Samsung T929 (Memoir) camera

It’s been almost 6 months since I picked up the Samsung T929 (Memoir), the first subsidized 8 megapixel cameraphone in the US, and I’m overdue for a review :)

Over the years, I have tested a plethora of 5 megapixel devices – the i-mobile 902, the Nokia N95/N95-3/N95-4, the Sony Ericsson K850i, the Nokia N82, the Motorola ZN5 (ZINE), the Nokia N96, the Nokia N85, the Nokia N79, and more recently the Nokia N97

There are now several 8 megapixel cameraphones available from Samsung (Pixon, Memoir, INNOV8, Omnia HD), LG (Renoir, Viewty Smart), Sony Ericsson (C905, W995), and Nokia (N86 8MP) – not to mention upcoming 12 megapixel units.

I’m getting a Nokia N86 8MP review unit soon, but so far I’ve only played with the Samsung i8510 (INNOV8), the Samsung i8910 (Omnia HD), and of course the Memoir.

For over 4 months I used it as my primary imaging device, and 1000+ pictures later, I have to say that the Memoir features the best camera I have ever enjoyed on any phone – and by a wide margin!

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Pictures taken with the Nokia N85

In 3 months of ownership, I snapped nearly 1000 pictures with my Nokia N85, US version, including some truly great ones! That covers most of the pictures taken during my holiday road trip to New Orleans.

Right about now, you probably expect me to write a glowing review of the N85 camera, but I can’t – it’s pretty nice, but it’s not good enough.

Despite almost identical specs, it falls short of the cream of the 5 megapixel crop: the Nokia N82, the Nokia N95, the Motorola ZN5, the Sony Ericsson K850i, and the i-mobile 902

The culprit? Noise, noise, and more noise – just like its sibling the Nokia N79, the Nokia N96, and the 3 megapixel 5800/E71/E66. Do you see a trend here?

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Podcast: Talking with Matt #4

Here’s my latest audio podcast (37 min) with Matthew Bennett, recorded outside Farley’s! It’s also available as a video podcast on his blog

In this edition, we discussed (amongst other things) the worsening low-light performance of Nokia’s latest crop of devices (N96/N85/N79/5800/E71), vs. Nokia’s former devices (N82/N95) and vs. other camera phones, from the spectacular i-mobile 902 to the pedestrian T-Mobile G1.

Other topics include the impressive Palm Pre, and how Nokia should bite the bullet and support Android on the N97 (in addition to Symbian), or just eat the zombie’s brains buy Palm and support WebOS on the N97 :)

Click here to subscribe to this podcast.

Pictures taken with the Motorola ZN5

In the past 2 years I’ve used quite a few 5 megapixel camera phones: the i-mobile 902, the Nokia N95/N95-3/N95-4, the Sony Ericsson K850i, the Nokia N82, and now the Motorola ZN5 (ZINE)

Without mincing words, the Motorola ZN5 (ZINE) is a mediocre phone that takes stunning pictures!

Spec-wise, the ZN5 is similar to the K850i. The 5 megapixel (Kodak branded) camera features auto-focus, macro, a xenon flash, and an active lens cover.

Exposure and light metering are excellent. Colors are rich and well balanced. Low-light performance is pretty good for a CMOS sensor, but the i-mobile 902 is still better thanks to its CCD sensor.

The ZN5 beats the speedy N82 with an even faster startup time and faster (LED-assisted) auto-focus – it’s almost as quick as a point-and-shoot digital camera!

The macro is somewhat disappointing because it’s unable to focus on objects as closely as the other devices. This is not a deal breaker, however.

When the time comes to upload pictures there’s no 3G. No accelerometer means no auto-rotation, just like the i-mobile 902. No GPS means no geo-tagging – then again, it’s also missing from the K850i.

Unfortunately, video recording with the ZN5 is limited demoted to QCIF (176×144 pixels at 15 fps), vs. QVGA (320×240 pixels at 30 fps) with the K850i, and VGA (640×480 pixels at 30 fps) with the other devices…

The verdict? As a camera, the ZN5 is one of the best 5 megapixel devices on the market today – it’s up there with the fabulous N82. As a phone (or a video recorder), it’s a different story.

Nokia N82 camera

A few months ago, I compared three 5 megapixel camera phones with auto-focus and flash – the i-mobile 902, the Nokia N95, and the Sony Ericsson K850i.

I concluded that:
– The i-mobile 902 was the best camera overall
– The Nokia N95 was the best camera for my purposes
– The Sony Ericsson K850i was the best camera for most people

Enter yet another 5 megapixel camera phone with auto-focus, macro and flash, the Nokia N82.

Now that I’ve used the N82 camera extensively (see pictures above), how does it fit into the picture (pun intended)?

Well it definitely improves upon the N95 camera in terms of features by offering a xenon flash, faster startup time, and faster auto-focus (as well as providing a lens cover, which is missing on the Nokia N95-3).

It matches the K850i camera in terms of features with the brighter xenon flash and quick operation, and beats it in terms of performance with the better Carl Zeiss optics and richer colors.

However, it still lags behind the i-mobile 902 camera in terms of sensor noise and low-light performance.

The N82 beats the K850i in video performance (VGA vs. QVGA resolution), but the K850i trumps the N82 when the time comes to upload pictures (tri-band HSDPA). Also, the N82 is a smartphone, whereas the K850i is a feature phone.

So ultimately:
1) The i-mobile 902 is the best camera overall, but is limited in terms of phone features
2) The Nokia N82 is the best camera for people who want a smartphone with a xenon flash – the Nokia N95 is the best camera for people who (like me) want a smartphone with (US compatible) HSDPA
3) The Sony Ericsson K850i is the best camera for people who want a feature phone

I’d seriously consider retiring my N95-3 for a version of the N82 with US-compatible HSDPA. Are you paying attention, Nokia?

Nokia N82 goodness

In the year and a half I’ve been writing this blog I’ve used a lot of nice camera phones, including the i-mobile 902, the Nokia N95 & N95-3 (which is currently my main device), and the Sony Ericsson K850i. Usually, I purchase them and keep them for several weeks or even months before selling them used, but in good condition…

But lately, I’ve also been fortunate to have access to devices through Nseries WOM World, each for a few weeks at a time. So far I’ve played with the Nokia N800, Nokia N76 and most recently the awesome Nokia N82. I have to admit that I’ve become a bit jaded with all this technology, but the N82 is the only device I’ve reviewed so far that was difficult to return!

There’s no question that the N82 falls into the über phone category – it’s pretty much a candybar version of the original N95, but with a xenon flash, which makes a significant difference in extremely low light (more on this soon).

Here are some pictures and a couple videos (one and two) of the N82.

Compared to the N95, US version, it removes US-compatible HSDPA, but adds the oh-so-important lens cover, and the xenon flash. The N82 features a smaller and dimmer screen (2.4″ vs. 2.6″) and a micro-USB connector (vs. mini-USB on the N95). Here are additional observations:

– Same crazy features as the N95 (5 megapixel Zeiss camera, WiFi, GPS, etc…)
– Lens cover & xenon flash
– Faster camera startup time
– Automatic screen rotation
– Candybar form factor (lighter, fewer moving parts)

– No US-compatible HSDPA
Smaller, dimmer screen
– Poor build quality (chrome paint flaking off on this well-used demo unit)
– Unable to stand on its side
– Fingerprint magnet

So, now for the million dollar question. Is the Nokia N82 the ultimate N-series device on the market today?

In my opinion, yes – especially if Nokia decides to make a version with US-compatible HSDPA. The N82 feels faster than the N95, and offers subtle improvements to the user interface that make it easier to use on a day-to-day basis. In fact, I think the N82 is the best camera phone currently available.

Sony Ericsson K850i camera

Now that I’ve taken hundreds of pictures with my Sony Ericsson K850i here’s how it compares to the other 5 megapixel devices I’m familiar with, the Nokia N95 and the i-mobile 902.

First, all of these phones have great cameras – there’s no doubt about it! As I’ve mentioned before, camera phones are finally decent enough to replace dedicated point-and-shoot digital cameras in most situations…

The K850i generally produces excellent pictures, with a quick startup time. Low-light performance outdoors is excellent (long exposure with the flash disabled), the auto-focus is quick and assisted by an LED flash. The xenon flash and macro both work as advertised.

However, I’m a bit disappointed with the K850i when it comes to low-light performance indoors (artificial light with the flash disabled). There’s a lot of noise in the resulting pictures. Perhaps it’s a firmware issue?

I recently acquired a rare Nokia 7710 and snapped some pictures under the light fixture in my kitchen at night with the flash disabled but the results were pretty poor. Then, while unboxing the Asus 701 (Eee), I snapped some pictures under 3 flood lights in my basement, but the results were still pretty poor.

I’ve noticed that, while the N95 often suffers from a red tint problem, the K850i often suffers from over-exposure. Of course this is easily remedied by adjusting the exposure manually. Colors are noticeably richer with the N95 than with the K850i, perhaps because of the Carl Zeiss optics.

The i-mobile 902’s CCD sensor is less noisy than the CMOS sensor used on the other devices, especially in low-light. The macro on the i-mobile 902 is able to focus on objects closer than the other devices.

Unfortunately, video recording with the K850i is limited to QVGA (320×240 pixels at 30 fps), vs. VGA (640×480 pixels at 30 fps) with the other devices.

Bottom line:
– The i-mobile 902 is the best camera overall, but a pretty limited phone. It’s only missing the LED flash to assist the auto-focus, but this is easily remedied by carrying an LED light on a key chain.
– The Nokia N95 is the best camera for my purposes, and the most advanced phone. It’s only missing a better sensor and the xenon flash (which I don’t really use).
– The Sony Ericsson K850i is the best camera for most people, and a fully featured phone (tri-band HSDPA). It’s only missing a better sensor and VGA video recording.

Update: I’ve revised my analysis a little after reviewing the Nokia N82.

Sony Ericsson K850i observations

I’ve been using my Sony Ericsson K850i for a few days now and it’s a great device all around. In fact it’s almost as powerful as the Nokia N95 which was my convergence device of choice for several months…

That’s pretty impressive, because it’s not a smartphone and it’s not equipped with WiFi or GPS. Then again, these missing features are somewhat alleviated by solid Java support, tri-band (!) HSDPA and an optional GPS module!

– Hardware:
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s smaller than I expected and it’s a fingerprint magnet. Build quality is very good – no surprise there.

Like most digital cameras and unlike most phones, a hinged door hides a battery slot, a memory card slot (which accepts either micro-SD or Memory Stick Micro M2 cards – very nice), and a SIM slot (hot swappable) all stacked next to each-other.

There’s a strip of black rubber along the edge of the hinged door that prevents the phone from sliding when placed keypad/screen up on a flat surface – smart touch.

Unfortunately, there’s no dedicated play/pause hardware key (see the Sony Ericsson W800i) for the media application. Standard USB and stereo headset connectors are also missing, so proprietary cables are required.

– Software:
The user interface is similar to other recent Sony Ericsson devices. It’s easy to navigate, responsive and quite polished (the fonts in particular). All of the supplied themes are appealing, which is rare on other phones.

The media application automatically switches between portrait and landscape when you tilt the device, just like the iPhone. Unfortunately, it takes incredibly long to index the contents of the memory card upon insertion.

The web browser is pretty basic when compared to the iPhone or the Nokia N95. It supports landscape, but it’s done manually. Java applications like Opera Mini and Google Maps Mobile work well, but strangely, Gmail Mobile is not available.

The phone crashed on me a few times when I was hammering the user interface right after power up – I was forced to remove and re-insert the battery in order to recover.

– Camera:
I’ll be reviewing the camera separately, but I’m pretty sure the K850i is one of the best camera phones on the market today. Overall picture quality and low-light performance are excellent, startup time and auto-focus are significantly faster than other phones.

In short, I feel that the Nokia N95 colors are richer, and that the i-mobile 902 sensor is less noisy, but the K850i is consistently good. The combination of both a xenon flash and an LED flash (to assist the auto-focus) can’t be matched by the other two devices.

The electrically activated lens cover is nice, but strangely there’s also a glass plate over the lens cover which easily becomes soiled with fingerprints – this makes the lens cover somewhat pointless.

– HSPDA/Bluetooth:
With quand-band GPRS/EDGE, tri-band UMTS/HSDPA (US 1900/850 MHz and european 2100 MHz), Bluetooth 2.0 (with A2DP and DUN), and USB 2.0 (with mass storage and DUN), what’s there not to like? It’s a great device for tethering…

– Keypad/screen:
The unusual keypad is surprisingly functional after a brief adaptation period (cutting my nails helped a lot).

The phone uses capacitive sensors just like the iPhone, but only at the bottom edge of the screen where the 3 soft keys are located. As a result I keep trying to tap on other parts of the screen, expecting it to react – doh!

The QVGA screen is excellent (it’s very bright but it could be larger).

The phone resets to using T9 predictive text by default when turned off – this is annoying.

– Audio/RF:
Call quality and reception are very good, as expected. Sound quality is excellent when listening to music with high-end headphones, better than the Nokia N95 (which is noisy at low listening volumes).

– Battery life:
Battery life is great, especially when set to GSM only with Bluetooth disabled.

I last charged it Sunday night and it’s still 3/4 full Tuesday afternoon. I turned it off Monday night for 8 hours. So far on this charge I’ve talked for about 2 hours.

I’m pretty impressed – then again, it’s not a smartphone :)

The best camera is the one you have with you

I’m back from Burning Man and still catching up on the latest mobile technology news… This year was my first time in the desert without a dedicated point-and-shoot digital camera – the above pictures were all taken with my Nokia N95!

For me it all started with Sony Ericsson’s W800i – arguably one of the first decent camera phones (and by decent I mean featuring a flash, auto-focus, macro, some manual control, and decent hardware/software). Once I was able to take decent pictures anytime, anywhere and optionally send them via e-mail or multimedia messages, I was hooked :)

Until then I rarely used my (albeit better) dedicated point-and-shoot digital camera. Why? Because the best camera is the one you have with you.

I soon learned to work within the limitations of camera phones (mostly poor low-light performance and slow startup/focus). My next device was Nokia’s N80, but the lack of auto-focus was both a blessing (fast shots) and a curse (less control). I currently use Nokia’s N95 and (more seldom) i-mobile’s 902, both very decent camera phones. My i-mobile 902 is the better camera (CCD sensor and xenon flash), but the phone is only adequate for a Symbian power-user like me.

Ultimately, I think this is a turning point – camera phones are finally decent enough to replace dedicated point-and-shoot digital cameras in most situations. Picture quality is steadily improving (especially low-light performance) – only the lack of optical zoom is still a significant problem at times.


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