Smartphone video camera smackdown

Video capture is standard on smartphones these days, but not all camcorders are created equal

With ever-improving sensors, on-board editing tools, and wireless sharing features, smartphones are a popular option for capturing video on the go. But not all smartphone camcorders are created equal: In my head-to-head tests, I found that certain phones handled motion more skillfully than others, some performed better in dim lighting while others floundered, and some produced noticeable pixelation in my test shoots.

The Contenders

I tested the camcorders on four popular smartphones: the Palm Pre Plus, the Google Nexus One, the Motorola Droid, and the Apple iPhone 3GS. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to test the HTC Droid Incredible's video skills, as I had to return that handset to HTC before I could shoot test footage.) The camcorder specs for each are as follows:

  • Palm Pre Plus3-megapixel sensor, 640-by-480-pixel videos, up to 29 frames per second
  • Nexus One5-megapixel sensor, 720-by-480-pixel videos, up to 20 frames per second
  • Motorola Droid5-megapixel sensor, 720-by-480-pixel videos, up to 24 frames per second
  • Apple iPhone 3GS3-megapixel sensor, 640-by-480-pixel videos, up to 30 frames per second

The Droid and the Nexus One, both running Google's Android 2.1 OS, do not have any on-board video-editing features. The Palm Pre Plus and the iPhone 3GS, in contrast, allow you to trim video length by dragging a handle through a series of thumbnail-size stills. All four phones let you upload directly to YouTube or send clips to friends via e-mail or MMS; the Palm Pre Plus also permits you to upload directly to Facebook.

Which smartphone camcorder had the best video quality? Read on.

Bright-Lighting Test

To test motion and color in optimal indoor settings, I shot three 1-minute videos of a moving Ferris wheel toy and a train set in a brightly lit, windowless room. Here was the tale of the tape, as I saw it. (Disagree with my eyeball assessment? Let me know which smartphone you think won the video battle in the comments section below.)

First Place: iPhone 3GS

The colors in the iPhone 3GS's videos looked the most washed out among the four competitors; but Apple's phone handled motion pretty well, with only a small amount of stuttering. The 3GS produced a bit of pixelation in the Ferris wheel, but slightly less than the other three phones did.

Second Place: Palm Pre Plus

The Palm Pre Plus's videos appeared darker than the footage I captured with the other smartphones, and I saw a small amount of stuttering in the train's motion. I also detected some ghosting with the train, and some pixelation in the Ferris wheel.

Third Place: Motorola Droid

The Motorola Droid's videos had the most natural colors of the four phones, but it too suffered from blurriness and pixelation. Among the group, it also struggled the most with motion: It frequently stuttered, and video playback even came to a complete stop in some shots.

Fourth Place: Google Nexus One

In all three test videos with the Nexus One, I noticed a strange flickering effect in the background. The videos all had a bluish tint, and obvious pixelation appeared in the Ferris wheel.

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Ginny Mies

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