UltraPixel vs PureView: HTC One & Nokia Lumia 920 Camera Shoot-Out

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Update: In response to commenter suggestions, we’ve added some more daylight photos to broaden thescope of this comparison. You can find a side-by-side example above, and the raw shots in two new, smaller galleries at the bottom. Thanks for your feedback!

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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. Its 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 called the “One” to save it from the crippling 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 at length 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 the competition.

In this case, we’re putting the new HTC One up against another vaunted imaging beast, the Nokia Lumia 920. The 920 bears Nokia’s premium “PureView” branding, but besides its unique optical image stabilization and stellar low-light performance, the Windows-powered smartphone packs another significant advantage: its 8.7MP sensor is more than twice the resolution of the HTC One’s 4MP module. Does this mean an automatic win for the Finnish phone? You’ll want to jump on down to the raw images in the dual galleries at the bottom of this piece to determine that for yourself – but on the way, we’ll show you a few hand-picked examples of where each camera shines … and where it doesn’t.

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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

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In favorable indoor lighting conditions such as the one above, provided by a Boston-area MBTA station, both cameras perform fairly well. Aside from a faint bit of flare on the Lumia shot caused by a lens smudge, these examples show the cameras are capable of similar clarity. The warmer, more saturated colors in the Lumia 920’s photo on the left are an aberration; as you’ll see moving forward, the HTC One’s camera is much more likely to favor warm tones overall. The lighting here was a mixture of halogen overheads, combined with daylight spill from ceiling skylights.

In a broad sense, this shot demonstrates that for conventional, casual photography in good light, each camera is more than capable of rising to the occasion.

Medium-Short Distance, Dim Light

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Introducing the smartphones to a challenging lighting situation begins to show us the differences between these two units. This medium-close shot was taken in a restaurant with a pronouncedly red tone to its lighting. The Lumia 920’s normal tendency toward cool color reproduction serves it well in such a setting: the shot on the left shows much better balance and a much more authentic-looking palette, while the photo on the right seems doused in the same hot sauce it features. In this case, that’s resulted in a photo that’s actually more true-to-life -the atmosphere really felt that red in the Border Cafe- but to our eye, the Lumia’s result is the superior photo.

Close-Up, Moderate Light

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The hot/cool trend continues in this close-up shot of a Star Trek communicator, taken indoors under incandescent light. Once again, the Lumia 920 has played the role of Visine, completely eliminating the reddish elements of the room’s lighting for a well-balanced photograph. On the right, the One displays the exact opposite effect, amping up the reddish tones to make the blue placemat seem almost purple, and casting the communicator’s silver faceplate in a sickly-looking yellow. The color issues fortunately don’t extend to depth reproduction: the texture of the communicator is almost more pronounced on the One’s picture.

Long Distance, Daylight

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The differences in color tone stand out even in shots taken in broad daylight. Here, the HTC One offers the more authentic reproduction, faithfully rendering the faded colors of the storefront awning and the more muted blue of the sky. The Lumia 920, by contrast, blows out the awning colors in almost cartoonlike oversaturation and gives the sky a much greener hue than it actually possessed.

Long Distance, Extremely Low Light

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The color shift is evident in this pair, too, but that’s not what’s striking about these examples. What’s impressive here is just how well the One has done to combat a very challenging lighting situation. That is to say, there was almost no light in this MBTA subway tunnel running beneath Somerville. Lest we be too quickly spoiled by the low-light prowess of devices like the Lumia 920, let’s take a look at the results a more conventional smartphone delivers when faced with the same exact tunnel:

Behold, the sights of yesteryear!

That image was produced by the HTC One’s immediate predecessor, the Droid DNA, and it serves not only to remind us of how well the Nokia Lumia 920 does in near-dark conditions, but how potent a competitor the new HTC One is in this regard. Make no mistake: the battle for best low-light shooter is no longer a one-horse race. Nokia would be well advised to keep its innovation engine running at top speed with competition like this in the rear-view mirror.

Exposure Challenge

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Speaking of challenging shooting situations, check out the inverse of the no-light scenario: the overbright subject. In this case, we were aiming our lenses directly at an overhead lighting fixture. The focus was set on the absolute center of the ball, and the cameras were forced to deal with the situation as best they could. Their approaches to this -as is obvious- couldn’t have been more different.

True to its normal habit, the Nokia device did its absolute best to keep as much light in the shot as possible, sacrificing almost all detail in the overexposed region in order to bring detail to the rest of the room. By contrast, the HTC device clamped down so hard on the exposure that the far wall is almost invisible in the resulting photo – but the intricate folds of the light fixture emerge in exchange.

This is the most extreme variation we saw between these devices in our testing; which approach you prefer is a matter of preference, but keep in mind that these shots were all taken with automatic settings. Tweaking the viewfinder software to cater to challenging shooting situations will often yield better results.

The Zoom Question

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Finally, we come to the zoom issue. As mentioned above, the Lumia 920’s resolution is more than double that of the HTC One’s on paper. As a result, images taken by the latter will not be nearly as “zoom-able” as those taken by the former. That means there’s potential for heartache if you view the HTC One’s output on a very high resolution display like that of the Nexus 10, as pinching-to-zoom won’t reveal any further detail. By contrast, photos from the Lumia 920 would be able to endure some degree of magnification without losing sharpness.

We took a photo of the album insert from a Pinback CD with both devices from the same distance (though not, unfortunately, the exact same angle). We then blew up the resulting images by a factor of four and placed them side-by-side. Taken in harsh fluorescent light, the photos reveal the significant color tone differences produced by the cameras, but the text is similarly degraded on each side. In short: both examples look awful under magnification.

We’re not saying the zoom question is an open-and-shut case: much of it will depend on how your use your smartphone camera, and how important zoom is to you. We’ll have a more concrete stance on the matter once we’ve spent some more time with the One, and we’ll certainly speak to the issue in our full review. For now, feel free to draw your own conclusions from the gallery at bottom.

Front-Facing Camera

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It wouldn’t be a complete look at smartphone optics without taking a moment to praise HTC for its innovation in the world of front-facing cameras. The HTC One packs the same front-side shooter as the earlier Droid DNA and Windows Phone 8X models. Its 2.1MP sensor isn’t much to scream about, but its 88-degree wide-angle lens is. As is evident above, users can fit a whole extra person in on a video call, and self-portraits are much easier with the added space as well. The One’s picture is also much clearer in this example, but that might have more to do with our Lumia 920’s lens being coated with dust on the inside, the result of a manufacturing defect we hope the One doesn’t share.

Video

In a simultaneous 1080p video test of a subway train arriving at a platform, much of the same behavior as found in the still-photo performance above can be observed. The Lumia 920’s footage is definitely cooler and somewhat crisper, and its auto-exposure is less severe in its shift as the bright lights of the train give way to the more muted illumination of the platform during the pan. The Lumia’s audio capture, though, is quieter; good for concerts, bad for nuance.

 

Conclusion

As we said before, we’ll have more refined thoughts as we continue to settle in with the HTC One. For now, though, one truth seems clear: each of these shooters – the Lumia’s “PureView” and the One’s “UltraPixel” is trying to stand out as a specialized device, something more than just a plain smartphone camera. But each is also targeted not at the discerning professional, but at the average user.

Nokia didn’t build optical image stabilization into the Lumia 920 for fighter pilots doing terrain photography; it did it for normal people taking pictures from trains or shooting video in the middle of an afternoon jog. Similarly, HTC didn’t throw a huge sensor into the One for spec-heads; it did it so average folks could snap a colorful, well-lit photo they could be proud to post on their Facebook wall. For all the highs and lows that these smartphone cameras demonstrate when compared side-by-side, it’s important to remember that for most users, either one is going to provide more than enough functionality and quality over the course of a typical smartphone contract. The Devil may be in the details, but much of the time, most folks are perfectly content to leave him alone.

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Lumia 920 Photos

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HTC One Photos

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Additional Daylight Photos (Lumia 920)

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Additional Daylight Photos (HTC One)

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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!