Monday, March 4, 2013

HTC One UltraPixel camera review

The new HTC One, has a lot going for it - a fantastic design, an ultra crisp 1080p display and crazy fast specs. But when HTC announced their new flagship in London two weeks ago, they also surprised the tech world by announcing that the One would feature a 4 megapixel camera sensor. Now, 4 megapixel might not sound a lot, but I have always been an advocate of scaling back megapixel for raw quality for smartphones and digital compacts where it is just physically impossible to cram a large sensor. (Many thanks to the good people at Three UK for loaning the HTC One)

In an age where the megapixel myth is more popular than ever, it took a lot of guts for HTC's designers and management to have actually decided on this, and I admire them for it. From a marketing perspective, this new strategy could easily backfire. But in a post PC smartphone world, where the majority of images are shared and viewed on smartphones via social sharing networks like Instagram, Flickr and Facebook, this renewed emphasis on less resolution in exchange of higher quality images makes total sense.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a HTC One running on a pre-release firmware (version 1.26.401.6). I have been told that the firmware that is due to be released with the retail HTC One will feature a few camera tweaks. I will update this review accordingly when the new firmware is released.
The sensor, which HTC calls the UltraPixel, is a backside illuminated (BSI) sensor measuring 1/3" in size - the same size as most typical sensors found in slim smartphones. But that is where its similarities ends. Because the sensor only packs 4 megapixels of data, HTC was able to increase the pixel size to 4 µm2, roughly less than half found on a SLR's sensor but almost double the normal pixel size found on other smartphones and some leading digital compacts like the Canon S110 and Fujifilm X10. This is a fair upgrade, as HTC's own previous One X has a camera sensor with a pixel size of 2 µm2. The same goes for the Lumia 920. HTC's strategy in having a physically larger pixel is in contrast to Nokia's preference to using multiple sensor pixels to create a single final pixel, in their PureView product.

From a physical point of view, it was the only way to get a reasonable quality imaging module into a slim phone, such is HTC's obsession with thinness. Unflattering reports of Sony Xperia Z's low light performance may also have vindicated HTC somewhat. Whether or not the public would buy into this remains to be seen, and it will take massive amount of effort and marketing to educate a public who has already been conditioned to believe in big numbers.
HTC has also fitted a standard five elements 4mm (28mm in 35mm equivalent) f/2.0 lens with optical image stablisation (OIS) to boot. Combined with the new sensor, on paper the HTC One should be capable of delivering some neat low-light photography. A single but powerful LED flash sits on the side.

If there is one thing the you can count on the HTC One, is its gorgeous 1080p display is so darn beautiful, that, like a Vogue Photoshop editor, it would mask every imperfection and flaw the camera has. After all, with 468 pixels per inch density, camera noise wouldn't be as apparent on a sharp 4.7" display than it would be when viewed on a large display.

With plenty of natural lighting available, the HTC One's camera captures a great amount of detail, but so did the One X's. I have no issue with the One's performance when it came to daytime photography - in fact it exceeded my expectations, proving that even with only 4 megapixel at its disposal, you can still eke every possible detail out of the little sensor. Sadly it appears there is a bug with either the hardware or software, where part of the bottom half of an image would appear blurred. This might be a post-processing issue, and if it is, I hope HTC releases a fix for it soon. If previous firmware updates for the One X and 8X were of any indication, I have no doubt that HTC will issue a fix quickly.
The sensor is a 16:9 variety, meaning to get the full resolution, you will have to leave it at its default 16:9 wide mode. In the past, camera sensors have an aspect ratio of 4:3, so you will have to switch to 4:3 to gain its full potential. I made the mistake initially of thinking that is the case with the HTC One and switched to 4:3 manually, effectively cropping the sensor. Now this is a huge annoyance, as I prefer to shoot in 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio as I find 16:9 to be too wide (or narrow) for many shots, particularly portraits. So if you are a 4:3 shooter like me, HTC One is only capable of delivering 3.1 megapixel images, just barely higher than the resolution of the display itself.

When it comes to low light photography, the One excels when put against the iPhone 4S and HTC 8X. Details are sparse, and noise a plenty, but the results are still usable. The OIS is partially effective at reducing blur up to a certain degree, so unless you brace yourself or shoot with a tripod, expect some blurring. On the upside, the One's sensor is capable of shooting up to an ISO rating of 1600. The results aren't horrible, but with a large pixel size, I expected better. In fact I expected it to blow the Lumia 920 away. Still, with HDR mode on, and with very steady hands or a portable tripod, the One is possible of taking some lovely night photography. You will just need to invest in some additional accessories first. Unfortunately, there is no full manual mode, nor any form of aperture or shutter priority modes.

The camera app offers quick access to image capture as well as video capture (up to 720p60 or 1080p30 with continuous autofocus). You do not have to manually switch between the two before capturing - simply press the right shutter button and it will start capturing in whichever mode it was selected for. Filter effects such as distortion, vignetting and fake tilt shift is also applied in real time, shown on the viewfinder at all times so you can carefully plan your pictures around those effects.
Speaking of video, the HTC One can capture videos in 1080p in three modes: slow motion, 720p60 and standard 1080p30 HDR.  The slow motion mode baffles me as it doesn't actually capture in high speed and then play back in slow mode, it actually simply capture a couple of frames per second, and then play back in normal mode. HDR mode doesn't look too different to normal mode. Whichever of the two usable mode you use, the One, like the One X, would sometimes defocus before refocusing. This is evident in the sample videos below. In each cases, the process happens quickly, but it is still annoying to see it. Sadly, OIS does not appear to have much of an impact in countering camera shakes.

Three icons resides on the left side: the flash toggle, HTC Zoe mode (I will come to this later) and settings. The settings allows you access to options, through a very long list, for image cropping, HDR and panorama mode, ISO, white balance, face detection, geo tagging, continuous shooting and other assortment. If you think having to scroll down a huge list of options does not sound particularly intuitive, you are right. This is made worse as there are sub-menus to navigate through as well.
Deep inside the Gallery is an editing mode called Sequence. This mode allows you to edit a Zoe to create a multi-exposure shot. Any camera shooter will tell you how cumbersome it is to create mult-exposure action shots, so the fact that HTC has somehow engineered an easy way to do so, is to be applauded. Here, you will also find the object removal mode. Ever found it annoying when capturing a picture and a stray object enters the background and ruins your photo? Well with the object removal option, you can 'erase' objects easily.

Panorama mode is just as you imagined it. Sweep either left or right steadily, and the One will do the capturing automatically, taking a series of pictures as you pan the camera. HTC's proprietary ImageSense chip works its magic here, processing and stitched captured images in real time. Results are surprisingly good, with the only setback being when the camera pans from an area with different lighting condition, exposing the limitation of the sensor's dynamic range limitations.
The One also struggles to focus at time, though this isn't nearly as bad as the Lumia 920 was on its initial release. This is especially true when it comes to macro photography, with the camera insisting at times to focus on the background, despite prodding the screen to manually focus. Unsurprisingly, the One suffers from narrow dynamic range, but this was expected from the get go. Even expensive DSLR suffers from it, so it wouldn't be a surprise that a tiny 1/3" sensor would suffer from poor dynamic range. The HDR mode is also a bit of a hit and miss, creating images that a tad more overexposed than it should. Having said that, images are still a bit more natural than the old HDR mode as seen on the One X.

But if there is one thing the One almost get things perfect, it is the auto mode. Every image I have included here are set on 'Auto' mode, and the colour accuracy is as accurate as you can get to real life (at least when viewed from my laptop's display - after all not all displays are created equally). With the exception of poor dynamic range and hit and miss HDR mode, the white balance is spot on. The only thing HTC needs to fix now is the metering.
With the HTC One, HTC also introduced a new social sharing network called Zoe Share. The aforementioned Zoe Mode is available right on the camera's viewfinder and, when engaged, will capture up to 20 continuous 4MP images and a 3 second video. These images and video is then mixed together, and uploaded to online to Zoe Share. It's effectively a new way of capturing memories, by splicing together a mixture of stills and video to create a short video preview to your life, like a less sophisticated Vine.

These images can also be used to create sequences, basically a multi-exposure image.  Any camera shooter will tell you how cumbersome it is to create mult-exposure action shots, so the fact that HTC has somehow engineered an easy way to do so, is to be applauded. Zoe is rather a neat idea, and the execution is smooth but I can't imagine it taking off. The fact that 'Zoe'es is proprietary confines it immediately within the ultra niche. This is made worse by the fact that HTC One is the only product that supports it.

And as impressive as the low light performance of the new HTC One is, I found that its day light performance to be equal to that of other modern slim smartphones like the HTC 8X and Galaxy S III, though it falls short of the N8 and PureView 808. In fact, for those who prefer to shoot in daylight, the 4MP resolution might prove to be a limitation, particularly if you have to crop. So whether or not HTC made the right choice to go with a 4MP sensor will depend on whether you believe a trade off in resolution for a decent low light camera is worth it, and the kind of pictures you will be shooting. If you are into low light mobile photography, the sensor here picks up more light than the iPhone 4S.

As a smartphone, the HTC One is brilliant. As a camera, it takes a step forward, and another back. Thanks to the hype that HTC themselves help create, one would expect a smartphone camera that is as revolutionary as the Nokia 808 PureView was, just one designed for super slim smartphones instead of fat cameras with phone functionality attached. Is it worthy of the hype? No. Will it replace your dedicated camera? No. But that isn't the point of the One. As a phone that you will always carry with you, the One is capable of 90% of your photography needs.

Despite my initial reservations, more than 1200 pictures later, I believe HTC made the right choice here. Even if the execution isn't perfect, HTC has gotten people into talking about the megapixel myth again, and how it is okay not to chase big numbers.

And that is a good thing.

If you have any questions regarding the HTC One, feel free to ask via the comments below, or on twitter.

Resized but otherwise unmolested samples:

Full res samples are available via my Dropbox.

Note: This review is based on a HTC One running on a pre-release firmware (version 1.26.401.6). 

Update: More samples here.


Anonymous said...

Great review! I can't wait to upgrade from the One X to One!

Anonymous said...

Jon, one question. Is The camera of htc one better than the Lumia 920? Thank you

Jon Choo said...

I can't directly compare but looking at my Lumia 920 pictures, the 920 appears to have a slight edge in noise and detail when it came to low light. That was on a buggy pre-Portico firmware.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review Jon! I generally do not carry my camera anywhere I go and rely n my iphone 4. Lately with better cameras, I prefer my friends clicking from their phones but we still do not carry a camera. Is the Htc One capable of leaving behind there other phones! I wish to be the one clicking pictures again :)

Anonymous said...

Thank´s for a nice review! Can you say anything about which version of the firmware the phone was running? Beta/pre-prod och release fw?

Also interesting that you noted the blurring problem in the lower part. Saw the same in some pics posted by a polish blogger last week.

Anonymous said...

howz the battery life??

Jon Choo said...

FW is version 1.26.401.6, which arrived on phone on Friday.

I did not find the One to be a huge leap forwards, perhaps for slim phones and low light, but in general photography, its raw quality is still behind the N8. I think you will find its day time performance to be indistinguishable to the SGS3, iPhone 5 etc.

But I think modern smartphone cameras are now good enough for everyday use. I am finding myself more comfortable with the idea of just carrying the HTC One minus a dedicated camera, except on specific photog trips or holidays.

I am still testing the battery life, but here's an example. On my first day, I shot 300+ pictures, some HD videos, being on 3G the entire time, occasional Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Foursquare etc., the battery finally gave up after about 9 hours 30 mins. I think it's pretty good!

Anonymous said...

In all fairness i don't know how you can say that the HTC One day time performance is indistinguishable to iPhone 5. Iphone 5 images are far sharper and more detailed than any of the ones posted. And as for low light, as the saying goes "there's an app for that" and again, low light easily equals HTC One, and in video using the amazing Luma stabilised video app is surpasses the One.

I've submitted to magazines (and had published) quite a few photos taken with an iPhone 5 and there's no way i could have done the same with this phone from what i've seen so far. Id also be worried about printing pictures.

I think the One is aimed at people taking low res low-light snaps to post to facebook, etc. I don't see how you could get decent prints from it which is the one thing putting me off buying it which is a shame because it looks amazing apart from the camera.

Jon Choo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Good review Jon.

Many reviewers would go deep into technical details talking about aperture and chromatic whatever but I like how this review is written for the average people. That's how I read it.

Judging by Jon's beautiful pictures of London, it's clear the review was written from the perspective of a photographer and not a mobile nerd.

Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks for that.

Can you say anything about camera speed in comparison to 920 or others?

Time to open camera app?
Time to first shot?
Focus times?

Shot to shot should be unbeaten because of 8 fullres pics/sec.

Thanks in advance!

Jon Choo said...

Yes, only if you are a pixel peeper.

And definitely, the iPhone 5 has more detail, it has a 8MP sensor. But the details are still good for a 4MP sensor, and from the looks of it the performance are on par.

As for low light, I have the 4S and tested it alongside, and it pales in comparison. I also never said it surpasses the Lumia 920 in low light video - in fact I pointed how shaky it was. There's no need to get defensive here.

Re: print, I've never said it would be good enough to print. 4MP would too low, unless you are printing postcard size pictures, in which case its more than enough.

In fact, I've already hypothesize the reason why HTC went with a low MP count sensor in my review - most people don't print any longer. Majority of images are now viewed and shared on smartphones and social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

Original comment deleted for grammar. Urgh, Blogger, please give us edit mode.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, what's the viewing angle like? I returned the Xperia Z because of the poor viewing angle.

Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks for that.

Can you say anything about camera speed in comparison to 920 or others?

Time to open camera app?
Time to first shot?
Focus times?

Shot to shot should be unbeaten because of 8 fullres pics/sec.

Thanks in advance!

Jon Choo said...

You won't have to worry a thing about viewing angles. It's great from whichever angle, almost like an IPS display. The Z's display is nice but only when viewing straight down.

Re: time to open, focus and shoot..., well it's way too quick to actually time! I do say that focusing is as quick as simply tapping the area you want to focus, and then pressing the virtual shutter.

I estimate it takes a total of 2-3 seconds from the homescreen to entering camera app, to focus and to capture.

It's hell a lot quicker than the Lumia 920.

Anonymous said...

"It's hell a lot quicker than the Lumia 920."

Awesome!! thanks for the info!

Paul said...

Very nice pictures of London, Jon. And the review too. Once lived in London myself and I do not remember it being this beautiful!

harnahud said...


thanks for this review!
I'm a french photographer and i often use my smartphone to fix nice instants when i walk in the street...
Yes, a smartphone is not a DSLR but it's important to me to have an another option in my pocket when DSLR is at home...
You can look on my tumblr ( ), it's a mix of smartphone and DSLR pics and sometimes you will not make the difference on a computer or smartphone display...
I downloaded two full size pics (good with resolution but compressed at 1Mo..)on your dropbox and i used snapseed with iphone to crop and make some improve with sharpness,white balance....
For me, with little software improvement(or definitive firmware version), HTC one is good enough to catch good moment!
A good or a bad camera exist but the most important is the photographer behind camera...
Low light is difficult with a good DSLR too!!!

For me it will maybe a good choice, i know it will be hard to crop with 4MP but this phone is attractive in many points!

Thank you for your long review, it's great!

Anonymous said...

I think the photos look great! Too me it's the overall features of this phone that make it a very attractive buy and certainly the camera seems to fit my needs.

harnahud - Those are some really great pictures!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thank you for the excellent review. I just tested the One yesterday in an o2 shop and was able to hold it side by side with my One X, which had already a good camera for me, and it confirms what I've seen already on the internet. The colors on a photo look a lot more natural then with most other smartphones, even with the Lumia 920. And as I remember HTC last year had much improvement of the camera after the first bigger update, so maybe there will be improvements this time as well:)


Jon Choo said...

Thanks for the feedback and comments. :)

harnahud - Wow, I love your pictures! Shows a different part of Paris I've never seen before.

Unknown said...

imho it's paid review

Jon Choo said...

Hi Sam Pavloff

That is a pretty serious and libelous accusation.

May I ask why you would levy such an accusation? And can you back it up?

Anonymous said...

I have a couple of questions.

1. Are you able to determine the "Bit Depth" of the Sensor in HDR Mode, is it 16 Bits ? HTC claims a Dynamic Range of 91.7 dB so I wonder how that would fit in fewer than 16 Bits.

2. Can you use ffmpeg to read the Zoes?

I have a 3D Video Camera and I thought that the Videos were proprietary but I found I could split them into two regular Streams by using ffmpeg's parameters:
-map 0:0 -map 0:1 -vcodec copy Video__L.AVI -map 0:2 -map 0:1 -vcodec copy Video__R.AVI

Thanks for any answers you can provide. I understand you sent the Phone back, but you should still be able to get the answers from the Images/Videos you kept.

Jon Choo said...

EXIF reports a bit depth of 24
Compressed bits/pixels: 2.2

The Zoe Video is a typical mp4 file.

You can see another of my Zoeshare here:

Anonymous said...

is it possible to switch the rear camera to the front camera to take photos?

Yahya from Dubai said...

Dear Jon,
This is the best and most appropriate review of the HTC one camera I have read on the internet.
Though the phone is excellent in all ways,I am reluctant to purchase HTC one over Samsung Galaxy S4,just for the sake of camera.
Can you please give me your expert advise and help me make the right choice.Thank You.
Yahya from Dubai

EVo said...

Great review. Thanks!

jonchoo said...

Thanks Yahya,

Unfortunately without testing out the S4 I can't give a definitive answer to your question. While the S4 does look good on paper, the design hasn't wow'ed me much. Having said that, if the design isn't that important, it sounds like it will be yet another win by Samsung.

Anonymous said...

thanks for share..