Darren Yates gets snap-happy testing to see if smartphones have consigned digital compact cameras to history.
A few years ago, you might have been lucky and had a digital camera in your pocket to pull out and grab those once-in-a-lifetime moments – if you remembered to take it with you. These days, everyone just whips out their smartphones and starts snapping away. I keep telling people you have to think of smartphones as portable computers and in terms of features, they either have or are about to knock a range of devices out of the market from MP3 players to GPS devices. And you have to wonder whether digital compact cameras are next. These cameras are being squeezed by smartphones on one side and ever-decreasing prices for digital SLR cameras on the other. While it's highly doubtful that a compact camera will ever match a digital SLR model for image quality, it's worth asking the question have digital compact cameras met their match in smartphones. So we decided to test it out, comparing two brand-new digital still cameras – Panasonic's $449 Lumix DMC-TZ30 and Canon's $399 Digital IXUS 500 HS - against Samsung's $598-unlocked Galaxy SII smartphone.
The one area where digital compact cameras have really leapt ahead in recent times has been video capture. Gone are the days of small video frame sizes, no optical zoom and no image stabilisation during video capture. Both of the compact cameras we tested feature full HD (1920x1080-pixel or “1080p”) capture with optical image stabilisation removing hand wobbles and full optical zoom during video capture. The Panasonic captured its video in AVCHD format, which is very similar to Blu-ray movies in its layout, but it also offers progressive-scan capture, a technique that results in smooth, clean video on big-screen TVs. The Canon stores its movies as straight MOV files and although it uses the same highly-efficient H.264 video compression as the Panasonic, its quality isn't quite as good, particularly with horizontal panning shots. It also captures CD-style WAV audio rather than more efficient AAC or Dolby AC3 format.
Not to be outdone, smartphones capture video too. However, capturing 1080p video requires at least a dual-core processor and they're still rare in smartphones, making the Galaxy SII even more noteworthy. Typical phones with a 1GHz single-core processor will only capture 720p (1280x720-pixel) video at best. The Galaxy SII uses H.264 video compression for its 1080p video capture but without optical zoom and image stabilisation, it's not quite as versatile as the compact cameras. However, provided you can hold it steady, the SII's video quality is noticeably smoother than the IXUS 500 HS, particularly on horizontal panning shots, but the SII's auto-focus tends to “hunt” more and seems slower to react to changes in object distance.
It still seems to be in our collective buying consciousness that lots of megapixels equals better photos. News of Nokia's new 41-megapixel (41MP) PureView 808 smartphone certainly suggests that. But far more important is the quality of the lens – you can have as many megapixels as you want but if the lens is rubbish, the photos will still look awful. Most of us only print photos at the standard 6x4-inch size and for that, you really only need 3MP images. Even the cheap $149-prepaid HTC Wildfire S smartphone can snap off 5MP photos while the Galaxy SII has an 8MP image sensor.
But again, without optical zoom or image stabilisation, it takes more work to grab high-quality snaps with a smartphone. The new Lumix TZ30 captures 14MP images through a 20X-optical zoom lens with optical image stabilisation, the IXUS 500HS is just a bit behind, capturing 10MP images through a 12X-optical optically-stabilised zoom lens but it's also smaller too.
Another factor that makes a difference is the physical size of the lens – the larger the lens, the more light hits that image sensor. It's one more reason why digital SLR cameras take better quality pictures again. Even so, the SII again gives the IXUS 500 HS plenty to think about and it's only the image stabilisation and optical zoom that keeps the 500 HS just marginally ahead.
And in the end, that's how compact cameras are staving off defeat at the hands of smartphones – by offering higher-end features and in many cases, they look headed for a demarcation dispute with dedicated video cameras. At the moment, the new Lumix DMC-TZ30 looks to be the compact camera to beat and it'll be some time before you see a smartphone match it. On the other hand, Canon's IXUS 500 HS isn't quite in the same league and if you had a Galaxy SII, it's only the 500 HS' optical zoom and image stabilisation you'd miss.
Of course, the one drawback for having your smartphone do everything is battery life – it's well known that few things suck the life out of a smartphone battery like using the GPS and capturing 1080p video wouldn't be too far behind.
But in the end, it's pretty hard to escape the convenience of being able to rattle off pics and video clips with your smartphone – just don't expect your smartphone to match a good compact digital camera, unless you're carrying something like a Galaxy SII or better.