What makes a great smartphone camera? Whether we want to admit it or not, the vast majority of consumers, who have little technical background, have been led to believe that a higher pixel count equates with better image quality. The reasons for this are many, but let's just say that manufacturers did us no favors by marketing megapixel counts as heavily (and pretty much exclusively). Ostensibly, a higher megapixel count does
introduce advantages, but diminishing returns kick in real fast. That is, a 5-megapixel image is more than large enough for a clear print on an A4 paper, and certainly sufficient for sharing on social media. More than that should not
necessarily be considered an advantage.
So why is that? It's not that hard to grasp, actually. When you cram as many pixels on a relatively small sensor, that comes at the expense of pixel size, which is a pretty important consideration when talking image quality. Indeed, the smaller the pixel, the less accurately it can measure light bouncing off of it, and thus the more noisy and less clear the picture is. That's why, all things being equal, smartphones with larger sensors are better suited for shooting in darkness. Again, cramming as many pixels as possible in a smartphone may be a good way to advertise and sell a device, but not necessarily a prelude to better quality.
This is not to say that smaller pixels don't have their own set of advantages, but in the current climate, those are usually the result of manufacturers feeling pressured to increasingly add in more and more megapixels to their flagships while continuously cutting down on the thickness of a device (which tends to be impossible if you go for a large sensor, which, in turn, requires larger optics). This isn't limited to just cameras, and is plainly visible in other areas, such as the processor and display resolution.
So which are the smartphones that offer the largest camera sensors? We've got the answer, so jump right into the slideshow below.
* Arranged in ascending order!
Smartphones with the largest camera sensors
Smartphones with the largest camera sensors
1. Nokia Lumia 920, 925, 928, 1/3"
Renowned for its attention to the camera stack, Nokia's Lumia 920, and subsequent refreshes in the 925 and 928, all sported a relatively large, 1/3", 8.7-megapixel sensors with F2.0 lenses and two LED flashes (a Xenon and an LED in the case of the 928).
2. HTC One M8/Windows, One Max, One mini, One M7, 1/3"
The HTC fleet, too, chose a 1/3" sensor, albeit with less pixels on it compared with the rest (4MP) – at least for the most part. Also packed within the stack were an F2.0 lenses and a single or dual LED flashes.
3. Apple iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 5s 1/3"
When Apple introduced the iPhone 5s, its presentation slides concerning the camera focused on the fact that instead of chasing pixel count, the company went after sensor size instead. Unfortunately, the jump wasn't spectacular – a little over 6% – but still a move in the right direction. Sadly, instead of keeping true to that direction, the size of the sensor of the iPhone 6 remained the same, at 1/3'' (8MP, F2.2 lens).
4. Motorola Moto X (2013), 1/2.6"
In a turn, Motorola actually chose a higher pixel count over sensor size when transitioning from the 2013 model of the Moto X to the 2014 refresh. In result, the older, 2013 Moto X actually has a larger, 1/2.6" sensor (vs 1/3.06"), but less pixels on board (10MP vs 13MP). At least the lens grew with the 2014 model (F2.2 vs F2.4).
5. Samsung Galaxy Note 4, 1/2.6"
Samsung didn't make such compromises when building the Note 4, however. Its camera sensor is both larger (1/2.6") and more pixel-rich (16MP) than its predecessor, the Note 3.
6. Samsung Galaxy S5 (all variants), 1/2.6"
The previous also holds true for the Galaxy S5 and all of its many variants – it built upon the Galaxy S4 with a larger, more pixel-rich sensor (1/2.6" and 16MP).
7. Nokia Lumia 1520, 1/2.5"
The 1/2.5" sensor is something of a Nokia specialty, for no other manufacturer has used one in their smartphones. In any case, the Lumia 1520 has exactly that – a 1/2.5" sensor with 20 megapixels, F2.4 lens, and two LED flashes.
8. Nokia Lumia 930/Icon, 1/2.5"
The Lumia 930 and Lumia Icon are the only two other devices that we know to be using a 1/2.5" sensor, and it's actually the exact same unit found in the aforementioned Lumia 1520, with 20MP, F2.4 lens, and a duo of LED flashes.
HTC famously dumped its longstanding UltraPixel tech to the front slot with its 2015 crop of devices, opting for high-res Toshiba sensors instead. The HTC One M9, M9+, ME, and E9+ are all equipped with Toshiba's T4KA7 sensor — a 10:7 unit — along with F2.2 lens, and two LED lamps (E9+ being an exception, with just one).
10. Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, 1/2.3"
Further up the food chain is the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, with its 10x optical zoom, optical stabilization, and 1/2.3", 16-megapixel sensor. The S4 Zoom also makes use of F3.1-F17.8 lens and a Xenon flash.
11. Samsung Galaxy K Zoom, 1/2.3"
The S4 Zoom's successor, the Galaxy K Zoom, sticks to largely the same sensor – a 1/2.3" unit, but with 20.7 megapixels, F3.1-F6.3 lens and a Xenon flash.
12. BLU Life Pure XL, 1/2.3"
A re-branded Gionee Elife E7
, the BLU Life Pure XL sports the same great camera packed within the former (obviously). We're talking a 1/2.3", 16MP sensor with an LED flash and unknown lens aperture.
13. Sony Xperia Z1 and up (Z1 Compact, Z2, Z3, Z3+, Z4v), 1/2.3"
Ever since the Xperia Z1, Sony has been using the same-sized Exmor RS sensor – a 1/2.3" unit with 20.7 megapixels, F2.0 lens, and an LED flash.
Equipped with a 23.8-megapixel, 1/2.3" sensor (likely the OmniVision OV23850), the Gionee Elife E8 is slated for a July 15th launch, and is expected to be quite the big deal for photography buffs. Indeed, Gionee has promised that the phone will be able to stitch together gigantic images up to 100 megapixels in size, but we're also glad to see that the company has seen it fit to include optical images stabilization and provide some protection in the form of sapphire glass for the camera lens. That ought to keep it nice and safe.
15. Meizu MX4/MX4 Pro, 1/2.3"
Meizu is also making use of Sony's 1/2.3", 20.7MP Exmor RS sensor with the MX4 and MX4 Pro, the only difference being that the unit makes use of narrower, F2.2 lens and a dual LED flash in the case of the latter.
16. The Bronze: Nokia Lumia 1020, 1/1.5"
The third largest smartphone sensor in existence is the one packed within the Lumia 1020. It's a 1/1.5" sensors with a whopping 41 megapixels (though the camera shoots at 5MP by default), F2.2 lens, and a LED + Xenon flash combo.
17. The Silver: Nokia PureView 808, 1/1.2"
The second largest camera sensor in a smartphone belongs to the Nokia PureView 808 – an even larger, 1/1.2" unit with 41 megapixels, F2.4 lens, and a LED + Xenon flashes.
18. The Gold: Panasonic Lumix CM1, 1"
And the very largest camera sensor currently on a smartphone? The one in the recently released Panasonic Lumix CM1.
At 1", the Panasonic cameraphone deserves this spot – this sensor is 7 times larger than your average smartphone sensor, which, needless to say, is quite a lot. It's no surprise that Panasonic calls the Lumix CM1 a camera first, and a phone second.
The CM1 doesn't feature optical zoom, which is a bit disappointing, but it does have 20 megapixels to work with, F2.8-F11.0 lens, and an LED flash. While the device runs near-stock Android 4.4 KitKat, the camera software has been extensively customized and can shoot in RAW format and offers ISO controls (100 to 25,600). If you're after a great cameraphone, the Lumix CM1 should be among your top considerations, though keep in mind that it'll cost $1,000 in the US.