• How much can software upgrade really affect smartphone image quality?

Hands-on with the Updated Nexus 5 Camera

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How much can software upgrade really affect smartphone image quality?

It's well-known that smartphone cameras, while rapidly improving, are... not that great. Not only do most phones cut corners with tiny sensors and iffy lenses, but stock camera apps don't offer a huge range of control. But while there's no way to upgrade your phone's camera hardware, the software can be improved. That's exactly what Google has done with its recent Android update, which brings the OS up to version 4.4.1 and seeks to drastically improve camera performance.

Tweaking the camera app on a smartphone may seem like putting lipstick on a pig, but we put aside our skepticism and took some shots with a Nexus 5 pre- and post-update, then carefully analyzed the difference. Here are some of our initial thoughts after taking the latest camera update for a spin.

[Ed. note: A newer update, 4.4.2, was also recently released. That upgrade is concerned primarily with bug fixes, and does not address the camera app.]

Pre-update Nexus 5

—Autofocus takes ~0.4–1sec on most shots
—HDR is relatively fast, but there's no indication of how long you're supposed to keep it still
—Exposure times are long, prone to blur
—Shot quality roughly average for a modern smartphone camera

Shooting with the Nexus 5 before the 4.4.1 update wasn't exactly a nightmare, but it certainly wasn't the greatest mobile photography experience on the market. The main issue (aside from mediocre overall image quality) was a lack of responsiveness and control in the native Android camera app, which lagged behind even basic point-and-shoots in terms of the user experience. Google clearly didn't put a great deal of emphasis on the camera's software when developing the Nexus 5, but the shots we got out of it were still good enough for sharing online or getting very small prints made.

While we could get over the small sensor and lack of manual control, our one hangup with the app pre-update was inappropriately long exposure time. Honestly, for a super-powerful flagship smartphone, it was surprising to me how long it took to get a shot. We live in a world where you can find out how many movies Jim Carrey has starred in (25!) inside of a minute, from virtually anywhere in the world, but with the stock Nexus 5 I was still struggling to take a photo before my subject moved.

The issue appears to be that the pre-update camera app would favor longer exposure times to reduce noise levels.
Generally the issue appears to be that the pre-update camera app would favor longer exposure times to reduce noise levels, relying on image stabilization and post-processing to keep details sharp. Though we're only talking fractions of a second, there's only so much the stabilization mechanism can compensate for—many shots ended up getting blurred if I didn't have Waco Kid-level steadiness.

Exacerbating the issue, the Nexus 5 attempted to focus before every single shot, even if the position and relative distance of your subject hadn't changed. This means that even if you got a shot in focus, there was no guarantee the camera would get it right for the next shot. In short, there was clearly some room for improvement.

Post-update Nexus 5

—Autofocus takes ~0.1–0.6sec
—HDR now has indicator for holding
—Exposure times are shorter
—Slight oversaturation in reds, oranges
—Higher contrast

After installing the update, we can report with confidence that overall image quality is slightly improved. You won't confuse these shots for anything that came out of a DSLR, or even a high-quality compact, but it's definitely a step up from the 4.4-equipped Nexus 5. Google also made a few functional updates that make the camera app not only easier to use, but more user error–resistant. The best examples: shortened exposure times and faster autofocus that intelligently maintains focus from shot to shot.

With several tweaks to improve the user experience, Google's camera update is a welcome upgrade.
Additionally, pictures are punchier thanks to increased saturation, specifically in the reds and oranges. Though it's far from realistic, the effect isn't overdone—in most cases, it simply makes the photo pop a little more. Those looking for more stylized shots will appreciate the HDR function's new trick: an indicator circle that shows its progress in real-time, taking the guesswork out of how long you should hold still. Even without noticeable improvements to sharpness or manual control, the update succeeds in giving image quality a slight boost.

With several tweaks to improve the user experience, Google's camera update for the Nexus 5 is a welcome upgrade. And though it might seem relatively minor, increasing the speed at which the camera operates is a big deal when it comes to a smartphone.

Perhaps more importantly, the update shows that Google is willing to get more serious about photography. While serious Android-powered hardware is slowly gaining momentum with camera manufacturers, it's good to know that Google will continue to push things forward on the software side.

Chris Thomas 30ceae87d2a5801b8d5d271214e597a7?s=48&d=mm
A seasoned writer and product photographer for our electronics sites, Chris now reviews cameras. Educated in Political Science and Linguistics, Chris can often be found building a robot army, snowboarding, or reading academic papers.
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