Samsung Galaxy S4 vs HTC One: Camera Showdown

18 July 2013

The Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One are two of the year's best phones, and there are plenty of good reasons to choose one over the other. But what about the camera? Is it possible to pick a winner based on the photos each camera takes?

To compare the cameras, we took the same photo with both, with the camera software set to automatic settings and with no zoom or flash.

The first interesting difference to notice is how much wider the lens is on the HTC One. You can see this best in the 2nd and 3rd photo sets, where you can see more around the edges of the frame than you can with the S4's camera.

The cameras also have vastly different image sensors with different resolutions. The Galaxy S4 has a 13-megapixel image sensor, while the One uses a 4-megapixel sensor with HTC's 'Ultrapixel' technology. This is why the 100-percent crop close-ups look so different side-by-side.

Example 1: Close-up shots - natural light

We'll start each set with two photos resized to 700px wide, so you can see all of the shot in this screen. This is followed by a side-side 100-percent crop take from the same images, to compare detail.

Both of these photos are reasonably good, though for us, the HTC wins in Example 1. It has a richer, more pleasing colour tone, while the photo from the S4 looks a bit washed out.

Both do an excellent job of maintaining the details in the shot, especially the jagged edges of the leaves.

100% crop

Looking at the images at 100% and it is clearer why the HTC camera is better in this comparison. The colours are stronger, and arguably more realistic, and the detail on the leaf and petal is far more pronounced.

Example 2: Outdoors - natural light

The results in Example 2 are a bit of a mixed bag. While we love the detail that the HTC One captures, especially on the building, we like the way Samsung's camera deals with the mixed light temperatures. The blue in the sky and the green in the tree is much closer to how we saw it with our own eyes, it is just a shame that the light on the building blows out so much.

100% crop

Ultimately, the HTC One is again the winner in this example, but we do wish that we could have taken a photo with the best from both cameras.

Example 3: Indoors - some natural light

The differences between the way these cameras handle light is similar in Example 3 as it was in Example 2, except that the S4 isn't our pick on colours in round 3.

The S4's exposure is blown out here and the result is a pretty ugly photo. It's picking out the colours and over-saturating them, while washing out large portions of the shot in the process.

Conversely, the One does a great job of handling the light, and though it looks a tad dark, there is still great detail across the image. You can see the building through the windows in the back of the shot, for example. You can't see it at all in the S4's photo.

100% crop

This final image is a great example of the different image sensor algorithms at work. Samsung has always leaned towards hyper-real colour reproduction in its smartphone cameras and this worked well a few years ago. But with cameras like the HTC One to compare it to, the S4's images look over exposed and over saturated.

That said, they do look great when viewed on the phone's 5-inch screen, and this is where it counts most. The same is true of photos taken with the HTC One, but they also stand up well when viewed in a larger frame on a PC monitor.

Night shot - no flash

Interestingly, we see the same difference in the image processing algorithms at night, but Samsung's photos look better under this difficult conditions. The colours are wildly vibrant and unnatural looking, but we definitely prefer this to the dull, greenish look of the HTC photo.

100% crop

Night shot 2 - no flash

Again, Samsung has the edge in our second night shot, although to be fair, both photos are pretty awful to look at. Neither camera handles the bright light sources particularly well, but there is definitely more light captured in the Samsung shot.

That said, you might prefer the gloomier look off the photo taken by the HTC One. The shadows are more interesting, and with a bit of practice, you could make this work to your advantage.

100% crop

The Verdict

Sometimes it can be difficult to pick a winner, but not this time. HTC's 'Ultrapixel' image sensor is our pick of the cameras, taking much better photos in the environments where most people will be taking them -- at daytime, in- and outdoors. It may have less than a third of the pixels, but it definitely takes a better image.

Samsung's camera seems to be better at capturing low-light environments, but only in so much as it brightens dark scenes, not that it captures natural-looking photos. This suggests the S4 is probably better at photos in dingy nightclubs, if that's your scene.

Feel free to disagree with us, of course. You might feel the shots taken by the One in this showdown look dull and that you'd prefer to have more vibrant images. Just be sure to frame your shots with the S4 so that you don't have direct light on any surfaces and you should be golden.

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