is high on the One M9, but the floor is also very low — and that's why the Galaxy S6 comes out ahead in good lighting.
Winner: Galaxy S6, with more consistent photos
3. Low light photos
When the lights get dim, smartphone cameras suffer more than large standalone cameras. Because smartphone cameras have limited resources to work with in low light, it takes an innovative combination of a variety of factors to get the most out of what you have. Having a faster lens definitely helps to let more light in, as does OIS for keeping things steady with slower shutter speeds. But of course it often comes down to the software, which needs to survey the scene and choose the right group of settings to take the best shot.
Galaxy S6: left / One M9: right
(We include this above shot to represent how the One M9 often fails to lock focus in low light situations. No matter what we did, the camera just couldn't focus in this scene and many other like it)
Galaxy S6: left / Olympus: center / One M9: right
While the low light photos on the Galaxy S6 are a bit less consistent than those taken in good lighting, it's surprising how well this camera can handle night shots. Just as is the case with daytime shots the GS6 tends to be a bit warm on the white balance, but at night that's often more accurate. The software does a nice job of processing to keep images smooth without looking unnatural, and it's clear that the inclusion of OIS makes a big difference for keeping the ISO and exposure low as to not create much noise. If there's one thing to note on the negative here it's that the GS6 can sometimes try to brighten a night scene a little too much, making it unnatural and also a bit noisier.
It's pretty clear at this point that ditching UltraPixels on the One M9 was a net positive, but not having OIS remains a big issue for low light shots. That and a slower f/2.2 lens mean the One M9 has to choose higher ISO and exposures in order to brighten the scene without blurriness, and that of course leads to noisier photos that aren't as appealing. As is the case in the daytime the phone is very finicky on what kind of picture you'll actually get from shot to shot, and while the "Night" mode generally helps, it isn't a cure-all for low light shots. In general you're going to be best off using manual mode, again, to get the best low light pictures, as the One M9 tends to over-brighten photos rather than just take a natural shot that is true to the scene. No matter the mode, the One M9 sometimes struggled to lock focus in dimly-lit areas, and often chose to "lock" focus and take an out-of-focus picture.
When you manage your settings properly the One M9 can actually take acceptable low light photos, though they still aren't to the level of the Galaxy S6 (even when it's in auto mode). The problem with the M9 in low light is that you need to tweak things manually to get to the highest level of what the camera can do — the results in the auto and night modes just can't do it.
Winner: Galaxy S6, with better pictures overall
4. Front-facing camera
Front-facing camera shots (selfies, whatever you want to call them), as much as some of us may loathe them, are important nowadays. And while the front-facing cameras on these flagships still rightfully play second fiddle to the rear cameras (for cost and space concerns as much as anything), both Samsung and HTC are innovating on the front.
Galaxy S6: left / One M9: right
While the M9 chose to drop the UltraPixels from its rear camera, it kept them around on the front-facing lens. The 3.7MP sensor has larger pixels to let in more light, which is important, and it seems to lead to better photos as well. Photos are surprisingly good looking, with lots of detail and sharp focus on the subject. Unfortunately the camera lens has a rather narrow field of view, so if you're taking a selfie in portrait mode (which is easiest) you won't be able to easily fit multiple people in one shot.
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The 5MP sensor on the Galaxy S6 offers more resolution, but that doesn't translate into quality. Even with the "beauty mode" (which unnaturally softens things) turned off, the Galaxy S6 still doesn't produce is sharp or accurate front-facing shots — due in part to its fixed focal length that's just too long to capture your face. The super-wide angle lens does let you fit plenty of people (or extra background) in one shot, and the easy-to-use "Wide selfie" mode lets you take front-facing panoramas that are quite impressive. The poor focal length and wide angle make it tough to get any solo close-ups to look good, though.
Even though the GS6 arguably has the better experience because it's easier to capture shots with its wide-angle lens and simple interface, there's no replacement for sheer quality. The One M9 takes sharper front-facing photos, and they're good enough that it'll be worth giving up a wider lens.
Winner: HTC One M9, with sharper selfies
5. Camera interface and experience
The Galaxy S series used to have the busier and more confusing of the camera interfaces, but with the GS6 Samsung has seriously scaled things back. The Auto mode couldn't be simpler to use, and the settings are now a single page that are easy to manage. A new Pro mode gives you access to more manual settings than before, and though it isn't as full-featured as what HTC currently offers it also isn't necessary to get good pictures.
The M9 still has a very similar interface as previous versions, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. HTC's camera app is extremely powerful, and almost to a fault as you won't really be happy with just using the default settings and auto mode. It's simple enough to switch between scene modes or into a full manual mode, but we wish the camera app would handle more of that on its own so we could spend more time shooting and less time fiddling with it. And whether it's a hardware limitation or something in the software, the frame rate on the M9's viewfinder can sometimes drop and become laggy in some situations
Both camera apps do things differently, that's for sure, but we can't say that one is really better than the other. The Galaxy S6 has the simplicity of a great auto mode nailed down, and though the Pro mode is powerful it isn't as great as what HTC is doing. The M9 may have a little more to play around with, which has the potential to be confusing, but it has so many great options that if you want to tweak things you definitely can. The GS6 does have the leg up in terms of camera launch time, along with its quick-launch shortcut via the home button, but the M9 is hardly sluggish.
Winner: Tie, you can't go wrong
6. Bottom line: Which camera is best?
After weeks of using both the Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9 for photography in our daily lives, we have a great feel for how each of these cameras perform in a variety of situations. Both cameras are clear improvements from their predecessors, with each one making changes for the better in multiple areas.
The Galaxy S6 clearly has a great sensor lying behind its super-fast f/1.9 lens that's optically stabilized, producing really great images in pretty much every situation when the lighting is good. When the light gets low it handles things well, making the most of its tiny sensor with good processing and the right software decisions to make a balance between brightness, clarity and colors. The camera does tend to have a warmer white balance than we'd like sometimes, but it's a fair tradeoff for the amazing quality you get from just about every shot you take.
Moving to a higher resolution sensor was a great move overall for HTC, and it gives the M9 a fighting chance against other high-end phones. The sensor and lens are clearly capable of capturing great photos, and with some work in the powerful camera app you can achieve wonderful shots in a variety of situations. Unfortunately the manual tweaks are required more often than not in order to get those results, as the auto mode just doesn't make the right decisions to fully realize what the camera is capable of. When the lights get dim the lack of OIS is dreadfully apparent on the M9, and while some of the issues could be fixed in software (or again mitigated with your own manual controls) there's no silver bullet that can replace a faster lens and OIS.
When you flip over to the front camera — which is a significant part of any phone's camera experience — you'll find the M9 comes out way ahead of the GS6, despite its lower resolution. The lens may not be as wide, but the UltraPixels do their thing to bring in lots of light to make you look nice, and the camera has the proper focal length to ensure you're front and center as you should be. The GS6 just can't match the selfie results, even though its 5MP sensor is behind a generally-preferable wide lens and backed up with good software.
Factoring in all of these points, it really comes down to thinking about which camera is easier to use overall, offers the most consistent experience and has the resulting photos to back it up. When you look at making the most of good lighting situations, using every available trick for low light photography, and doing it all quickly, the Galaxy S6 wins this competition by a notably large margin. Even though the M9 pulls ahead in a couple of aspects, it just isn't enough to overtake the great photos and experience on offer from Samsung's latest flagship.
Overall winner: Samsung Galaxy S6
Another reminder that if you you wish to view and download full-resolution versions of all the images here, you can get them in this Google+ post.