Camera on SGS4

On the camera side Samsung is in an interesting position. The industry trend is overwhelmingly to go to more pixels and push the megapixel count up from 8 MP where most flagships sat last year to around 13 where they will sit this year. Samsung has to push that number to keep itself in a defensible and marketable position and at the same time deliver a camera experience that’s better than the previous year.

I published a table in the One review with the camera specifications from the previous generation. I’ve filled this in with confirmed information from the SGS4 review unit I have been taking samples with. With SGS4 Samsung does make some pretty considerable improvements, many of which undo some of the regressions that I described with SGS3. Focal length is now quite a bit longer, from the very wide SGS3 which was around 26mm in 35mm effective numbers, to 31 mm. This is a notable difference if you’re shooting with the two side by side, the SGS3 was always shockingly wide for a rear facing camera.

 
Smartphone Camera Comparison - 2013
  HTC One Samsung Galaxy S 2 Samsung Galaxy S 3 Samsung Galaxy S 4
Front Camera 2.1MP 2MP 1.9MP 2MP
Front Camera - CMOS OV2722
(1.4µm, 1/5.8")
- S5K6A3
(1.75µm, 1/6")
S5K6B2
(1.34µm, 1/6")
Front Camera - Focal Length ~1.59mm 2.73mm 2.7mm 1.85mm
Front Camera - Max Aperture F/2.0 F/2.8 F/2.8 F/2.4
Rear Camera 4MP 8MP 8MP 13MP
Rear Camera - CMOS ST VD6869
(2.0 µm, 1/3")
S5K3H2YX
(1.4µm 1/3.2")
Sony/Samsung
(1.4µm, ~1/3")
IMX091PQ
(1.12µm, 1/3.06")
Rear Camera - Focal Length 3.82mm
(28mm eff)
3.97mm
(30mm eff)
3.7mm
(~26 mm eff)
4.2mm
(31 mm eff)
Rear Camera - Max Aperture F/2.0 F/2.65 F/2.6 F/2.2
 

At the same time, F-number has improved dramatically, from the F/2.6 or 2.65 (I’ve seen both at times) aperture on the SGS3 to a much faster F/2.2. This dramatically improves the light collection abilities of the camera, by essentially a half stop. It’s difficult optical design to both keep the module thin enough to fit in the device without creating a huge bump (there’s a camera bump on SGS4, it’s there), increase focal length, improve F/#, and improve MTF for a better sensor all at the same time.

On the rear facing camera we see a Sony CMOS who continues to dominate the space, this time with an IMX091PQ sensor. On the front we Samsung’s own sensor, the S5K6B2 get used. Samsung also continues to go with a dedicated Fujitsu ISP inside the SGS4, this time it’s a new M10MO family which there isn’t a whole lot of information about. I suspect this continues to be done to mitigate the differences in SoC ISP between the APQ8064ab variant and Exynos 5 version and make tuning easier on Samsung’s camera team.

Imaging is increasingly a key differentiator for smartphones since it’s that device you always have on your person to take images with. For SGS4 camera is more of an emphasis this time around than it was with SGS3, which largely kept everything the same and just added software features. SGS4 brings better hardware and additional software features to do something with the hardware.

Outdoors in bright light the increased spatial resolution afforded from going from 8 MP to 13 MP helps. Samsung still does a lot of sharpening and there are halos around a ton of different features if you know where to look, but that’s the tuning they have opted for. I suspect we still are outresolving the sensor here, but I’m impressed with what I see with enough light. I took a lot of photos side by side with SGS3 and find SGS4 a notable improvement, but I’m not sure whether that’s just more damning commentary on SGS3 than anything else. I haven’t had time to put together many side by sides with buttons yet. I’ve been shooting with the HTC One on −2 sharpness since I prefer it that way, note that I accidentally left it this way with when making comparisons here since that’s still my daily driver until I can get an AT&T or T-Mobile SGS4 to use.

SGS4: 1/950s, ISO 50
 

In lower light unsurprisingly we see the SGS4 offer better results than the SGS3 but still not quite as good as the HTC One. Samsung recently introduced low light shot on the SGS3 and Note 2, this feature carries over to the SGS4 but gets renamed back to Night Mode, even though behavior appears superficially to be the same. The SGS4 also introduces an auto night mode toggle, although this ships by default turned off. The mode automatically switches on night mode when it senses that you’re going to underexpose using the auto presets, I would advise basically leaving this on all the time. Unfortunately night mode introduces huge shot to shot latency that seems to be on the order of seconds — tap the button, capture runs, then there’s a progress bar that pops up while multiple exposures are ostensibly recombined into one image. You also have to be exceptionally steady to get an image without blur since it appears that this mode takes multiple images to get to the end goal — a better exposed image without tons of noise.

SGS4: 1/15s, ISO 1000
 

In the end there’s really no free lunch for anyone — you can temporally oversample (Samsung low light shot, or longer exposures with OIS like Nokia), or increase the size of your sampling area (larger pixels a-la HTC One), or do nothing and just give up unless you’re in a bright outdoor setting.

Samsung has introduced a bunch of new photo modes in the software on the SGS4, a number of which are actually pretty functional and awesome. There's the ability to create animated gifs from right in the camera, for example, where users paint a mask around the region they want animated from a short capture. This is essentially the same as Nokia's cinemagraph Lens from the Lumia 920, but it's still quite cool. 

There's also dual camera, which lets you include a small overlay of the front facing camera atop the rear facing camera image. It initially struck me as a bit gimmicky but actually can be hilariously fun to share your face atop images to friends. It is also quite possibly the stuff of nightmares. 

Panoramas on the SGS4 also are nicely put together and integrate continuously rather than get combined from a number of discrete images. The result is quite nice. 

The user interface on SGS4 is a departure from the interface which has been present on previous Galaxy smartphones, and instead takes much UI/UX from the Galaxy Camera. Gone are the customizable toggles on the left side, instead options are in an expandable menu at the very top, and then another separate window. I got used to it pretty quickly but do miss the ability to customize the quick settings buttons on the left side and used to think that Samsung had the most powerful camera interface around. Things are moved around generally in a logical fashion however and I can understand how much this works to make transitioning between Galaxy Camera and SGS4 easy. 

Video

When it comes to video, the SGS4 is records 1080p30 video at 17 Mbps H.264 High Profile.

I've done the usual thing and uploaded a sample to YouTube as well as our own servers for your inspection.

Video quality looks really nice and sharp on SGS4 from what I can tell by default. Anti shake (EIS in this case) is disabled out of the box, enabling it pops up a box warning you that stills captured during video record will be a different field of view. 

NAND Performance Display
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  • airspoon - Sunday, June 23, 2013 - link

    Believe it or not, some people actually do consider phones to be a fashion accessory -obviously, because that is what the guy is saying. He is telling you that he does, in fact, consider a phone to be a fashion accessory. I happen to agree with you that it is silly and function before form is certainly motto for smartphones, but unless the guy is your employee then it shouldn't matter to you how he chooses his phone. It's one thing to argue OUR opinion that function beats form in the phone department, but you can't really make a reasonable argument that HIS phone is not a fashion accessory.

    With that said, the function of a non-unibody plastic chassis beats the form of a unibody aluminum chassis any day. Not because it may or may not provide increased sturdiness or less weight, but rather because it allows you crucial access to the battery compartment and storage I/O. Obviously, a unibody chassis cannot provide said access and a non-unibody aluminum chassis would be far too bulky and a lot less sturdy. In fact, a non-unibody aluminum chassis is simply not feasible in a premium phone worth anything. The fact that I can remove or replace the battery and add an SD card is well worth the plastic to me (and I'm sure the vast majority of S4 owners). The benefits of plastic far outweigh any perceived drawbacks. However, those who choose phones based SOLELY on its fashion statement rather than functionality -would obviously prefer the unibody aluminum (as it does arguable look and feel better). Personally, I like the look and feel of the unibody aluminum shells and if the plastic body of the S4 didn't offer the tremendous functional advantages that it does, then I would much prefer an aluminum unibody. However, the ratio of function to form of the S4's plastic non-unibody chassis makes it a "no-brainer" in my opinion. I sure hope Samsung doesn't cave in to the pressure and go aluminum unibody in the S5 to appease the vanity seeking consumers because Samsung would have to sacrifice major function to do so. I like being able to instantly add 64 gigs of storage in an interchangeable medium. I like being able to carry around a spare battery and not have to worry about carrying around a USB cable and looking for a usable plug when I'm traveling or out on the town. I like the peace-of-mind in knowing that the life expectancy of my phone is not dependent on the cheapest commodity batteries that the telecom company could secure. To me, that is well worth the plastic non-unibody design. Again, the function far outweighs the form -even for those who value form.
    Reply
  • speculatrix - Sunday, April 28, 2013 - link

    I'm a form-follows-function person but I agree with Upspin

    If you're paying quite a few hundred for a phone then you want it made of premium materials and to not be ugly.

    Provided the style and materials don't affect performance, which the iphone4 suffered.

    I have a note 2 and would prefer if it had more metal in the outer frame to make it tougher. But I am pretty sure RF performance would suffer if it was totally metal backed.
    Reply
  • danbob999 - Monday, April 29, 2013 - link

    Metal wouldn't make it tougher. Nobody change its phone because the plastic broke. People change phone because it is too old or because the display is broken.
    You want metal either because you think it looks better, or because it will look more expensive and you want people to know you have an expensive phone.
    Reply
  • patlak - Saturday, May 18, 2013 - link

    So, all these people that buy Mercedes and BMW are dumb? Why should they cash out 20 grand extra when they can just buy a Kia that provides the same functionality as a car, but also with similar engine power and capacity for much much less. Since you sit inside the car all the time, just like your phone sits in the pocket, why would you bother with the premium look. Reply
  • TedKord - Thursday, May 02, 2013 - link

    There's nothing wrong with desiring a product look the way you prefer. But using the glasses analogy, which would you buy? The really stylish pair that doesn't fit your head/nose and only corrects your vision to 20/50, or the ugly pair that fits perfectly and gives you 20/20?

    I know there are more choices, this is just an example to fit the current discussion. I love the HTC One (especially the front speakers), but I'd have to choose the Galaxy S4 (if I really needed a phone right now). The microsd slot and swappable battery are important to me, and Samsung is much better at updates and releasing source for devs. I choose function over form.

    Now, I really wish HTC would at least add the built in kickstand back in. That was a great little touch they had for a while.
    Reply
  • dyc4ha - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - link

    lol look at all the designer labels, appearance matters in real life I assure you. Reply
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, April 25, 2013 - link

    He didn't say he would. Reply
  • Reikon - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - link

    Is it that hard to realize that a lot people don't actually use cases for their phones? Reply
  • darwinosx - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - link

    I never use a case. Lots of people don't. Quit making excuses for Samsungs cheapness. Reply
  • Notmyusualid - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - link

    Exactly - mine won't see a case at all.

    I wanted to hold out for my removable battery & SD slot, but since my SGS2 had such poor audio, (thus meaning I often missed calls in a noisy communications / server environment), I gave in, and my new HTC One will arrive tomorrow.

    I might have lived with the plastic though, I had no case on my SGS2, and loved how light it was.

    A 4" version of either the SGS4 or HTC One with no skimping on internals would have me jumping for joy though...
    Reply

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