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4 smartphone cameras that aim to kill point-and-shoots dead

When the first cell phones from a decade ago started embedding music players and cameras, many predicted that all these devices would soon converge into one. It didn’t happen overnight, but with the arrival of the iPhone and the subsequent smartphones that followed, cell phone convergence shifted into overdrive. We saw that happen with MP3 players first – a lot of people now listen to music on their phones rather than a standalone player.

In 2013, it’s all about the camera. When you consider that smartphones now account for the majority of photographs taken by people, there’s no denying that there’s a preference for smartphones over standalone point-and-shoot cameras when it comes to casual photography.

But the problem with smartphone cameras has always been image quality – one that traditional camera makers are always quick to point out. However, premium smartphones are now catching up with cameras, with larger sensors and features that rival many point-and-shoots – capable of producing some amazing images. Whereas in the past, phone makers were aware of their cameras’ limitations and downplayed the quality, they now boast about them being on par with traditional compact cameras.

It’s premature to say smartphones are surpassing standalone cameras in image quality – there’s still room for improvement. But the gap between the two devices continues to get smaller as smartphone technology improves. As we have seen with MP3 convergence, smartphones are well on their way to becoming the “new” point-and-shoot camera.

Here’s a look at four new models that tout their cameras as the highlight feature.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Smartphone cameras of 2013 Nokia Lumia 1020Nokia has made its flagship Windows Phone device all about photography. As we noted in our review, as a smartphone the Lumia 1020 isn’t too different from its 920, 925, and 928 siblings. But it’s the camera that takes the 1020 to the next level, evidenced by the slight hump in its form-factor – you might call it skinny-fat. That’s due in part a larger back-illuminated sensor (1/1.5 inches, which is larger than the one in a high-end Canon PowerShot S120) and Carl Zeiss optics that together deliver a whopping 41-megapixel image.

We know high megapixel counts don’t always guarantee great image quality, but the 1020 can actually deliver better images than most smartphones and even the cheapest of point-and-shoot cameras because of the aforementioned large sensor, allowing for more light per pixel. Having that many megapixels also allows you to crop or zoom in on a much larger image after you’ve taken it. In our review, we found the 1020 to be particularly strong in low-light situations, but Nokia also likes to increase the brightness and color contrast versus the iPhone 5 which takes more accurate but drab-looking shots. Still, we found the 1020 balances bright and darks areas very well.

While the 1020 has a simple user interface that anyone can master, it also comes with a Pro Cam app that lets you adjust shutter speed, white balance, ISO, and aperture – all the things higher-end point-and-shoots do. Overall, as a smartphone, the 1020 comes the closest to matching the quality of standalone point-and-shoot cameras while still staying relatively slim and compact (versus the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, see below). In casual photography, smartphones aren’t completely trumping regular cameras yet, but the 1020, which we think is the best smartphone camera currently available, is only the beginning of what’s to come. One knock against it is that the 32GB non-expandable onboard storage might be insufficient for those who shoot a lot of photos and videos.

Sony Xperia Z1

Smartphone cameras of 2013 Sony Xperia Z1Taking a page from Nokia’s Lumia 1020, Sony’s upcoming Xperia Z1 (Android) features a 20.7-megapixel sensor and the company’s G Lens. Unfortunately the Z1 falls a bit short against the 1020 (on paper) with its smaller back-illuminated 1/2.3-inch Exmor RS sensor and half the pixels. No matter: That’s not stopping Sony from saying the Z1 “gives you the best overall image quality of all leading smartphones” and delivers “quality and performance of a compact digital camera.”

Indeed, when you compare the Z1 to most smartphones, it’s far superior. As a camera many of the Z1’s specs match those of Sony’s Cyber-shot point-and-shoot models (minus an optical zoom), including a similar-sized sensor; Bionz image processor for improved noise reduction, fast autofocus, and digital zoom; large 5-inch Triluminous display; and SteadyShot image stabilization. The G Lens has a f/2 aperture, a bit faster than the 1020’s f/2.2. The user interface is simple and there are some manual controls, but Sony also includes some unique camera apps, like Social Live for video streaming to Facebook and Timeshift for shooting 61 frames in burst mode.

Ultimately it’s the sleek looks of the Z1 that will catch your eye. There’s no protrusion on the device that calls attention to the camera. What you get is a slim, waterproof casing that’s made from aluminum and glass. Despite looking like a smartphone, the Z1 embodies the guts of a camera, making it a nice blend between style and substance. Sony has clearly put its camera know-how into the Z1, positioning it to challenge the 1020 and other smartphones. The Z1 isn’t out yet, but stay tuned for a full review.

Apple iPhone 5S

Smartphone cameras of 2013 Apple iPhone 5SAs the smartphone that essentially rewrote the book on the category and paved the way for all other phones to follow, Apple’s iPhone also revolutionized how we take photos. The iPhone, for the longest time, had the best phone camera, but this year other manufacturers have caught up and superseded it in specs (as shown with the other models mentioned here). But the camera and photography still play a huge role in the iPhone’s features, as Apple has recently demonstrated in the new iPhone 5S.

For its latest flagship, Apple has enhanced the iSight camera with an 8-megapixel sensor that’s 15 percent bigger than its predecessor (although at 1/3 inches, it’s the smallest of the bunch). Apple also touts that the pixels are larger, allowing them to capture more light (that’s the same design concept HTC uses for its HTC One, which has very large-sized pixels but has only 4 megapixels). While it doesn’t outperform the iPhone 5 (and the iPhone 5C, which has the same guts) by much in terms of quality, as our review found, it’s still one of the better cameras available and it produces some very good results. The camera, however, is faster thanks to the phone’s new processors. To help take better photos, Apple updated the flash system by including a yellow LED along with the white one that is supposed to make images look warmer. While it works, they still look like pictures taken with a flash.

Apple added some neat software tricks to the iOS camera app that’s unique to the iPhone 5S. One is continuous burst mode, which shoots multiple photos (10 per second) and then processes them to automatically suggest the best-looking ones. The camera can now record slow-motion video, and you can pinch-to-zoom while recording. Panoramas have also been improved and the camera can auto adjust exposure as you pan. There’s now image stabilization to help compensate for shakes, as well.

In terms of camera hardware, the iPhone 5S is no longer king, but it continues to be one of the better phone cameras available. More importantly, Apple bundles it with features and an easy-to-use UI that most people find fun – a reason why people love to take photos with their phones.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

Smartphone cameras of 2013 Samsung Galaxy S4 ZoomFor the customer who just simply can’t choose between a smartphone and a camera, Samsung has made the decision for you by melding a camera into a phone: the Galaxy S4 Zoom. With the familiar retractable optical lens, the Android-based S4 Zoom resembles more like one of Samsung’s digital cameras than the popular Galaxy line of smartphones. 

Unlike the other phones mentioned here, where their makers try to work with whatever current technology they have within the limited confines of a thin and lightweight body, Samsung essentially crammed an ordinary camera into a phone. There’s a 16-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor designed for low-light performance (although it’s a typical 1/2.3 small size), optical image stabilization, Xenon flash, and creative scene modes – specs found in many standard point-and-shoot cameras. There are also “expert” modes like Manual and Shutter Priority for when you want to break out of Auto. When you pit it against the other models here, the 10x optical zoom is the obvious pièce de résistance. Instead of using software-based digital zoom, you get far better image quality with this lens. Of course, having all these components mean you’ll be carrying something with more heft and that’s less compact.

If you must have a point-and-shoot camera that doubles as a smartphone, there’s nothing like the S4 Zoom, which should deliver image quality in line with standalone cameras. But be aware that, as a camera, it is on par with budget shooters. If you don’t have this dying need to upload all your photos to Instagram or Facebook instantaneously, you’re better off carrying a better camera for photography and a separate slimmer smartphone for the casual shots.