Cameras compared: Sony Xperia Z1 vs. flagship smartphones & a digital camera

The Sony Xperia Z1 sports a very large sensor and a very large megapixel count for a smartphone camera, but does that really set it above the competition?

Cameras compared: Sony Xperia Z1 vs. flagship smartphones & a digital camera

The Xperia Z1 is a big wave maker from Sony, for not only being as thin as it is, but also for packing in a serious camera. It has a sensor that can capture images of up to 20 megapixels, but the real novelty lies in the size of the sensor. Unlike most other camera-phones that use a miniscule sensor on the inside, the Sony Xperia Z1 packs a large 1/2.3-inch slab of silicon. In case you’re wondering what that means, this is the same sensor found in a majority of the point and shoot cameras in the market today. Sony has also pulled the lens from their commercial point and shoot cameras and slapped it onto the Z1. The lens on the Xperia Z1 is a Sony G lens with a bright aperture of f/2.0. Pair that up with the large sensor, and we’re looking at what could be the best camera in the market at the moment. But really, is it? We put the camera on the Z1 to the test, comparing it to the iPhone 5, Nokia Lumia 920, HTC One and even the Pentax X5, a regular point-and-shoot camera.

The Shooting Experience:
Using the camera on the Xperia Z1 is incredibly straight-forward. You can either start the camera through the on-screen buttons or by long pressing the physical shutter button placed on the right side of the phone. Just a little disclaimer though, the shutter button feels slightly flimsy, so we recommend going easy on it.

The UI on the camera screen gives you three buttons on top, from where you can select the settings for the camera and you can choose which mode you want to shoot in. Now interestingly, the camera comes with several shooting modes, but the two main ones are Superior Auto and Manual. The Superior Auto mode will be the most commonly used mode for sure, but there is one serious drawback to it. This mode locks the aspect ratio to 16:9 and the maximum image resolution to 8 megapixels. We looked everywhere for an option to change the resolution back to 20 megapixels, but to no luck. The only way to get maximum resolution out of the Xperia Z1 is by switching the shooting mode to Manual, something many users might not be comfortable with.

The manual mode in of itself is sort of a misnomer, seeing how the camera won’t actually let you set the aperture or shutter-speed. All you can play around with are the white balance settings, the exposure compensation (the common man’s aperture/shutter-speed adjustment) and the ISO. The camera (regardless of the mode) will allow you to tap to select a focus point and also allow you to tap to shoot. The two things are separate and we are glad Sony has given the option to select either one or both.

The Combined, Collective, Comparative Observation
We compared the Z1 with the existing phones in the market that are known especially for their cameras, that is, the iPhone 5, the Nokia Lumia 920 and the HTC One. For good measure, we even threw in a Pentax X5 point and shoot with a 1/2.3 inch sensor. The results were rather interesting, to say the least. We shot all the cameras on their default settings, but the Z1, we shot in both superior auto and manual modes, just to be able to get images in full resolution. When comparing the images, the first thing apparent was that the Xperia Z1 has a cool white balance bias. What does that mean? It means that the photos will tend to be slightly blue-toned.

We also noticed that the edges on the photos from the Xperia Z1 tend to be somewhat soft, but that’s only noticeable when viewed at 100%. This edge softness issue did exist with the other cameras as well, so it’s not really a point deducted from the Xperia.

The Sony Xperia Z1, when shooting images at 8 megapixels (Superior Auto mode) tends to capture far less detail and has lesser overall image quality when compared to the 20 megapixel counterpart. If you’re thinking this is due to the resolution, let us assure you that it is not. We fear that what the camera is doing is capturing the image at a full 20 megapixel and then down-sampling it to 8, and in the process, the conversion algorithm is just killing most of the detail. You can see all the images at the end of this post.

In comparison, the Xperia Z1 fared much better than the HTC One for sure, but often found tough competition from the iPhone 5. In the image of the flower, the iPhone and the Lumia 920 managed to retain GOOD detail in both the flower and the leaves, while the Xperia Z1 lost the detail in the shadow areas. This, honestly is mostly nit-picking, but if you’re a stickler for detail, then it might be important. The contrast on the Xperia Z1 is fairly good, which is not surprising given the big sensor on the Z1.

When looking at the low light shooting scenarios, the Lumia 920 stands way above the competition, and while the iPhone 5 does a pretty good job too, but the Z1 definitely gave it a tough fight for second place. We feel that Sony could have improved the low light shooting abilities had they paired the big sensor with a slightly smaller pixel count. The reason for this is that better low light performance comes from a larger pixel pitch (size of individual pixels), and not just a large sensor. Large sensors tend to have larger pixel pitches, but mostly because they are lower in megapixel count. The Xperia Z1 does increase the sensor size, but also seriously increases the pixel count, bringing the pixel pitch to about the same as those found in a regular cell-phone camera. We also felt that the noise reduction algorithms were a little too aggressive, botching out details.

Conclusion
The Xperia Z1 packs a considerably large sensor for a cellphone camera (physically), but when you factor physics into the equation, the perks of a large sensor do take a hit. It is still an incredibly good camera for a phone, being just slightly edged out by the Nokia Lumia 920 and the iPhone 5. The camera does match and in many ways surpasses the performance of even a point and shoot camera.

While the images from the Xperia Z1 are actually quite impressive, Sony has made some rather perplexing choices with regards to the options they’ve implemented on the phone. The inability to shoot at full 20 megapixel resolution in the Smart Auto mode is incredibly frustrating and the manual mode really isn’t much of a manual mode. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the camera on the Z1 is top tier for sure.

You can view all the test shots below:





Images shot with the Sony Xperia Z1(click on images to enlarge in new window)





Images shot with the HTC One (click on images to enlarge in new window)




Images shot with the iPhone 5 (click on images to enlarge in new window)




Images shot with the Nokia Lumia 920 (click on images to enlarge in new window)




Images shot with the Pentax X5 Super-Zoom digital camera(click on images to enlarge in new window)
 



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