When is a phone camera enough?

That's the question I repeatedly asked while attending San Diego Comic-Con, which wrapped up about two weeks ago. Ian Lewis' "Let’s not blindly give every latest tech marketing prophet his profit", posted here Sunday afternoon, has me thinking about phone as camera again, in context of what's good enough.

A year ago, I took to Comic-Con the Fuji X100 to shoot photos and Sony HDR-TG1 camcorder for videos. I processed and uploaded content on a Mac laptop. But July 2012, I was a month into an Apple boycott over patent bullying. I still have the devices but now use the Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook. It's plenty good enough for processing photos using cloud services to edit, but I wasn't too sure about videos and decided not even to bother. During Google I/O I shot video on Galaxy Nexus, uploading directly to YouTube. That worked out just fine.

What Matters More

Photos are tricky shooting from the phone, however, within a crowded, indoor venue. I almost never use the flash, because it's harsh and rude, particularly during crowded events like Comic-Con. The X100 is a simply astounding low-light performer and my first choice for indoor shoots. Galaxy Nexus is way more convenient, but produces much more noise -- meaning grain -- when used in low light. Are the phone's images anywhere as good as the camera's? Not the least. Are they good enough? For the immediate context, yes. But there are big trade-offs.

I took the X100 for the second day of Comic-Con's four days and planned to carry it the other two. But I shot less than a dozen photos, posting just one. Meanwhile, I used Galaxy Nexus near constantly. I can snap, edit and upload from the device, which is exactly what I did, to Google+, over four days. The X100 stayed at home for the remainder of the event.

This is my second go round with the Fuji X100. I sold my original last December, only to buy another a few months ago. I really like this camera. It's compact, but packs dSLR-size sensor (think Nikon D90), outstanding prime lens (meaning no zoom) and real viewfinder (optical-digital hybrid). I can shoot amazing photos with the X100. But doing so is lots of extra work, too. I need to connect the camera to a PC to process and upload images, and there's no geotagging. From Galaxy Nexus I can immediately upload pics to numerous services. There's an auto-upload function, too. Besides on-phone editing tools, Google provides others online for images uploaded via Google+.

Convenience and immediacy proved to be more important, particularly as people responded to real-time posts. Some G+ commenters said they followed the show through my posts, further driving me to put immediacy over quality. In the context of shooting photos for print, say, the X100 is by far the superior choice for an in-door event like Comic-Con. But for immediacy -- and shooting for the web -- Galaxy Nexus proved good enough.

Shoot Me

But you wouldn't know that Galaxy Nexus could be a good-enough shooter given marketing and gadget geek bias about megapixels. Search for "Galaxy Nexus camera", and you will find lots of complaints about the phone only being a 5MP shooter, when Apple's smartphone -- or Samsung's S3 -- reach eight. But there's more to a good camera than megapixel count. It's my experience that for devices with smaller sensors, 5MP is typically optimal. Squeezing more pixels onto the same size sensor leads to distortion and other artifacts. It's a myth that more megapixels are better. Quality of lens and amount of software compression are other factors. Remember, 5MP was state of the art just a few years ago.

What makes Galaxy Nexus even a contender is the zero-lag shutter Google promises in marketing and delivers in reality. The phone takes pictures as fast as any dSLR I've used and better than every compact camera. Tap and shoot. Immediately. This capability is far superior to having more megapixels. Go to your local phone store and test it. You'll be amazed.

Then there is video. Days gone by, I would need to edit footage, adding titles, transitions, etc. using iMovie or other video-editing software. That's no longer necessary. Google provides basic editing capabilities on the phone and even more online. I can shoot and upload videos to YouTube right away, satisfying that immediacy need. Then go online and add the stuff I used to on Mac or Windows PC. The options aren't as fancy or pretty, but they get the job done and eliminate hours of work or delay from post-processing.

Google I/O and Comic-Con both put the video-recording capabilities to the test. Galaxy Nexus shoots 1080p, but what about audio? What shocks me: How well the microphone picks up the principles speaking in overly noisy areas, which eliminates the need for post-processing audio. Is it exceptional? No. But it's more than good enough.

Battery Life

Some people will scoff and say iPhone 4S can do as good or better -- and there's no question the handset is a great shooter. But what about battery life? iPhone 4S has a fixed battery. Galaxy Nexus' is not. I generally get exceptionally good battery life from the Android -- even 24 hours with moderate use.

During Comic-Con, I finally pushed the battery to the max, or beyond it. I got just 4 hours usage from my HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus. That's with near constant screen time -- shooting photos, shooting video, uploading video to YouTube and updating and checking Google+. Then I swapped batteries. You can't do that with iPhone 4S.

Because venue WiFi sucked (provided by AT&T), all the online activity was done over HSPA+. I wonder if battery life would have been better with LTE, since video would have pushed to YouTube faster. I wouldn't be shocked to see battery life a couple hours longer.

Day before yesterday, I sold the X100, and it went to a good home. For now, Galaxy Nexus is good enough in many situations, but by no means all. Starting today, I go on vacation for a week -- a rare occurrence for me. My daughter turns 18 and starts college in a few weeks. She and my wife deserve attention during this transition time.

I'll step back from BetaNews altogether, but continue to post to Google+, where the interaction is fun and refreshing. During this week, I'll see just how good the phone camera really is, and I must admit to having my eye on the Sony Cyber-Shot RX100.

If you're not on Google+, see ya August 9th.

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