Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested

What's the top cameraphone on the market?

Best smartphone cameras

Taller than the handsets surveyed so far, the Android-powered Xperia Z1 is as sleek (at 8.5mm thin) and as monolithic in black as its waterproofed Z predecessor. Like its forebear, though, it feels good in the hand despite the thin-edged design.

The USP this time around, claims Sony, is that its stylish smartphone is delivers the best image quality of all leading handsets. Whip up hype like that, and you'd better have something to back it up.

Fortunately, as mentioned above, the Xperia Z1 incorporates a back-illuminated 20.7 megapixel 1/2.3-inch Exmor R sensor - the same kind and size of chip found in the brand's standalone Cyber-shot digital cameras - making for a considerable hike upwards from the 13MP Xperia Z.

Xperia Z1

Of course, the worry here is that overloading a still reasonably small sensor with pixels can result in visible noise/grain in low light images and shadow detail (even if Sony says it has noise reduction software on board).

There's also a G series lens, a signifier on digital cameras of premium quality, despite the fact that the optic here is a typically tiny smartphone pin-prick. Still it does offer 27mm equivalent wide-angle capability, plus a bright/fast f/2.0 aperture that should in theory aid low-light photography, as does a light sensitivity range topping out at a respectable ISO 3200.

While the Z1 relies on a 2.2 GHZ quad-core CPU and provides up to a 16GB memory, the camera side of things is powered by a Bionz processor - also found in Sony's digicam range.

There's Optical SteadyShot to avoid wobble, plus scene/subject enhancing Superior Auto operation, which helps deliver optimal results even when you're literally just pointing and shooting.

Best smartphone cameras

The 5-inch Full HD 1920 x 1080 display acts as the camera's viewfinder, falling roughly into line with the others here in terms of size and resolution. If you want access to the full 20MP resolution, it's necessary to opt for the narrower 4:3 image ratio: if you shoot in the default 16:9 ratio you end up with cropped 8-megapixel images.

Interestingly it's only if you're shooting in 8 megapixel mode that you can manually select the ISO 3200 setting. If shooting in 20MP mode you're limited to ISO 800, no doubt the result of Sony taking a view to limiting the appearance of image noise/grain.

As expected, the camera part of the handset offers autofocus and a built-in flash, and as on the previous Z model there's a front-facing two-megapixel camera. Travelling types can also now geotag their images via a built-in GPS facility, which can be activated or deactivated as desired.

Positioning

The positioning of the camera on the Z1 has shifted from just off-center on the Z to being fully into one corner: fine if you're shooting in portrait fashion with the camera held upright. But if you want a landscape shot there's a real danger of the forefinger of your left hand obscuring the lens.

Instead of the Samsung's optical zoom, we get the usual image-degrading digital illusion, here of the 8x variety. Zooming in or out is via a physical switch located next to the phone's power button as it was on the Z (taking photos or videos is via a virtual on-screen shutter/record button).

Best smartphone cameras

Fortunately, though, there are many elements carried over from Sony's Cyber-shot compact cameras that are properly useful and worth having.

As on the Xperia Z, we get Sony's Sweep Panorama function that automatically stitches together a sequential shots into one elongated image as the user pans through any given scene. The results are pleasingly successful in terms of seamlessness.

As for other features, as a further point of difference between this and the original Z, Sony has gone a tad gimmicky with the in-camera picture effects here: we have partial color and tinted "nostalgia" options along with fisheye, miniature, sketch and vivid digital effects.

Perhaps the most interesting is the Harris Shutter mode, which takes a sequence of images and overlaps them for an end result that, if viewed through good old green and red 3D specs, almost comes to life.

While for low-light, non-flash shooting it offers a manually selectable range from ISO 100 to ISO 3200 (bettering the Xperia Z's top ISO 1600 setting), the fact remains that the actual lens element of the Xperia Z1 is tiny even compared to a cheap point and shoot digital camera.

Once again, as with the Samsung S4 Zoom, there's a slot for a removable microSD card - always helpful in terms of memory expansion.

Verdict

Curiously we found ourselves taking more pictures with the Xperia Z1 than any of our other handsets examined here - partly because of that fun array of filters to choose from.

Sony makes the majority of the sensors that go into digital cameras and other capture devices, along with the lenses, and it's no surprise therefore that its shots hold detail well across a wide variety of subjects.

While grain is present at ISO 3200, its appearance is subtle enough that one wouldn't notice unless inspecting closely.

Pros: Improved 20 megapixel resolution. Some of the most consistent and detailed images on test. Plentiful and fun digital filter options.

Cons: The lens positioning means stray fingertips can easily find their way into shot. Less comfortable to hold for longer periods when composing shots because of flat edges.

Read our full Sony Xperia Z1 review

Sample images

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Best smartphone cameras

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ISO samples

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