UltraPixel vs Megapixel: HTC One & HTC Droid DNA Camera Shoot-Out

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The HTC One, as we mentioned in yesterday’s unboxing and hardware tour, is a crucial device for the Taiwanese smartphone maker. The company’s brand has suffered a steady decline since its heyday of the last decade, and HTC is -for the second year in a row- banking on a device titled the “One” to save it from the increasing pressure of the competition.

The One of 2013 is similar to last year’s One X in several respects, not least of which is the focus HTC has chosen to put on its camera. Last year, the company’s marketing materials drilled home the message that the One X included an “amazing camera,” a contention that didn’t quite hold up in our full review. For 2013, HTC has swapped out “amazing” for “awesome” in press materials, but it’s still leaning heavily on imaging as a selling point for the new device.

Dismissing the “megapixel race” as an immature pissing contest between manufacturers, HTC announced a different approach to camera excellence at the NYC launch event for the new One: a special sensor with a lower-than-average resolution of 4MP, but with larger-than-average pixel size purportedly capable of capturing 300% more light. HTC grouped these and other innovations under a new branding umbrella, labeling the One’s shooter the world’s first “UltraPixel” camera, backed up by the dedicated ImageChip 2 image signal processor.

We’ve discussed among ourselves whether HTC’s sacrifice of resolution for overall image quality is a good idea, and as usual, the team’s opinions don’t exactly line up. That’s a good thing, because it guarantees stimulating discussion in venues like the Pocketnow Live broadcast and Pocketnow Weekly podcast – but at some point, we’ve got to shut up and show you the results, so you can judge with your own eyes how the new UltraPixel shooter stacks up against other smartphone cameras on the market.

Earlier today, we put the new HTC One up against another vaunted imaging beast, comparing it shot-for-shot with the Nokia Lumia 920. But HTC doesn’t just have the competition in its sights with the new One; it’s also dead-set on righting the wrongs of its past. We were disappointed to find that the Droid DNA, the erstwhile HTC heavyweight, packed the same lackluster optics as its predecessors when it launched last November. We expected underwhelming performance from its camera, and that’s just what we got – as our review and recent After The Buzz episode will attest.

That doesn’t set too high a bar for the new HTC One, but can a 4MP smartphone camera really out-do an 8MP shooter? Can HTC really show measurable improvement, in just half a year, in an area it’s always had trouble standing out in? Most importantly: how covetous should Droid DNA owners be of their One-toting neighbors once the device hits store shelves? Put on your eyeglasses, folks: we’re about to find out.

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Note: This is a general comparison. All testing was conducted using out-of-box settings for each device camera. Side-by-side composites below have been re-sized, but have not been altered in any other manner. Raw, unaltered shots from each device are available in the galleries at the end of this article. For coverage on Zoe and the other unique capabilities of the One’s camera, please stay tuned to our HTC One feed for forthcoming features, as well as our full review.

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Medium-Long Distance, Moderate Light

Click to expand.

In favorable indoor lighting conditions such as those shown above -a mixture of halogen overheads, combined with daylight spill from ceiling skylights- the similarities between the DNA and One cameras stand out more than do the differences. Each camera delivers a fairly muted image at first glance. It takes a closer look to reveal the improvements delivered by the One’s new sensor and ImageChip 2 ISP: richer colors, less noise, and a cooler tone than the ruddy-brown twinge on the DNA’s result. The One also seems to offer a slightly wider field of view, capturing more of the edge scenery on the right.

Those improvements are evident in most of this comparison’s sample photos, and HTC deserves kudos for this notable advancement in a relatively short time. As you’ll see below, the One doesn’t just slap a new label on an old camera module; it’s very definitely a ground-up reinvention.

Medium-Long Distance, Dim Light

Click to expand.

Bringing the devices into a cavelike restaurant with decidedly reddish lighting further highlights these improvements. Again we see the wide field of view, the One capturing more of the room over to the left than does its older sibling. Much more striking, though, is the more-faithful color reproduction in the new camera’s output. While the atmosphere within the Border Cafe really was quite red, it was nowhere near as washed-out and bland as the DNA’s picture suggests. The One’s photo is much more pleasing to the eye, with its balanced palette and darker shadows.

That comes at a cost, though; while both photos exhibit a lot of noise, the DNA does much better in dark areas like the black sweaters of the restaurant patrons in the lower left. Where the older phone correctly produces only black output there, the DNA introduces a hefty helping of blue noise that cheapens the shot.

Still, it’s hard to overlook the huge difference in color tone; despite the noise, we think most people will agree that the One still outperforms its predecessor here.

Close-Up, Moderate Light

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When we used this photo to compare the HTC One with the Lumia 920, we were struck by how unnaturally warm the One’s image seemed compared to the Lumia’s. We complained that the blue placemat appeared purple, and the silver faceplate on the communicator shone a “sickly yellow.” It’s surprising, then, to see that the DNA seems to produce a result that’s warmer still.

To be fair, the color skew that the Droid DNA appears to impart here might instead be termed a different type of warm: it’s pink, where the HTC One’s variation is amber. Either way, it’s a pronounced departure from reality, but we definitely prefer the One’s output – if only because, as an examination of the communicator’s textured finish demonstrates, it’s significantly sharper.

Medium Distance, Daylight

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Taking this photo reminded us just how sensitive and over-responsive HTC’s viewfinder software is, on both its old and its new smartphones. For each instance of the shot, we tapped on the dimmer area of the photo -the space between the restaurant sign and the roof- and watched the exposure and white balance swing violently from their previous settings to accommodate the conditions within the new focal area. That super-sensitivity isn’t always a plus; we prefer smartphone cameras that can deal with a wider range of lighting conditions without either blowing out a bright sky or succumbing to dark corners, but the end result is a fairly good one. Note, again, the One’s higher saturation here.

Long Distance, Extremely Low Light

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Speaking of lighting conditions: with the One, HTC has absolutely outdone itself in low-light photography. If Nokia hadn’t beaten HTC to the punch with the Lumia 920’s PureView shooter, the shot above would have been headline-worthy for the better part of a week.

In this case, realism takes a back seat to visibility; the Droid DNA delivers a much more accurate representation of what our human eyes saw looking down that subway tunnel, but the HTC One’s camera makes it look like someone turned a battery of floodlights on. The result is truly incredible. It’s nice to see that Nokia isn’t the only company with an eye toward solving the problem of poor low-light smartphone photos. In this sense, HTC has a real winner on its hands in the One.

Color Capture

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They can’t all be winners, though: neither of these shots, taken in a bright yogurt shop, is terribly good. They’re noisy, probably as a result of the harsh fluorescent lighting, and the phones appear to have switched allegiances in terms of red murk: here, the Droid DNA has applied a much more greenish-yellow tint to the final product, while the One has injected an unattractive purple hue. Saturation is also higher on the DNA than the One in this example. The blueberries, predictably blue in real life, appear almost black in both photos. The takeaway: sometimes it doesn’t matter how new your smartphone camera is; automatic settings will only get you so far.

Zoom-Zoom

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We covered the zoom-ability issue in our previous comparison, and the result was similar in this go-around as well. In brief: zoomed-in text is legible but badly distorted in each example, regardless of resolution. Those interested in determining how much more jagged a zoomed-in piece of text looks than another based on what camera photographed it will find much to dissect here, but in this quick glance, all we really see is mediocrity on both sides. If you want true zoom-ability, you’ll want to invest in a real camera with optical zoom. Or perhaps an 808 PureView.

Video

In a simultaneous 1080p video test of a subway train arriving at a platform, the One appears to produce darker video, with slower auto-exposure and focus correction than the DNA exhibits. It also, though, delivers higher saturation and a clearer picture to our eye, in addition to cleaner audio.


 

Conclusion

We’ll have more refined thoughts as we spend some more time with the HTC One – time which will include a thorough review by our resident resolution expert (and, incidentally, Editor-in-Chief) Brandon Miniman, so you better believe you’re going to get the straight dope on everything HTC One – camera included.

For now, we’ll wrap up by saying the One’s camera is a definite improvement on the DNA’s. For the most part, it produces images that are less noisy, with more vibrant colors and a wider field of view. For most folks, these enhancements will more than make up for the sacrifice of raw resolution. Not everyone will appreciate the reduced ability to zoom in without losing quality, though, and that’s particularly true for those viewing images on super-high resolution screens. As always, advancement doesn’t come without compromise, and you’ll want to take your own usage patterns into account when considering a jump from the DNA (or any other device) to the One.

Droid DNA Photos

Click for full size. Self-portrait photo is from front-facing camera.

 

HTC One Photos

Click for full size. Self-portrait photo is from front-facing camera.

 

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!