HTC One UltraPixel Camera vs Samsung Galaxy S4 Camera

May 6, 2013

HTC One camera and Samsung Galaxy S4 camera

In this article I will compare the HTC One camera versus Samsung Galaxy S4 camera. There is a big debate whether or not HTC did a smart move moving to 4MP sensor resolution. This debate is still on, and according to early review, the image quality doesn’t exceeds the expectations. It does have very good low light performance, but people where expecting much higher image quality. The thing is that the image quality did suffer from some issues like lack of sharpness, and that was fixed with the latest software, improving the HTC One image quality by a large margin.

I would made sure that before I read a review of the HTC One camera, that it was written before HTC One released the firmware update to correct those flaws.  In this article I will take that into consideration and rely on latest information and sample image, to be fare to the HTC One and not smirch due to camera software issues prior to the new firmware release.

Which update are we talking about?

The HTC One firmware update is version that focused on performance improvements, especially for the HTC One Ultrapixel camera performance.

Before we continue, take a look at this video by Thimas von Welt that demonstrates the difference in image quality with before and after photos. Some websites say that they notice no change, but there is a big change and  don’t know what they were checking. If you are still skeptic, take a look at this article on and take a closer look at the image quality – BIG Difference!

HTC One Ultrapixel Camrea

HTC certainly took a risky path with its Ultrapixel camera. The camera uses a 4-megapixel 1/3-inch sensor. This is a very small sensor with pixel size of 2.0 µm. The camera features a f/2.0 28mm wide-angle lens with optical image stabilization. I am talking about the back-facing / primary camera, not the on at the front which has 2.1-megapixels.

So why HTC has decided to use only 4-megapixels and not go with much higher resolution like 13MP? – the answer is pixel size. More pixels for a given same sensor size will result in smaller pixels. After all, you need to squeeze more pixels onto a surface of the same size. The size of the pixel is one of the most crucial part that has direct implication on how the image will turn out to be. Larger pixels can contain more light, in other words, more data can be stored for each photo site. This leads to higher dynamic range, improved color accuracy and better low light performance. The combination of a good sensor, lens and image processor will result in a high quality image.

HTC took that risk and hoped that people will see the difference in their own eyes and prefer to shoot with the HTC ultrapixel camera over other mobile phone cameras. It focused its efforts to elevate the sensor sensitivity and the camera’s low light performance by using a lower resolution, but also by implementing a f/2.0 lens. So we’ve mentioned that larger pixels are better, but what that f/2 thing means?

f/2 indicated the maximum lens aperture. In other words, it indicates how larger the hole of the lens is from which the light travels through. The bigger the aperture is the most light can pass through the lens and reach the sensor. More light means that you can shoot well exposed images under dim light conditions. This type of lens is also referred to as ‘fast lens’.  Using fast lenses bring a few advantages, including the option to shoot in higher shutter speeds, getting more shallow depth of field (although it’s not very noticeable with small sensors, need to be very close to your subject) and allow the photographer to shoot image at lower ISO sensitivity and therefore get images with less noise.

The Ultrapixel camera sensor is made by ST Microelectronics and it’s a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. It allows the photographer to shoot in various aspect ratios (3:2, 16:9:, 4:3).  It’s worth mentioning that the this lens, like all mobile phone camera to date, have a fixed focal length, it’s a prime lens, which means it doesn’t employ optical zoom. You do have digital zoom, but what it does is cropping and enlarging the image, reducing the image quality. You can do that in any other photo editing software if you want to. If you do that in-camera, there is not way to retrieve the lost information and the image will look more pixelated.

HTC One UltraPixel camera advantages:

  • Bigger pixels of 2.0 micrometer, twice the surface area of a 1.4 micrometer pixel that found on 8-megapixel cameras and much larger than 1.1 micrometer pixel that are found on 13MP cameras
  • Better low-light performance
  • Being able to shoot at lower ISO with less noise
  • Shoot at faster shutter speeds to to the higher sensitivity and fast aperture
  • Optical image stabilization to combat image blur, compensate for camera movement and result in sharper images
  • Very fast f/2.0 lens
  • 28mm wide-angle lens

HTC One UltraPixel camera disadvantages:

  • Low resolution, can’t match the detail resolving power of a 13MP sensor
  • Not a brand lens – doesn’t use a Carl Zeiss or a well known brand lens
  • No optical zoom (all phone cameras don’t have this though)


What is wide-angle lens?

A wide angle lens refers to a lens with a wide field of view. 28mm (35mm equivalent) focal length lens result in angular field of view of 65.5 degrees (horizontal), 46.4 degrees (vertical) and 75.4 degrees) diagonal). A 26mm focal length lens will give you an angular field of view of 69.4 degrees (horizontal), 49.6 degrees (vertical) and 79.5 degrees (diagonal). So a 26 mm equivalent lens gives a wider field of view compare to a 28 mm lens. The higher the number, the less wide the field of view is, and the lower the number, the wider the field of view.

With a lens that has wider field of view you can capture more of the scene, both horizontally and vertically. For example, it’s easier to squeeze in more people when shooting them in a group, because you capture more horizontal space. It’s easier to take selfshot portraits of yourself because you don’t need to hold the camera so far away to capture the whole face. A wide angle lens is useful for shooting indoors, in museums and in tight places where there isn’t much space to walk back to capture the whole subject.


It’s petty that the HTC One doesn’t use a brand lens. Nokia and Sony are both known for using Carl Zeiss optics, which helps contribute to the high image quality. The Nokia Lumia 920, Nokia Lumia 820, Sony Xperia Z, all use a Carl Zeiss lens high-quality optics. Carl Zeiss is well known for its great optical performance which result in more details images and less optical distortions and aberrations.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Camera

The Samsung Galaxy S4 camera uses a 1/3.06-inch 13-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, a 31mm f/2.2 lens and no optical image stabilization, but rather digital image stabilization. Samsung have decided to go with much higher resolution, a 5MP increment compare to the Samsung Galaxy S3 (8MP). It’s kind of funny to see that each company went to the opposite direction, Samsung going for much more megapixels and HTC going for much fewer pixels.

The lack of optical  image stabilization does trouble me. The S4 camera uses digital image stabilization. I video it means that the camera uses pixels outside of the border of the frame to provide a buffer for the motion. For stills, the camera just use higher sensitivity, allowing the camera to shoot in faster shutter speed and therefore result in less blurry image. Optical image stabilization is the preferred mechanism and one that helps to correct the negative effect of the camera’s movements when shooting handheld, and with a mobile phone, you will, in almost all cases, shoot handheld.

Take a look at the next video and you can see what I mean. Eugen Diskin from tested the image stabilization of the Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Lumia 920 – the video speaks for itself.!

I personally think that this can pose a big issue for many people who enjoy shooting videos. I personally hate watching shaky videos and I don’t think that anyone of you would even consider carrying a tripod with you to shoot videos (do you?).


S4 Camera s HTC One Camera

Let’s move on from our overview and check out how the S4 camera compares to the HTC One UltraPixel.

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We are interested in the rear-facing camera specs. We can see that there is quite a big difference between the two. The first difference that I want to talk about is the difference in focal length. The HTC One has a rear-facing camera with 28mm (equivalent) focal length, the HTC One has 31mm equivalent lens. This means that the Samsung Galaxy S4 lens is wider than the HTC One lens.

horizontal field of view comparison illustration

Horizontal field of view comparison

Having a wider field of view means that you’ll see more of the surrounding of the scene in the image. This is better for shooting group of images, for self-portrait shots, landscape photos and interiors.  You can use this lens angle calculator in order to get a good view of how much of the scene will be visible through the lens. So great, this is one advantage that the HTC One has over the S4 camera for those who find the wider angle better for their shooting style.

The next thing is the aperture size. The HTC One UltraPixel camera utilizing a F/2.0 lens, the Samsung Galaxy S4 camera uses a F/2.2 lens. As I’ve mentioned earlier, this designates the maximum aperture opening The camera can use smaller aperture (higher f-number_ in order to control the amount of light that enters the lens in order to produce a well exposed image.

Considering the same shutter speed and ISO sensitivity, a f/2 lens is 1/3 stops faster than a f/2.2 lens. It lets x1.21 more light pass through the lens. This isn’t a big difference like f/5.6 vs f/2, but this means that the HTC One UltraPixel lens has a slight advantage here over the Samsung Galaxy S4 lens of being slightly faster.

The next subject is pixel size or pixel density for that matter. Both cameras uses a relatively similar sized sensor (1/3″ vs 1/3.06″).  The Samsung Galaxy S4 has much higher resolution. Packing 13MP onto a tiny sensor is inviting troubles when shooting in low light. The UltraPixel pixels size is almost twice as large as the Galaxy S4 one. This allows the sensor to gather much more data and resulting in much better low light performance overall. This is what HTC was aiming for in the first place. It wanted to create a camera that focuses on image quality rather than elevate the resolution and lead people think that more pixels is better. The truth is the complete opposite. Some people prefer having more detailed image over better low light sensitivity, higher dynamic range and color accuracy.  4MP is indeed low resolution, but more than enough if you are just planning to make small prints or post the image on the web.

Some people enjoy editing photos, do some cropping and tweaking before they post the image online, so for them a higher resolution is better. It gives them more cropping freedom and more detailed image to play with. With a 4MP pixel image you don’t have this kind of freedom because the image is already quite small.

Image Quality, Which One is Better?

At the end of the day, we all want to come home with high quality image. We love to share our image online and we want to have great photos to share with. Some people take that more seriously and love being more creative with their mobile phone camera. As an enthusiast photographer who have a DSLR camera, I find myself shooting a low of photos with my phone too.  I always prefer having a camera that will give me the option to take great images in both daylight and at night / indoors/ low-light. In fact, most of my photos are taken at night and in closed, tight and dark places. Therefore I always look for a phone that can take beautiful images in dim light and not restrict me for taking well exposed images only in daylight.

Checking and analyzing images on dpreview and phonearena gave me a good understanding of the differences between the two phone cameras. Both cameras take gorgeous photos in daylight but doing some pixelpeeping reveals the differences between the two cameras.

  • HTC One certainly lacks details and the 4MP resolution is indeed a barrier. Sometimes you just want to zoom in to see more of the image and take a pick at certain areas of the image, something that you will be disappointed with the HTC UltraPixel camera. The S4 camera is much better, resolving way more details. The HTC One does pick up details pretty well, but you should understand its limit here
  • In low light the HTC One did better in low light as expected. The SGS4 doesn’t have a change here. With a faster lens, bigger pixels (higher sensitivity and image stabilization – the HTC One was meant to rule the darkness
  • Galaxy S4 images are more saturated, which some people love, others don’t. In general, it makes the image more appealing to the viewer
HTC One at various ISO sensitivities:
  • ISO 100 – clean and clear 🙂
  • ISO 200 – looks great, not complains, small amount of noise in dark areas
  • ISO 400 – looks very good a bit more noise which is evident in both dark  areas in mid-tones as well. I would probably shoot below ISO 400 for best results, but you still get very usable image
  • ISO 800 – noise all over, color pattern noise patches are present as well, not bad for the web and for small prints


How the two compare in terms of video quality? – let’s take a look at the next video by mobilereviewcom:

I did check more videos and I can tell you that the SGS4 take better looking videos, sharper, with better color definition, more vivid, better contrast and also the light metering seems to do a better job there. The only thing that the HTC One is better at is having better image stabilization (the S4 doesn’t have optical image stabilization), and this is noticeable in the video that I’ve posted above and in this video too. The second video can be viewed  here.

If you don’t need the low light performance, the S4 is the better camera of the for stills. Images look excellent in daylight, and the S4 camera reminds me the image quality of my Canon compact digital camera.  Furthermore, videos look better on the S4 as well. The HTC One does wins in low light and by having optical image stabilization. So you will need to pick which one you might take advantage of more.

The image quality is not the only thing that counts. You need to look at the whole picture and considering the camera application and software-based features as well. In a technical standpoint, the two cameras camera aren’t revolutionary, but certainly worth belonging in a high-end mobile phone.  The thing is that non of those cameras impressed me as the Nokia 808 PureView. I really want a mobile phone camera form HTC or Samsung with 808 PureView-like image quality.

If I had to choose between the two, I would probably went with the Galaxy S4, I liked the stills and video image quality. Some of you might prefer the HTC One for its faster lens, image stabilization and better low light performance.

Which one you prefer? – share your opinion by commenting below.