UltraPixels! Megapixels! Duo Camera! Selective Focus! With all the marketing buzz-speak surrounding smartphone cameras these days, it's hard to know what's good and what's a gimmick.
The hype overload is hitting harder than ever this month, with both HTC's One (M8) and Samsung's Galaxy S5 competing for our attention. The two phones take decidedly different approaches to mobile photography, with HTC opting for fewer but larger megapixels and Samsung packing in 16 megapixels and plenty of promises.
What really matters, of course, is how the cameras actually perform in the real world -- in scenarios where lighting isn't always perfect and you don't have time to mess with menus upon menus of complex settings.
So which phone delivers better results? Check out these side-by-side samples and see what you think.
All images were taken using the phones' default "auto" settings with no post-capture editing. Click on any image to view a larger (and optionally full-resolution) version.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Note the differences in color and saturation.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Close call here; the GS5's image is a bit lighter, but I think the M8's contrast makes for a more striking composition.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. This round goes to the GS5; bright outdoor conditions sometimes trip up the M8 and cause it to deliver an overexposed result, as you can see if you look at the sky above the arch in this image. The One's picture also seems to add strange areas of pink along the left of the arch, which is mildly disconcerting -- particularly given the complaints over purple tinting on last year's One device.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. With this sort of close-up shot, the M8 actually did better; the GS5's image looks overexposed in comparison, both on the focal point and in the white rocks off to the side.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Once again, I'd say the M8 captured the better overall image in terms of coloring and exposure (in reality, that mailbox is more of a straight gray than a blueish gray).
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Another example where the M8 gets tripped up by glary conditions and ends up with an inferior shot.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Pretty even race here, though if you zoom into the full-res images, you'll notice that the M8 has a bit more noise and detail loss in the background (look at the tree to the left to see the difference).
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Indoors and up close. The M8's lighting looks a little warmer and more natural to my eyes, but both are perfectly decent shots.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Similar conditions -- and again, a warmer and more natural-looking result from the HTC phone. The GS5's image almost looks washed out in comparison.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Low light. Both phones did well here, but the M8 did a better job at capturing light and picking up on detail (the full-res versions are worth a look in this comparison).
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Even more extreme low light (the sign doesn't lie). The GS5 did reasonably well, but the M8 clearly has the advantage.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Indoors at a restaurant. The M8's image looks fine, but the GS5 went surprisingly dark.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Food, glorious food. Both images look fine; it's really a close call.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. So much blue! I'd give the edge to the GS5 in this face-off for its richer coloring and sharper detail (noticeable particularly when you view the full-res images).
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. In this busy and harshly lit indoor environment, the GS5 seemed to have trouble figuring out where to focus (in the full-res version, look at the Samsung Smart Home display off to the left, for instance). Even with a few attempts, it failed to deliver as sharp of a picture as the One produced.
The One's picture, on the other hand, seems to go slightly pink again -- this time around the ceiling lights. That's not what you want to see.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. The One's image looks sharper and has better contrast, but if you look closely, that pesky pink hue is back around the edges of the glowing "Samsung" sign.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Kind of a toss-up: The GS5's image is a little lighter, but the contrast on the M8's image makes it pop a bit more. On a nitpicky note, this set is another example where the M8 has more noise and detail loss if you study the images at full resolution (look at the trees).
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Two solid shots, but I can't help but think the M8's image once again has a slight pinkish hue that doesn't belong (look closely along the rails of the bridge while viewing the full-res versions).
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Duck you. The birds were obviously moving, so all things aren't perfectly equal, but the M8's image looks better to my eyes. (Your humble photo-taker also was attacked by said birds a moment after these photos were taken; thankfully, both phones survived.)
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. Two excellent images, though if you look closely at the rocks, the One's picture is slightly overexposed in some places.
Galaxy S5 followed by One M8. One last shot. Which looks better to you?
Galaxy S5 vs. HTC One (M8) camera experience
Before we sum things up, let me share a few scattered thoughts on the actual experience of taking and processing pictures on both devices:
• The One's camera UI is much easier and more pleasant to use than the Galaxy S5's. Both devices offer a wide range of modes and settings -- the One actually offers even more finite control than the GS5, with the ability to adjust things like ISO and exposure value and then save your own custom configuration -- but HTC managed to keep its interface clean and simple while Samsung's feels cluttered and confusing in comparison.
• Samsung claims the Galaxy S5 has "the world's fastest auto-focus speeds," but the One (M8) is significantly snappier at focusing and capturing images. The GS5 is by no means slow, but the One is practically instantaneous. When you use the phones side by side, it's a noticeable difference.
The GS5 also does a weird thing sometimes where it tells you to hold the camera steady after you press the shutter icon -- and then shows a progress ring for three to five seconds before finishing the job. That only happens occasionally, but when it does, it really slows things down.
• The Galaxy S5's images are much larger than the One M8's, which shouldn't really matter if you're just sharing photos online or printing them at normal sizes but can make a significant difference if you ever want to zoom in and crop. HTC's lower-megapixel approach has its benefits, but the smaller starting size can also be a limitation.
• The M8's dual-camera setup allows you to play with focus and create some interesting bokeh-style effects after the fact. The GS5's camera has a mode that can do similar things, but you have to think ahead and take a photo with that mode enabled in order for it to work -- and even with it enabled, I've found it to be rather unreliable. When I took the photo of the white flower with that mode on, for instance, the GS5 couldn't differentiate between the foreground and background and was unable to create an effect, while the M8 was able to process the same shot later with no problem -- and no special shooting mode required.
Putting it all together...
All considered, I'd say this: Both the Galaxy S5 and One (M8) are capable of taking good pictures, but neither is particularly groundbreaking compared to what we've seen in the past. While the GS5 seems to have the overall edge in imaging quality, there are plenty of times when the M8 pulls ahead of it. Both devices have their share of issues, and all in all, I'm not sure we can really call either phone a true "winner" in this comparison.
While neither device may be the end-all smartphone for high-end photography, though, both do a reasonably good job most of the time and an impressively great job some of the time. And with smartphone photography these days, that's about all you can ask.
For a more detailed look at the devices and how they stack up in general, check out my One (M8) deep-dive review and my Galaxy S5 deep-dive review -- and stay tuned for more comparisons over the coming days.