Camera quick draw: Which smartphone is fastest for photos?

Megapixels are nice, but sometimes what matters most in a smartphone camera is how fast you can open the camera app. Six of today's top smartphones are put to the test.

One should not measure a smartphone camera by megapixels alone.

To stand out in a crowded smartphone market, device makers boast about having more megapixels, more filters, more zoom, more sensors. But when your baby is taking his or her first steps, what counts is how fast you can get from pocket to picture.

Google's latest darling, the Motorola Moto X, has a trick for getting to the camera fast: twist your wrist twice and the camera turns on. No swiping icons, typing passwords, or fiddling with power buttons.

Motorola claims you'll "never miss a shot" with its method. But how much faster is its camera wake-up shortcut compared with those of other smartphones?

There was only one way to settle the matter: a smartphone shutter showdown. I pitted today's top smartphones against one another in a series of timed tests. Using a stopwatch to calculate the seconds between sleep mode and the snap, I averaged the time of seven trials for six different phones: Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, Nokia Lumia 1020, iPhone 5, HTC One, BlackBerry Z10, and the Moto X.

To make this a realistic test, I put a password on every phone. Some camera shortcuts skip the password, and some do not.

Of course, testing how fast I can take a photo is not an exact science. There's human error and environmental factors that play a role. You may get a better time than I did after drinking a couple shots of espresso. Regardless, the test reveled clear slow-poke phones in the bunch. Some design and programming factors will trip up the fastest fingers:

Shutter buttons don't always mean shortcut
The Nokia Lumia 1020 and Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom are smartphones that center around camera quality. Each phone has a built-in shutter button, but it doesn't help with speed.

The shutter button on the Lumia 1020 will wake up the phone, yet owners still need to enter in a password before the camera app will open. Slowing things down more is the Galaxy S4 Zoom. Its shutter button will not wake up the phone, so owners will have to hit the power button, enter the password, and then hit the shutter button to open the camera app.

It's not just the Zoom that's slow. Samsung's flagship Galaxy S4 also takes longer to access the camera. It's a programming problem: there's no way to skip the lock-screen password to open the camera app. The ability to add a lock-screen camera shortcut is disabled when a password is enabled.

Not all shortcut icons are created equal
The security-centered BlackBerry Z10 will let users skip a password to snap a picture. But it involves holding down a camera icon for a couple seconds. That eats up a little more time (and patience) than the HTC One and iPhone 5, both of which have a lock-screen camera icon that skips the password with a quick tap and swipe.

With this tactic, the HTC One and iPhone 5 were noticeably faster than the Lumia 1020 or Galaxy S4 Zoom. But to see which phone is the quickest of the bunch, you'll have to watch the video above.

Update - Clarification: The Lumia 1020 is a bit different than other Windows Phone devices. The default setting is to have the dedicated camera button open the special Nokia Pro Cam app, which takes advantage of the 41-megapixel camera. It does require a password to use Nokia's advanced camera application. In settings, the camera button can be changed so it opens the normal Windows camera app, which does not require a password. (But what good is having a special 41-megapixel camera if you don't use Nokia's Pro Cam as the default for the camera button?)

 

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