The weeks leading up the HTC One's reveal witnessed a lot of rhetoric from the Taiwanese mobile phone maker. HTC released videos and infographics explaining that cell phone cameras in general were broken and promising that the company was going to fix the problem. The solution? The HTC One's "UltraPixel" sensor.
Instead of trying to load up the One with the pixels, as Nokia did the 808 PureView (with a 41-megapixel sensor), HTC decided that less could be more. The One's camera sensor amounts to only 4 megapixels, but because it's the same physical size as other phone camera sensors, each pixel is considerably larger. Thus, HTC claims, the camera can capture more light and take better photos.
Does the UltraPixel sensor make the One the best smartphone camera on the market? After all, UltraPixel is just the word that HTC's marketing team invented to brand their quality-over-quantity approach to cramming pixels on a sensor. We decided to test HTC's claims by taking photos of the same five subjects with four different cameras--the Apple iPhone 5, the Nokia Lumia 920, the Canon PowerShot Elph 520 HS (a point-and-shoot camera), and of course the HTC One--to see which camera came out on top.
Note: To compare the images, we took a 450px by 300px crop of each photo after zooming in 100 percent.
Cityscapes are a good measure of a camera's image quality. The scenes' busy foregrounds, vibrant colors, and clean lines give the camera a chance to demonstrate how it handles detail and perspective.
In this test, the One left us with "meh" results. The colors are fine and the details in the foreground are on a par with the results we got from the high-megapixel Canon point-and-shoot. But if you wanted to crop the image to see an awesome detail of the Bay Bridge's towers, you wouldn't be able to get as close as with the competing devices. For some users, this may be a deal-breaker, but for most mobile photographers, the relatively zoomed-out view may be enough. My favorite picture of the four in this test is the one that the Lumia 920 took, because it offers the best color representation.
Low-light portrait (with flash)
Even the best smartphone cameras have one weakness: flash. The lighting units found on smartphones are just plain bad: Tiny LED bulbs will light up your scene, but they'll turn your subjects into glowing blue Martians. When you compare the flash performance of the four cameras on this test, it's easy to see which photos cast our subject in the most attractive light because they make him look...well...human.
The Lumia 920's color correction put some warm-toned life into our subject's skin tone while the other cameras made him look green or blue. The HTC One came out on top in handling the black tones of the image, producing the least amount of digital noise and keeping the tone black instead of navy blue. Surprisingly, the point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot didn't outperform the HTC One or the Lumia 920 in the flash category.
Low-light portrait (without flash)
If flash makes your subjects looks like Martians, the obvious solution is to turn it off. But can your camera handle low light levels without extra help?
When it comes to low-light photography, pixels aren't everything. Your camera's lens helps bring in more light, and you should be able to leave the shutter open long enough to allow more light to hit the sensor. Some cameras handle this task better than others. And some can't do it at all.
Take the iPhone 5: In the iPhone's native camera application, the camera can't operate at shutter speeds slower than 1/15 second. As a result, even at the highest sensor sensitivity (ISO) level, the iPhone's low-light photos often come out dark. The Lumia 920 and the HTC One, on the other hand, are much better equipped to handle low light. Complementing their slow shutter capabilities, they have a smaller aperture number, meaning that their lens's opening to the sensor is wider and thus lets in more light.
The winner of this round was the Canon point-and-shoot. Not only did it give us the brightest results, but its image also had the best color. The HTC One's photo looked too gray, the Lumia 920's shot appeared too blue, and the iPhone 5's picture seemed too dark; but the Canon PowerShot's image was just right.
Macro (full sun, with bright colors)
When it comes to smartphone photography, colors and clarity are crucial. How else are you going to stand out in someone's Instagram feed? To test each camera's capabilities in this respect, we took an outdoor macro-style shot of a red flower.
The HTC One did much better than the other two smartphones on this test. Unlike the iPhone 5 and the Lumia 920, the One captured excellent detail in the shadows on the red flower, showing the texture of petals even in the harsh sunlight. Nevertheless, despite its strong showing in the shadows, the HTC One couldn't outdo the Canon PowerShot in the full-sun details. Overall, I preferred the smartphone shots to the point-and-shoot for this example: Though they didn't pick up as much detail, the smartphones captured more-vibrant colors.
Portrait (full sun)
Small sensors love sunlight. The greater the amount of light available in your scene, the better your camera will perform. When you have a lot of light, your ISO can be extremely low (to reduce digital noise) and your shutter speed can be higher (to catch the action without any blurring).
Putting cameras to work in full sunlight evens the playing field: There's no reason why they shouldn't perform at their best under these conditions. The HTC One stood out in the full sunlight test--but in a bad way. Its image had the largest amount of digital noise and the least clarity. In addition, the One made our subject's skin look pinker than the competing cameras did. The iPhone 5 and Lumia 920 easily bested the One, and their shots matched each other in level of clarity, though the iPhone arguably handled the shadows and skin tones slightly better. The Canon PowerShot set the bar in this test, however, yielding the best full-sunlight portrait.
The HTC One's camera holds its own against the leading smartphone camera in most of our categories. Low-light photography, in particular, proved the validity of the HTC One's less-is-more pixel theory. But in conventional smartphone photography situations, the HTC One didn't do so well. The full-sunlight and cityscape tests, in particular, left us wondering whether the UltraPixels were an ultrabad idea.
As a photographer, I applaud HTC for emphasizing digital imaging in its new device, but the results aren't good enough to surpass the industry-standard cameras available on the Lumia 920 and the iPhone 5.
Don't count the HTC One out when it comes to mobile photography, but don't buy it just for the camera, either. Ultimately, the "ultra" marketing gimmick doesn't justify the device commitment, though you may decide to purchase the One on the strength of its other merits.