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Newest smart-phone cameras aren't always the best

Newest smart-phone cameras aren’t always the best

Along with display quality and battery life, camera performance seems to be what smart-phone makers crow about most when touting improvements from the previous generation. Indeed, along with higher numbers of megapixels for improved resolution, it’s a safe bet that the next version of any phone will have refined controls for accessing important camera functions, along with new options for fixing mistakes or preventing them from happening. But many of those enhancements, though welcomed, do little to improve image quality. Case in point: The Samsung Galaxy S 5.

Spec-wise, the Samsung Galaxy S 5’s 15.9-megapixel camera has a clear edge on the 12.8-megapixel camera of the Galaxy S 4. And in many ways it is better. It snaps photos—including those in HDR mode—noticeably faster than the S 4 does, images are sharper, and low-light performance is better.

The camera controls are smarter, too. For example, in Shoot & More mode, you can take several special-effect shots simultaneously and later decide which ones you’ll want to use. And, the Galaxy S 5 is one of the few phones that can shoot Ultra HD videos.

Do your homework before shopping with our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

But overall, the still-image performance of the S 5’s camera was actually slightly worse than that of the S 4’s camera in two ways. In bright or normal light, some colors were more saturated and, therefore, less accurate. Also, image resolution deteriorated more noticeably along the corners.

One reason for that phenomenon may have to do with the shape of the S 5 camera’s image sensor, which has a wider, 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the more-square, 4.3 aspect ratio of the sensor on the S 4. The 16:9 aspect ratio, which is an advantage for shooting wide-screen videos, may mean the image fed from the camera’s round lens may get more distorted along the corners, since they’re farther from the center.

Bottom line

You shouldn’t choose an S 4 over an S 5 for these slight still-camera advantages—especially since they’re hard to detect without test equipment and the trained eye of a professional. And it’s also possible that some or all of these quality quibbles will eventually be addressed with software updates. But if you do buy a still-available and still-great S 4 smart phone to save a few bucks, it will be heartening to know that it has some advantages over the newer, more expensive model.

—Mike Gikas

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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