In an age where the megapixel myth is more popular than ever, it took a lot of guts for HTC's designers and management to have actually decided on this, and I admire them for it. From a marketing perspective, this new strategy could easily backfire. But in a post PC smartphone world, where the majority of images are shared and viewed on smartphones via social sharing networks like Instagram, Flickr and Facebook, this renewed emphasis on less resolution in exchange of higher quality images makes total sense.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a HTC One running on a pre-release firmware (version 1.26.401.6). I have been told that the firmware that is due to be released with the retail HTC One will feature a few camera tweaks. I will update this review accordingly when the new firmware is released.
Lumia 920. HTC's strategy in having a physically larger pixel is in contrast to Nokia's preference to using multiple sensor pixels to create a single final pixel, in their PureView product.
From a physical point of view, it was the only way to get a reasonable quality imaging module into a slim phone, such is HTC's obsession with thinness. Unflattering reports of Sony Xperia Z's low light performance may also have vindicated HTC somewhat. Whether or not the public would buy into this remains to be seen, and it will take massive amount of effort and marketing to educate a public who has already been conditioned to believe in big numbers.
If there is one thing the you can count on the HTC One, is its gorgeous 1080p display is so darn beautiful, that, like a Vogue Photoshop editor, it would mask every imperfection and flaw the camera has. After all, with 468 pixels per inch density, camera noise wouldn't be as apparent on a sharp 4.7" display than it would be when viewed on a large display.
When it comes to low light photography, the One excels when put against the iPhone 4S and HTC 8X. Details are sparse, and noise a plenty, but the results are still usable. The OIS is partially effective at reducing blur up to a certain degree, so unless you brace yourself or shoot with a tripod, expect some blurring. On the upside, the One's sensor is capable of shooting up to an ISO rating of 1600. The results aren't horrible, but with a large pixel size, I expected better. In fact I expected it to blow the Lumia 920 away. Still, with HDR mode on, and with very steady hands or a portable tripod, the One is possible of taking some lovely night photography. You will just need to invest in some additional accessories first. Unfortunately, there is no full manual mode, nor any form of aperture or shutter priority modes.
The camera app offers quick access to image capture as well as video capture (up to 720p60 or 1080p30 with continuous autofocus). You do not have to manually switch between the two before capturing - simply press the right shutter button and it will start capturing in whichever mode it was selected for. Filter effects such as distortion, vignetting and fake tilt shift is also applied in real time, shown on the viewfinder at all times so you can carefully plan your pictures around those effects.
on the One X.
But if there is one thing the One almost get things perfect, it is the auto mode. Every image I have included here are set on 'Auto' mode, and the colour accuracy is as accurate as you can get to real life (at least when viewed from my laptop's display - after all not all displays are created equally). With the exception of poor dynamic range and hit and miss HDR mode, the white balance is spot on. The only thing HTC needs to fix now is the metering.
These images can also be used to create sequences, basically a multi-exposure image. Any camera shooter will tell you how cumbersome it is to create mult-exposure action shots, so the fact that HTC has somehow engineered an easy way to do so, is to be applauded. Zoe is rather a neat idea, and the execution is smooth but I can't imagine it taking off. The fact that 'Zoe'es is proprietary confines it immediately within the ultra niche. This is made worse by the fact that HTC One is the only product that supports it.
And as impressive as the low light performance of the new HTC One is, I found that its day light performance to be equal to that of other modern slim smartphones like the HTC 8X and Galaxy S III, though it falls short of the N8 and PureView 808. In fact, for those who prefer to shoot in daylight, the 4MP resolution might prove to be a limitation, particularly if you have to crop. So whether or not HTC made the right choice to go with a 4MP sensor will depend on whether you believe a trade off in resolution for a decent low light camera is worth it, and the kind of pictures you will be shooting. If you are into low light mobile photography, the sensor here picks up more light than the iPhone 4S.
As a smartphone, the HTC One is brilliant. As a camera, it takes a step forward, and another back. Thanks to the hype that HTC themselves help create, one would expect a smartphone camera that is as revolutionary as the Nokia 808 PureView was, just one designed for super slim smartphones instead of fat cameras with phone functionality attached. Is it worthy of the hype? No. Will it replace your dedicated camera? No. But that isn't the point of the One. As a phone that you will always carry with you, the One is capable of 90% of your photography needs.
Despite my initial reservations, more than 1200 pictures later, I believe HTC made the right choice here. Even if the execution isn't perfect, HTC has gotten people into talking about the megapixel myth again, and how it is okay not to chase big numbers.
And that is a good thing.
If you have any questions regarding the HTC One, feel free to ask via the comments below, or on twitter.