Android camera vs. Android phone: who wins?

Android-based cameras sound like a good idea in theory. But do they offer image quality that's better than from a smartphone?

Lexy Savvides
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
Lexy Savvides
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Form factor and usability

As Android-based cameras start to hit the market, we find out how one model stacks up against the smartphone competition.

Three Android cameras have already been announced this year. Whether branded by Polaroid, Samsung or Nikon, each has a different specification and form factor. The underlying similarity, though, is the operating system. Connectivity has been a huge buzz-word for camera makers this year, and Android is just one of the solutions presented to make shooting and sharing photos much easier.

Does it make sense to buy a dedicated Android camera when smartphone cameras are perfectly good for most purposes? Time to find out.

The contenders in this round are Nikon's Coolpix S800c and the Samsung Galaxy S3. Let's take a closer look at the camera specs:

Nikon Coolpix S800c Samsung Galaxy S3
16-megapixel CMOS sensor 8-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor
3.5-inch OLED touchscreen 4.8-inch super AMOLED touchscreen
10x optical zoom No optical zoom
Wi-Fi, GPS Wi-Fi, GPS, 3G/4G capable
25mm wide-angle lens, f/3.2-5.8 27mm wide-angle lens, f/2.6
Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) 1080/30p video recording 1080/30p video recording 184 grams 133 grams

Apart from the advantages of an optical zoom and, possibly, the higher resolution afforded by the sensor, on paper, there doesn't seem to be much reason to choose the Android camera. So we decided to test both out to determine which was the best all-rounder, from usability to connectivity, as well as simply taking images.

Click through the gallery below for comparisons under a number of different everyday shooting situations. Note that there will be some slight variations in the photos because of the different focal length of the lenses at the wide end, and the higher resolution of the Nikon sensor.

While this isn't a scientific test, it provides a good idea of what to expect from both cameras. All images were taken on automatic settings in the case of the Galaxy S3, or Easy Automatic mode on the S800c.

If you would like to see a comparison between the Galaxy S3's camera and a number of other smartphones, click through here for a comparison gallery.

Despite the Nikon running Android as its OS, it still looks and feels like a camera from the outside. A power button and shutter button sit on the top panel, while the 3.5-inch screen houses most of the other controls. A three button arrangement sits to the side, pretty much the same configuration of menu, home and back buttons you would see on any Android smartphone.

The Galaxy S3, meanwhile, is much slimmer and lighter. It is a little trickier to hold in a traditional landscape camera orientation because of its form factor. Interacting with the camera interface, however, is much easier because of the size of the screen.

On the connectivity front, the Galaxy S3 is already hooked up to a 3G or 4G network, and is ready to share photos almost instantly. With the S800c, you have to create an ad-hoc connection with a smartphone, or wait until you are in Wi-Fi range to upload anything.

In terms of performance, both cameras are reasonably responsive, but the Galaxy S3 edges out the S800c when it comes to shutter lag. The delay between pressing the shutter button (or an icon on the screen in the case of the S3) is negligible on the smartphone, and 0.2 second on the S800c.

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Dynamic range

It's often in situations with stark contrasts between shadow and highlight areas that smaller sensor cameras, like smartphones, tend to fall down. In this comparison though, the Galaxy S3 is holding up particularly well against the larger-sensor compact from Nikon.

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Smartphone cameras often have the tendency to over-saturate colours and make them appear much more punchy than they really are. In this example, the photo from the Nikon looks a tad more washed out, and the detail from the Galaxy S3 has more of a true black to it.

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Exposure and white balance

From this comparison, the Nikon produces a much warmer result under automatic white balance and daylight conditions. While it's pleasing to the eye, the Galaxy S3's shot is a tad more accurate. In terms of exposure, both similarly over-expose the areas of highlight detail quite a lot.

These photos are also interesting for comparing the distortions that occur at the wide-angle of each lens. The Nikon, being wider, naturally shows more distortion at this extreme.

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Lens sharpness

Time for some pixel-peeping. While looking at reduced magnification photos is fine for some purposes, it's at the 100 per cent magnification level where things start to get interesting. This is where you would normally expect the regular camera to run rings around a smartphone.

As you can see, with ample light, the Galaxy S3 actually produces a sharper image when looking at a sample portion from the centre of the frame. While the resolution isn't comparable — after all, the Nikon has twice as many photosites spread over a bigger area than the S3 — the fixed lens (S3) is sharper than the zoom model (S800c).

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Video quality

See below for comparisons of the same scene recorded on each camera. Notice the difference in audio, exposure and stabilisation. This is where the traditional camera configuration really proves its worth.

Samsung Galaxy S3

Nikon Coolpix S800c

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Comparing the two cameras in bright and sunny conditions is one thing, but most photographers still come out after dark, which is why low-light quality is so important. As you can see from this comparison, there really is no competition. The traditional camera outperforms the smartphone by a country mile when it comes to producing a better photo, even though the Nikon's lens is technically slower at its widest point than the S3 — f/3.2 vs. f/2.6.

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The winner

We are somewhat reluctant to choose an outright winner, as both devices serve slightly different needs. However, if you already have one of the flagship smartphones from this year, there is no significant reason why an Android-based camera will provide a better shooting experience.

The Nikon comes out on top for video, low-light and zoom performance. The smartphone provides a more integrated photography experience overall, and has better dynamic range and colour rendition. It also has more shooting modes, such as built-in HDR and creative filters, the screen is bigger and more accurate for using as a touch device, plus, you have the advantage of an always-on data connection to share photos and videos, should you need it.

Also worth noting is the poor battery life on the Android camera. Even when in sleep mode, the S800c sucks down battery like no other camera we've tested this year and requires almost constant recharging.

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