Best smartphone cameras

We've reviewed the 4 megapixel - or UltraPixel - HTC One as a standalone camera previously - or thought we had.

Somewhat confusingly for the non-smartphone specialist it transpires there are different versions of the device doing the rounds, including a Google Play edition - so there's more than one, um, One.

It's the standard retail edition we're taking a look at here. While all the core camera specifications (pixel count, lens aperture and so on) are shared between the One's various incarnations, the user interface (which we'll come to in a couple of paragraphs), differs.

Like the LG G2, the HTC One has a gently curved backplate rather than a completely flat design, the metal finish to our review sample more obviously iPhone-like than the LG. The screen is marginally shorter at its longer edge - 4.7-inches - while the handset is narrower.

Its main camera element is also located dead-center near the top of the handset, when held vertically, giving it a pleasingly symmetrical look. But by being further away from the edge of the phone than its LG rival, we found it easier to avoid fingertips straying in front of the lens in the process of gripping the One.

Best smartphone cameras

Once you've set the phone up the familiar camera icon is immediately visible bottom right of screen as part of a clean looking toolbar running along the bottom.

Drag this icon upwards to select it and the camera mode bursts into life, displaying the image before our lens in full screen width - there's only the ability to capture shots in widescreen ratio on the HTC One, no alternative 4:3, 3:2 or 1:1 ratio options - the camera's AF automatically and visibly adjusting focus and exposure as you pan with the handset around the room or scene.

HTC One

The user interface here appears pretty simplistic and operation is all the better for that fact. You get camera mode and video mode icons side by side, bottom center of screen.

Pre-captured images are displayed as stacked thumbnails to the right of these two 'buttons', while a comprehensive, 16-strong array of built-in digital filters can be selected to the left.

Included here are the usual vivid colour or black and white or sepia options, along with a fish eye effect, film negative and toy camera looks. Rather than a virtual shutter release button being provided, you simply tap the camera icon to take a shot or the video one to begin recording. It's that intuitive.

Just above this quartet of virtual buttons is an on-screen slider for controlling the digital zoom. Run a finger across to enable the smartphone to ape 'zooming' in or out, the response to your finger swipe pretty much in real time.

At the top of the screen if holding the HTC One upright in portrait fashion, or on the left if turning it on its side to shoot landscape ratio, are a means of selecting flash modes - either auto flash, flash off or flash on - activate HTC's 'Zoe' mode - plus, to the far left (or very bottom) a welcome shooting menu.

Here you get a series of straightforward still image capture choices: normal scene recognising auto mode (the default setting), a night shooting mode plus HDR and sweep panorama mode. Video capture options enable us to select from slow motion, fast HD at 60 frames per second or Video HDR mode at Full HD (1920x1080 pixels) resolution.

Impressively, further image adjustments can be made using a row of +/- 2EV sliders for exposure, contrast, colour saturation and sharpness, which is more than most handsets offer.

Face detection, smile capture and the ability to geotag images with location data can also be activated at will from the same menu.

Best smartphone cameras

User-selectable ISO settings for low-light photography run from a standard ISO100 to ISO1600. Like its predecessor in the HTC One X the One features a bright/fast aperture lens at f/2, with the lens itself offering a 28mm wide focal length. The bright f/2 lens serves the HTC One well when shooting indoors using natural light.

If there's a USP to the HTC One, it's that it fudges the issue of pixel count, defying the usual convention that suggests more is… well, more when it comes to image quality. HTC refers to the resolution of the HTC's core/main camera in accompanying literature as UltraPixel - a term that sounds zeitgeist-y but is basically meaningless.

At first then this seems like an attempt to cover up an otherwise modest-sounding four megapixel camera. But in the world of dedicated cameras, pixel count isn't everything of course: sensor size also has a role to play, and here it's a larger-than-most 1/3-inch which results in improved low-light snaps.

There's a front-facing camera too, offering a 2.1 megapixel resolution, as opposed to the previous X model's 1.3MP. Other features that will flick on a lightbulb in the head of photo enthusiasts are a back side illuminated sensor, HDR facility for video as well as stills, plus optical image stabilisation to avoid hand wobble resulting in blurred shots.

A newish gimmick on this model is what's often, on digital compact cameras at least, referred to as "motion snapshot." Here it's given the less immediately obvious moniker of HTC Zoe.

Press the shutter and the HTC One automatically captures up to 20 photos plus three-second duration video, leading its manufacturer to claim to produce a picture that's "alive," or at least one that tells the story more fully by mixing media.

These video highlights are a neat addition, although not strictly part of a photography test - if you're more interested in capturing memories than beautiful scenes, the highlights option is an excellent choice.

A further plus is that the HTC's screen is much brighter and clearer than many dedicated digital cameras on the market. It really picks up fine detail, which is a bonus, as is the fact that the image before the lens fills the whole screen in widescreen format, meaning it feels best suited to group portraits or landscape shots.

Fun factor

Aside from offering 16 digital effects that are automatically applied to shots at the point of capture, there's an almost as comprehensive 13-strong array that can be applied when playing back images, including the no-brainer "auto enhance" option.

Upping the fun factor further, there's a range of frames that can be added to the image, such as a distressed edge grunge effect, or a montage of Polaroid style snaps. A certain amount of editing (such as cropping, straightening or rotating) can also be performed within the handset itself.

More impressively still there is a wide array of image retouching options offered, such as the ability to smooth skin or enhance the eyes in portraits; the sort of effects that once required a dedicated software package to achieve.

Again when viewed at 100% on a desktop, subject outlines begin to appear pixellated, and colors are a little less saturated than they appear to the naked eye at the point of capture.

Daylight images would benefit from a tad more brightness and contrast, and an interior still life shot could use an application of one of the HTC's built-in filters.

Verdict

An application of the HDR option helps to pull detail from what would otherwise be blown out highlights in an image, while maintaining details in shadow areas, so is a feature worth having.

A slightly de-saturated look to images straight out of the phone does mean that skin tones look a little more subtle too.

While low light performance is enhanced through the addition the additional Ultrapixel technology, in short it is a fairly mixed bag in terms of the HTC's image quality when used across an expanded range of subjects.

Pros: The coolly curved shape and design of the phone means it feels comfortable in the palm, and screen resolution is razor sharp, so images displayed look fantastic. Larger pixels also mean better low light performance and improved dynamic range.

Cons: Despite the sensor surface area and UltraPixel claims, a four megapixel camera feels distinctly underpowered in today's multi-megapixel handset market. Limited to 16:9 ratio shots at full resolution, and the mainstream version lacks a microSD card slot.

Read our full HTC One review

Sample images

Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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