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Smartphone camera shootout: Apple iPhone 5S vs HTC One vs LG G2 vs Galaxy Note 3 vs Xperia Z1

  • Author:Aloysius Low
  • Source:CNET
  • Release Date:2013-09-29

We're almost at the end of Q3, and by now, most manufacturers have unveiled their new or updated flagship handsets, and we figure it is just the right time for a camera shootout again.

We've gathered five major smartphones that you'd be happy to own -- the Apple iPhone 5S, the HTC One, the LG G2, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Sony Xperia Z1 -- for a camera shootout to see just which one's the best shooter of them all. Bear in mind though, the HTC One made its debut earlier this year (and hasn't gotten any new versions), but its Ultrapixel camera was very good when we reviewed it (barring its lack of megapixels, that is).

Our focus is on how the phones handle shots in the bright outdoors, low-light, different lighting conditions indoors, flash photography and night shots. Of course, we would have loved to have gotten the Nokia Lumia 1020 to be in our shootout as well, but the handset only just launched in Singapore, and we weren't able to get our hands on a review unit in time. Given what we know about the smartphone's 41-megapixel camera, we're pretty sure that it will easily beat the competition. So what's second best then?

Test conditions: all phones have been set to shoot in auto with one exception -- the Sony Xperia Z1. As the Z1's Superior Auto mode only shoots in the 16:9 aspect ratio and we want to keep images consistent at 4:3, we used the manual mode option, but with everything else (ISO, White Balance) at auto and software-based image stabilization turned off.

To keep things consistent, we tested the Note 3 with the image stabilization turned off as well. Based on the results though, it's probably a good idea to turn that on for the Note 3 for less grainy pictures.
Test 1: the outdoors

All images were taken during a slightly overcast day. The Apple iPhone 5S colors were pretty saturated, followed by the HTC One. Both the LG G2 and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 looked muted comparatively but appeared to be closer to actual conditions. The Sony Xperia Z1 looked washed out. In the end, it boils down to your personal preference for the colors. All handsets performed competently outdoors (though the lack of details for the HTC One may make it unsuitable for larger prints).

Apple iPhone 5S outdoor test shot

HTC One outdoor test shot

LG G2 outdoor test shot

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 outdoor test shot

Sony Xperia Z1 outdoor test shot


Given how much work has been put into the camera software from smartphone manufacturers, you'll find that the high-end handsets all deliver reasonably good images. The iPhone 5S stands out for its excellent flash photography and metering capabilities, though low-light shots are still lacking (but the flash compensates perfectly).

The G2 was the best performer in many of the tests, thanks to its larger 13-megapixel sensor and OIS. We, however, do note that the G2 "cheats" somewhat with low-light shots, the handset does post processing to reduce noise somewhat similar to the Galaxy Note 3's stabilization feature. However, this takes place in the background, and doesn't make you wait unlike the Note 3.

The older HTC One may lack the details due to the smaller megapixel count, but it does have its moments when it comes to low-light shots. The bigger sensor makes a different, though we really do wish it has a slightly higher megapixel count at times for zooming in.

As for the Galaxy Note 3, while it takes good pictures in bright light, the handset's weakness is still low-light shots, as mentioned in our review. The problem here is that the onboard camera software can't really compensate well enough as mentioned earlier in Test 7, though the stabilization mode does let you work with night shots at the cost of a washed out look. As mentioned in the review, this issues can likely be tweaked via an update.

The 20.7-megapixel camera of the Sony Xperia Z1 does have its moments, particularly in low-light shots, though the larger megapixel count does mean a lot more noise. Ideally, you should be using the Superior Auto mode for most of your shots, as the manual mode can be a little lacking. Sony can likely improve the camera through a software update.

If you're in the market for a really good camera smartphone, right now, the LG G2 or the Apple iPhone 5S will be your best bet unless you don't mind the older HTC One with its pretty decent camera and its lack of megapixels. Of course, if you want something that takes compact camera-quality pictures , the Nokia Lumia 1020 or the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom will be the two models to consider.