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Smartphone video camera smackdown

Video capture is standard on smartphones these days, but not all camcorders are created equal
  • Ginny Mies (PC World (US online))
  • 20 May, 2010 00:28

With ever-improving sensors, on-board editing tools, and wireless sharing features, smartphones are a popular option for capturing video on the go. But not all smartphone camcorders are created equal: In my head-to-head tests, I found that certain phones handled motion more skillfully than others, some performed better in dim lighting while others floundered, and some produced noticeable pixelation in my test shoots.

The Contenders

I tested the camcorders on four popular smartphones: the Palm Pre Plus, the Google Nexus One, the Motorola Droid, and the Apple iPhone 3GS. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to test the HTC Droid Incredible's video skills, as I had to return that handset to HTC before I could shoot test footage.) The camcorder specs for each are as follows:

  • Palm Pre Plus3-megapixel sensor, 640-by-480-pixel videos, up to 29 frames per second
  • Nexus One5-megapixel sensor, 720-by-480-pixel videos, up to 20 frames per second
  • Motorola Droid5-megapixel sensor, 720-by-480-pixel videos, up to 24 frames per second
  • Apple iPhone 3GS3-megapixel sensor, 640-by-480-pixel videos, up to 30 frames per second

The Droid and the Nexus One, both running Google's Android 2.1 OS, do not have any on-board video-editing features. The Palm Pre Plus and the iPhone 3GS, in contrast, allow you to trim video length by dragging a handle through a series of thumbnail-size stills. All four phones let you upload directly to YouTube or send clips to friends via e-mail or MMS; the Palm Pre Plus also permits you to upload directly to Facebook.

Which smartphone camcorder had the best video quality? Read on.

Bright-Lighting Test

To test motion and color in optimal indoor settings, I shot three 1-minute videos of a moving Ferris wheel toy and a train set in a brightly lit, windowless room. Here was the tale of the tape, as I saw it. (Disagree with my eyeball assessment? Let me know which smartphone you think won the video battle in the comments section below.)

First Place: iPhone 3GS

The colors in the iPhone 3GS's videos looked the most washed out among the four competitors; but Apple's phone handled motion pretty well, with only a small amount of stuttering. The 3GS produced a bit of pixelation in the Ferris wheel, but slightly less than the other three phones did.

Second Place: Palm Pre Plus

The Palm Pre Plus's videos appeared darker than the footage I captured with the other smartphones, and I saw a small amount of stuttering in the train's motion. I also detected some ghosting with the train, and some pixelation in the Ferris wheel.

Third Place: Motorola Droid

The Motorola Droid's videos had the most natural colors of the four phones, but it too suffered from blurriness and pixelation. Among the group, it also struggled the most with motion: It frequently stuttered, and video playback even came to a complete stop in some shots.

Fourth Place: Google Nexus One

In all three test videos with the Nexus One, I noticed a strange flickering effect in the background. The videos all had a bluish tint, and obvious pixelation appeared in the Ferris wheel.

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Dim-Lighting Test

I shot the dim-lighting test (also known as the rock-concert test) in a windowless room with a single lamp on. None of the phones performed particularly well in this test, but a clear winner--and a clear loser--emerged.

First Place: iPhone 3GS

The iPhone 3GS handled colors and light balance the best out of the four phones. Even so, it was still fairly hard to make out the Ferris wheel's details or the faces of the people in the photo. Motion was still a bit sticky, as well.

Second Place: Google Nexus One

All of the Nexus One's videos had an orange/yellow cast to them, but overall this phone captured the most vivid colors with the sharpest detail. The video still had that weird flickering effect, however, and I noticed the same issues with motion as I did in the bright-lighting test videos.

Third Place: Palm Pre Plus

Color-wise, the Palm Pre Plus's videos looked muddy. The train and its tracks blended right into the dark tablecloth, and the Ferris wheel looked like a giant blurry blob. You can make out the faces of the people in the photograph, but their facial details are completely washed out.

Fourth Place: Motorola Droid

The Droid, by far, had the hardest time with dim lighting. Videos came out very dark with a greenish tint; they were so dark that the train completely disappeared and the faces on the photograph looked like black blobs.

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Sound Quality

I didn't do any formal testing for sound quality, but to my ears two phones led the charge in audio capture. I found that the iPhone 3GS picked up the clearest, loudest sound, closely followed by the Droid. The other two phones were much quieter and not as clear. We'll follow up with more-precise sound tests in the next camcorder smackdown.

Conclusion

The clear winner among this group is the Apple iPhone 3GS, owing to its video quality in both bright and dim indoor lighting, as well as to its on-board editing features. Though the colors were consistently washed out in my iPhone test videos, this phone handled motion the best out of the four, with the least amount of pixelation.

Though the Motorola Droid is a great phone in other respects, its camcorder performed dismally--especially in dimly lit environments. Droid owners, if you're planning on shooting video at an upcoming concert or recording clips at your friend's birthday party in a bar, you might consider bringing along a stand-alone pocket camcorder.

In terms of video quality, smartphones aren't a real threat to dedicated video cameras, or even to pocket camcorders. If you're willing to sacrifice a bit of video quality, however, these smartphones offer real benefits: instant wireless sharing, editing tools, and the ability to shoot video with a device you're already carrying everywhere.

But all of that might change. The HTC EVO 4G, coming to Sprint in a few weeks, has HD video recording. The iPhone 4G is rumored to have HD video capture, as well. We'll revisit these tests once we get both of those phones in house and see how they stack up against the best pocket camcorders.

Here's how the video quality of the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre Plus compares to that of two of our highest-rated pocket camcorders, the 1080p-shooting Kodak Zi8 and the solidly built Flip MinoHD. (You can see the highest-quality video from each pocket camcorder by choosing a higher resolution from the drop-down menu at the bottom right of each video player.)

Apple iPhone 3GS

Palm Pre Plus

Kodak Zi8

Flip MinoHD