A lot of products come out each week — we don't highlight all of them, but all of them make it into The Verge Database. In Spec Sheet, a weekly series, we survey the latest product entries to keep track of the state of the art.
It's no surprise when smartphone makers release giant 6-or-so-inch phones any more, but whenever a phone comes along with a giant camera on its back, it's still something to gawk at. This week, the subject of our attention came from Samsung, which unveiled the Galaxy K zoom, a high-end smartphone with a built-in camera that's as good as a modern point-and-shoot. Manufacturers have been trying to get creative with smartphone cameras for years now to mixed results, so we thought we'd take a look at some of the more exciting and interesting options that they've tried out so far.
Samsung changes a lot between its two zooms
Samsung's new phone isn't its first attempt at melding smartphones and quality cameras: the K zoom was actually born out of last year's Galaxy S4 zoom. Though that phone was named after Samsung's flagship device, it's substantially different: the S4 Zoom is much smaller than the Galaxy S4, with a 4.3-inch display instead of a 5-inch one, and its body has a camera-style grip on one end with a shutter button on top. For better or worse, that made it look just like a point-and-shoot. It was a change that may well have made it easier to handle as a camera, but it only made it all that much stranger to use as a phone too.
The new K zoom addresses both of those issues. For one, it doesn't look like a camera so much as a thick smartphone — albeit something closer in size to what you might have seen five years ago. That may make handling it as a camera slightly harder, but holding it up to your ear ought to look a whole lot more natural. The other big change is in its name. The K zoom may look like a Galaxy S5 thanks to its dimpled back, but it's distinctly a new smartphone line now. If Samsung sees any success, it sounds like we could just see a K2 zoom next year.
Of course, the undisputed king of crazy smartphone cameras is Nokia, and it has two big standouts. The first is 2012's 808 PureView, a thick phone with a bulbous hump on the back that houses a 41-megapixel camera. It looks strange, but for some, it's worth it: the 808 really does take amazing photos. Part of that is thanks to its large 1/1.2-inch sensor, but plenty of credit goes to Nokia's oversampling technique, which effectively takes all of those megapixels and uses them to create an image from fewer but more accurate pixels. The 808 isn't very good as an actual smartphone, but it showed just what Nokia and future camera-focused phone hardware could do.
The camera on Nokia's 808 PureView.
Nokia refined all of that for last summer's Lumia 1020, another 41-megapixel phone — and a fairly good one at that. The 1020 still has a large wart on its back to make room for its camera, but the hardware overall is far slimmer and sleeker. Though the 1020 has an identical megapixel count to the 808, it actually uses a slightly smaller 2/3-inch sensor. But that hardly makes a difference in the end: the 1020 still takes incredible photos, and we found them to be even better than the 808's.
HTC's unlikely cameras were never about raw image quality
While Nokia and Samsung are both aiming for quality photos in different ways and with different looks, HTC has taken some shots at making far different types of cameras popular. Back in 2011, HTC released the Evo 3D, a smartphone with a glasses-free 3D display and two cameras on the back that were collectively capable of capturing 3D images and video. It was a clever addition during the heyday of the 3D craze, but its implementation was a bit lackluster. In our review at the time, about the nicest thing we had to say of its cameras was that they performed better than those on the Nintendo 3DS, which isn't saying much.
More recently, HTC has returned to its interest in dual camera setups, but now for a much different reason. On the new One, HTC uses a smaller second camera to add a slew of neat functions. For one, it can mimic a Lytro camera and allow you to select where a photo is focused even after shooting it or shift its perspective around in 3D. Selecting focus also means the camera can create a nicely blurred background — something that you can really only get on a larger camera with a fast lens. They're neat features, though they're hardly what sells the phone.
In fact, only Nokia has really been able to make an all around good phone that stood out in particular because of its camera — that phone being the Lumia 1020. Samsung's Zoom phones simply aren't top of the line devices, and HTC's phones were never really built around their unlikely cameras — the features were just there as a bonus.
That HTC, Samsung, and Nokia still all have wildly different approaches to changing up the camera only underscores how much room is left for companies to figure out something novel to put on the back of our phones. Everyone wants a better camera, but the question remains how to put it inside of a smartphone, and what aspects — be it sensor size or neat features — matter most to making a great mobile photo.