Apple iPhone 4 vs. Motorola Droid X camera

iPhone 4 sample pictures (slide show):

Droid X sample pictures (slide show):

Arguably, the Apple iPhone 4 and Motorola Droid X are the current flagship smartphones for AT&T and Verizon. Both are multimedia powerhouses, and feature impressive cameras, at least on paper!

I’ve been playing with the cameras on both devices extensively for almost 3 months, and the resulting pictures and videos are indeed excellent, yet there are pros and cons to each phone. More after the break…

Hardware

Both devices feature state-of-the art cameras equipped with backside-illuminated sensors, auto-focus optics (with macro), and support for HD (720p) video recording – plus bright, high-quality screens. Neither phone offers a Xenon flash or any kind of lens protection.

The iPhone 4 is the first iPhone with a camera that’s worth getting excited about. It uses a 5 megapixel sensor, a single LED flash, and a second front-facing, fixed-focus VGA camera.

While the screen is only 3.5″ across, Apple picked a gorgeous IPS display with an incredible 960×640 pixel resolution. The microphone, located next to the headphone jack, sounds great but is easy to cover by accident when holding the phone while making videos.

The Droid X features an 8 megapixel sensor with a mechanical shutter (like the Nokia N86), a dual LED flash, and multiple mics (front, back, side). Motorola wisely decided to include a dedicated 2-stage camera button – a must-have for any “serious” photography.

The 4.3″ screen, with its 854×480 pixel TFT panel, is truly massive and looks beautiful. There’s also a mini-HDMI connector, capable of HD (720p) video output.

Note that the iPhone 4 uses a wider angle lens than the Droid X.

Software

Both devices have radically different approaches in terms of user experience, just like the underlying operating systems (iOS vs. Android).

The iPhone 4 is all about simplicity. For stills, the only settings are touch-to-focus, digital zoom, flash mode (auto, on, off), HDR (on/off), and camera (back/front). For video recording, the interface drops the digital zoom and HDR controls – touch-to-focus continues to function while filming, which is fantastic.

The Droid X offers a plethora of settings. For stills, there’s touch-to-focus (in addition to the dedicated two-stage camera button), flash mode (auto, on, off), scenes (like sport), effects (like sepia), picture modes (including panorama), and additional options nested deep within the menus (such as resolution, face detection, ISO & exposure). The digital zoom is activated by pressing the volume rocker.

For video recording, the scenes setting changes which of the 3 mics are active and how audio is being processed. Some scenes prioritize the back mic, some the front mic, some even use the side mic for noise reduction – it’s extremely clever, and stereo audio is available. Unfortunately, there’s no auto-focus of any kind while filming (or initially), and no digital zoom.

The problem with the Droid X camera interface is that it’s poorly designed. What’s the point in offering lots of controls without making them accessible and intuitive? For example, selecting the macro scene changes the flash mode to auto, and there’s no way to turn it off (other than returning to the auto scene) – basically, it’s impossible to use the macro in low light without the flash.

Pictures

While not as impressive as imaging-centric cameraphones like the Samsung T929 (Memoir) and the upcoming Nokia N8, both devices take wonderful pictures.

iPhone 4 sample pictures (slide show):

The iPhone 4 takes pleasantly warm pictures with vibrant colors. This is often the result of shots being oversaturated, and while touch-to-focus is useful, the associated spot metering is hit and miss, with some shots getting overexposed.

It turns out that HDR helps significantly here (more on this later), but still, why not have a setting that decouples the exposure adjustment from the touch-to-focus control?

Low-light performance is decent, but perhaps only average for a camera equipped with a backside-illuminated sensor. As the amount of light decreases, pictures exhibit more “grain”, which looks pretty natural. Then, beyond a certain point, noise sets in.

Yes, “grain”. There’s a film-like quality to the iPhone 4, a subtle lack of detail that makes shots more life-like. But what’s most important is that the camera performs extremely well in most conditions without requiring any special care from the user – it’s truly point-and-shoot.

Droid X sample pictures (slide show):

The Droid X produces surprisingly realistic pictures. Colors are generally quite accurate, but exposure is sometimes off, requiring manual adjustment. The auto-focus struggles at times, particularly with closeups and macro shots.

Low-light performance is excellent, and noise is kept under control without compromising detail, thanks to the backside-illuminated sensor (it’s the same part HTC uses in the Incredible and EVO 4G).

There’s an almost clinical, robot-like (see what I did there?) precision to the pictures captured with the Droid X. When the auto-focus cooperates, and with the proper settings, the camera gathers a tremendous amount of information, resulting in great shots.

While the Droid X provides more control, there are lots of variables to deal with – it’s not point-and-shoot friendly. With some tweaking and coaxing, it’s definitely the better camera for “serious” photography.

HDR

Apple recently added HDR support to the iPhone 4 – a first for cameraphones. The algorithm appears to rely on contrast reduction for more natural results, and the camera stores both the original and HDR pictures.

It’s tempting to dismiss HDR as a gimmick, but in the right conditions on the iPhone 4, it fixes normally oversaturated and/or overexposed shots. As a bonus, it also improves detail. The results are best in scenes with little or no motion.

Sample HDR pictures – original on the left, HDR on the right (click to enlarge):

Video

While HD (720p) video recording is quickly becoming the norm on smartphones, both devices (along with the Samsung Galaxy S) are best in class.

iPhone 4 sample video (download original, HD, 1280×720 @ 30 fps):

It’s absolutely clear that the iPhone 4 currently sets the standard for capturing video on a phone. The combination of silky smooth (30 fps) recording, touch-to-focus while filming, and iMovie for on-board editing is hard to beat.

Droid X sample video (download original, HD, 1280×720 @ 24 fps):

While it certainly performs well, the Droid X lacks auto-focus while filming, which is unfortunate. The slightly lower framerate (24 fps) is offset by support for stereo audio, and a scenes setting which controls how the 3 mics are handled.

iMovie

iMovie allows basic video, audio and title editing right on the iPhone 4, with a simple interface to boot – it’s magic :)

iMovie sample video (download original, HD, 1280×720 @ 30 fps):

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21 Responses to Apple iPhone 4 vs. Motorola Droid X camera

  1. Rahul Nair says:

    “Apple recently added HDR support to the iPhone 4 – a first for cameraphones.”

    Actually Nokia Research released FCamera and HDR Capture for the N900 a couple of months before the iOS update. Not a built-in feature like the Phone but it has been on phones before.

    • tnkgrl says:

      Thanks for the heads up! It’s really unfortunate that I no longer have an N900 review unit…

      So is it as simple to use as an on/off switch?

      • Rahul Nair says:

        The HDRCapture is built upon the FrankenCamera research project. It shows up as a separate app which you can use in auto mode with a single click or in manual mode to adjust the settings. You should definitely try out the FCamera app – its got a very techie UI but it is incredible what they have been able to do with a simple cameraphone.

        There is a good review of it at http://ericscorner.blogspot.com/2010/07/fcamera-n900-review.html

      • I really wanted you to develop for the N900. It seems to represent everything you stand for and why I love your site and personality so much. If you can get your hands on another one, I really hope you revisit it. Its FoneArena’s Smartphone Champion for a reason. You missed out on watching a great device grow. N9 will be the one to really captivate you, at least I hope.

  2. rickstatron says:

    I really wish someone did a showdown with the best HD video phones.. At least u got two of them but iwould like to see the galaxy s thrown in there as well and the other symbian hd phones

    • tnkgrl says:

      I have a Galaxy S camera review in the works – you can find sample videos on my YouTube channel (link in the sidebar)

      • rickstatron says:

        ok i cant wait. ive see the galaxy s sample vids already but i really value ur opinion so i would like to know which is the best of all three

    • tnkgrl says:

      Short answer: all US 4 Galaxy S phones take great pictures and video. They all use the same sensor, optics and UI.

      The Fascinate ups the specs by adding an LED flash but strangely drops geo-tagging.

      The Epic wins by adding an LED flash, a dedicated 2-stage camera button, and secondary front-facing VGA camera.

    • tnkgrl says:

      As I mentioned the iPhone wins for video recording, because of quality, touch-to-focus while filming, and iMovie.

      The Galaxy S is about the same as the Droid X, ie. very good, but without touch-to-focus it’s just not as nice.

  3. Benz145 says:

    Good analysis tnkgrl, I agree with you on most of what’s here. It’s a real shame that the Droid X (and Droid 2) won’t focus before they shoot video. Could that possibly be a hardware limitation, or is it just a software oversight? As I noted in my Droid X review over at Carrypad, the Droid X takes awesome macro photos, but only if you can get the frustrating auto-focus to cooperate. I wish there was a mode that would let you manually adjust the focus using the volume rocker so you could get the up-close shots without having to try over and over to get it to auto-focus correctly. I think there is a setting in the cam options that let’s you turn on a “focus assist light”; even with this on, it still had trouble focusing on macro shots.

    One thing you missed: (unless my memory is misleading me) the Droid X does digital zooming with the volume rocker.

  4. […] the iPhone 4 and Droid X myself, I wanted to highlight and article over at tnkgrl Mobile which has more comparison info and a detailed write-up of the strengths and weaknesses in the cameras of each …. If you are looking for a phone with a good camera, you are definitely looking in the right […]

  5. stiche says:

    Curious about “Backlit Sensor” thats a new one for me, a cmos feature, or what?

  6. rickstatron says:

    Tnkgrl i cant wait for ur nokia nate (n8) vs iphone 4 battle

  7. Eric6052 says:

    I became aware of your blog recently while listening to you on Engadget Mobile. Great site and this article has inspired me to try and get better pictures with mt Droid X. Its a great phone but I felt the camera was kind of so so. Seeing some of your shots I realised its probably me. Anyway keep up the awesome job here and on Engadget.

  8. Nouman says:

    iphone really is more clearer

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