Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sony Ericsson Xperia ray Review: Part 3 - Smile! You're On Exmor R Camera!

Continued from Part 2

Since the introduction of the celfone cam, people have documented every single moment of their lives (both drunken and sober) and has caused a boom in digital photography.

The latest generation of mobile phone cams boast specs that exceed most professional cams a few years ago... but do specs tell the whole truth?  Numbers are quite easy to fudge, and test parameters can easily be biased to favor one manufacturer over another.  I've found that most of today's mid-to-high end devices are all comparable to each other.  This review is to give a real-world comparison and evaluation compared to point-and-shoot cameras.

Most phone cam lenses are fixed at around 28mm (in full-frame DSLR equivalent) this gives the most practical field of view for group shots, parties, and roughly 95% of the events people use their phones to take pictures of.

The Xperia ray sports an 8 megapixel Exmor R sensor which is supposed to be excellent in low-light situations.  I'm not fond of using a flash, on any of my cameras... so this was something that caught my attention.  Along with the claimed f2.4, this should make the ray perfect for capturing events at concerts, clubs, parties, candle-lit dinners and other things that happen in the dark...

But does it really work well?  How does it fare against the previous generation X10 Mini Pro?  Against a decent point & shoot camera?

The following marco are shots taken in automatic mode.  Photos were not processed, but resized using Adobe Lightroom, minimal jpeg artifacts were added so that isn't really going to affect over-all photo quality.  **edit: my apologies, I forgot to mention, these are zoomed crops to show both the detail, and flaws of the camera.  Original uncropped photos can be viewed here.**

Panasonic Lumix ZS3
The first shot was taken using my Panasonic Lumix ZS3.  This is one of the better all-around point and shoots on the market with a focal range of 28-300mm and a Leica lens.  It shoots in 720p HD so this will also be the baseline for the video comparison.



Sony Ericsson X10 Mini Pro
This was taken using my X10 Mini Pro.  As you can see, colors are a bit washed out compared to the Lumix, but general detail is preserved.  A noteworthy observation is that the grill on the car looks more 'detailed' with the X10MP, but it's just heavier post processing on the phone's part.


Sony Ericsson Xperia ray
And finally, the shot taken using the Xperia ray.  Bokeh is slightly nicer on the ray... not by much, but if you look at the car in the background, the rims have stronger lens blur.  Color accuracy on the ray is also closer to the Lumix which is a plus.  I initially thought that the X10MP was sharper, but it turned out to just be stronger sharpening post processing.

With the absence of a dedicated camera button however, it is harder to take a shot with the ray.  Touch focus doesn't always work and can sometimes give a completely blurry shot.  Auto focus gives decent results most of the time, but limits compositional freedom.  Over-all the ray has a better camera, but without a dedicated camera button, it takes longer to take a shot.

Forget the front camera... it's sad.  Washed out and very soft focused.  Flashback to an 80's webcam.  It's there.  But don't expect iPod Touch/iPhone 4 quality video calls.  But there is hope for self-portrait fans.  Sony Ericsson's "Smile Detection" allows you to use the rear camera, then the phone automatically takes the shot when you smile.  Although this doesn't guarantee it's framed properly.

Now onto the video.  The Xperia ray records in 720p HD.  Movies are in the standard MP4 format and trimming recorded clips is possible on the phone itself.  I did find it nice that the phone records in stereo.  Utilizing the back mic for the left channel, and the phone mic for the right channel.  The odd position of the mics does create an issue for users that are unaware that both mics are on.  If you're holding the bottom part of the phone, you may be blocking the "right" mic and thus audio may sound weak.  Because the mics are farther apart than on most point and shoot cameras (like the Lumix ZS3), stereo separation does sound more prominent on the ray.

The following video was taken at night using only automatic settings.  This is how most people will be using the camera on this phone so I decided to make a direct comparison with the ZS3's HD capabilities as well.  Audio on the left channel is from the ray, audio on the right channel is from the ZS3.



As you can see, the Exmor R sensor does an excellent job of low light recording.  Not much noise is added, and detail is quite good.  Focusing is ok, but not great.  Clarity is still better on the ZS3 of course, but I would have more practical use for the ray's shots than the ZS3.  And a little post processing on the Xperia to improve black levels and the shots taken would actually look better than the ZS3.  Audio is decent for a device of it's size.  I didn't notice any weak audio, I suspect that early reports either had different firmware, or were accidentally covering the right channel mic with their hand.

Video verdict?  The Xperia ray is a very capable video recorder.  The Exmor R sensor does work and can be used in very difficult lighting situations.  Make sure you have a lot of storage though because HD video does chew up quite a bit of space.  I can now leave my ZS3 to the dedicated task of just scuba videos.  The Xperia ray will now be my everyday video device.


**A usability tip: There are different camera shortcuts that you can add to your homepage for easy access.  I added the Camera and Video Camera shortcut.  It may not be a dedicated button, but it's a lot easier than scrolling through a menu!**

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