Deciding on a smartphone is kind of like dating: After a while, you figure out that no single option is ever going to be perfect. From the feel of its curves to the quirks of its personality and -- oh, yes -- even the power of its stamina, every fish in the sea is going to have its own unique mix of strengths and shortcomings. What ultimately matters is finding a total package that makes sense for you and your own emotional -- er, technological -- needs.
So a phone's camera isn't everything, then -- but there's no denying it's important. In this day and age, having a smartphone that can snap decent-looking pictures without much effort means a lot. And going from "decent-looking pictures" to "great-looking pictures"? Well, that's just gravy.
The latest two flagships duking it out for your affection are Samsung's Galaxy S6 and HTC's One M9. The two devices have very different pros and cons, and each has its own sort of appeal. So how do their cameras compare?
I took the two smartphones out into the world together to find out.
[UPDATE: Following this comparison, HTC pushed a software update to the M9 that improved its camera performance somewhat, though not dramatically. See my post-update analysis for some before-and-after comparisons.]
All right -- ready? Let's do this:
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Both images are reasonably decent, but the S6's photo looks sharper and more color-realistic while the M9's is a bit muddied in comparison -- almost like it was taken with a layer of film over the lens. (I double-checked. It wasn't.)
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Same deal: The S6 picture is crisp and full of light while the M9's, though not awful, is definitely a little murky-looking and inappropriately colored.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. A gorgeous shot from the S6, with lovely clarity and an impressive amount of detail even when you zoom in at full resolution (the full-res view is worth checking out on this one). The M9's photo looks washed out in comparison -- note the sky in particular -- and shows a lot more detail loss when you zoom in and look closely at the full-res image.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. The same shot, only with HDR mode manually set to "on" on both devices. No visible change on the S6, since it was shooting with HDR automatically the first go-round in this case. The M9 definitely looks a lot better than before, though -- look at the sky and the big green tree in particular -- and in and of itself, its photo isn't half-bad. But when you look closely and compare it to the S6's image, it's still a meaningful step behind.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Two reasonably respectable images, though the S6 continues to have a distinct upper edge. Part of that may be because its auto-HDR feature appears to have kicked in here, as the detail and lack of washing out in the sky suggest.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Yowza -- what a difference. Just look at that lighting and the coloring. (Yes, these were taken mere seconds apart!)
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. The bright sunlight tripped up both phones a bit here -- which is something that happens to some degree with almost every phone I test using this same shot -- but the M9's image is far more washed out in general than the S6's composition.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Both photos are pretty solid, but the M9 ended up tinting the entire image a slightly yellowish color. The S6 is more accurate and delivered the better-looking photo.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. What fine friends these are. Two decent photos, all in all, but look closely and you'll see that the S6 captured more light and detail and has the sharper-looking shot.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Low light -- in a garage with only a small amount of natural light coming in from a nearby covered window (on a cloudy day, at that). The results speak for themselves.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. The same images, only here with the M9's night mode activated (the S6 automatically went into night mode on its own the first time). As you can see, the shift didn't make much difference.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Two nice enough images, with the one from the S6 being noticeably sharper and more accurate in coloring. Pull up the full-res versions, and you'll see the difference. (Are you starting to detect a pattern?)
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. My beautiful two-month-old daughter (isn't she gorgeous?!) in her fancy swing, which was rocking back and forth while these photos were taken. The M9 picked up a fair amount of blur, even with that relatively slow movement, while the S6 captured a pretty strong image that almost makes you think our stunning subject was sitting still. Also note the differences in lighting and coloring between the two.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. A couple of colorful drinks in a fairly dim restaurant. Respectable detail from both devices, though the S6 again pulls ahead in its ability to draw in light, accurately reproduce colors, and produce a sharp-looking shot even in non-optimal conditions.
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Heeeere, fishy, fishy. Same restaurant, taken through the glass of the tank (duh). Not much more I can say that the pictures don't demonstrate (look at 'em in full-res if you don't see the differences right away).
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. Nom. The M9's picture would actually look pretty good -- if the S6's image weren't right near it. (Again, the differences are most apparent when you're viewing larger versions of the images.)
Galaxy S6 on top; One M9 on bottom. One final low-light shot to round things out. I was pointing the phones down at my daughter while I held her in a very dim corner of the house at night -- anything but ideal photo-taking conditions. The M9 wasn't quite up the task. The S6's image isn't necessarily something I'd frame, either, but it's not half-bad considering the circumstances.
Aaand, that's a wrap, folks. It pretty much goes without saying that the Galaxy S6 has an exceptional camera. I wouldn't call the One M9's camera terrible, meanwhile, but I also wouldn't call it great. It's okay. It's good enough to take casual on-the-go snapshots when you need to, and with a little bit of processing or a touch of Google+ Auto Enhance magic, most of them should be good enough for online sharing or even printing. It just comes down to how you plan to view and use your images, how important photo quality is to you, and if "good enough" is -- well, good enough.
Of course, "good enough" isn't the same as "great." The Galaxy S6 clearly falls into the latter category and is the winner of this particular comparison. Truth be told, most current smartphone cameras would struggle to shine next to its consistently high level of quality and versatility, especially when you're doing an up-close analysis.
But as we said, camera quality is only one factor to consider in your smartphone selection -- and every device has its share of compromise (remember that awkward dating metaphor at the start of this thing?). For a thorough look at what the Galaxy S6 is like to use in the real world, check out my in-depth review:
And stay tuned for my real-world review of the HTC One M9, which is in the works now and will be online before you know it.
Hands on: Getting to know the HTC One M9Next Post
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