Apple iPhone 4 versus Canon S90

I have been thinking about this ever since Steve Jobs announced the iPhone 4: if I end up getting the iPhone 4 will I be able to ditch my Canon S90? Will picture quality of the iPhone 4 be just as good? There are significant technical differences between the two. The iPhone 4 has a 5 megapixel backside illuminated CMOS image sensor while the S90 has a Sony-made high-sensitivity 10 megapixel CCD. The lens on the iPhone 4 is fixed with an aperture of f/2.8. The Canon sports a f/2.0-4.9 optical zoom lens. The S90 takes exceptional pictures in low-light conditions and it seems so does the iPhone 4. I was wondering and wondering… thankfully Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan and Woody Allen Jang took the iPhone 4, Droid X, iPhone 3GS, the S90 and took a whole bunch of photographs in Test Notes: iPhone 4 Camera.

Off the bat the Droid X falls short of the iPhone 4 even though it has 8 megapixels compared to the iPhone 4’s five. There’s a couple of reasons for that. First, the iPhone 4 has a backside illuminated image sensor that’s better at capturing photons. Second, each of the photon receptors are bigger on the iPhone 4 than on the Droid X. Bigger photon receptors mean more photons are captured and that leads to better quality pictures. MacWorld agrees the iPhone 4 is much better than the Droid X and the EVO 4G (read MacWorld: iPhone 4 Sports Best Smartphone Camera for more info).

Then Buchanan and Jang (B&J) go off into a difficult topic of popping colors. Sure, the eyes like it when colors pop but once you start on that slippery slope you’ll want more pop at the expense of true colors. If I had to choose from having accurate colors to colors that pop, I’d take accurate colors every time. The main difference comes from color processing and then displaying the colors on screen. The folks at Apple decided to pop the colors a bit by increasing the contrast and color saturation. Thankfully the S90 is color-accurate and unfortunately the iPhone 4 has less accurate popping colors. A while back I collaborated with DisplayMate on a series of articles comparing the Google Nexus One to Apple’s iPhone 3GS (read Display Showdown: Nexus One vs. iPhone 3GS for more info). In those articles we knocked down the PenTile Matrix OLED display for having colors that were simply too blown up. A little pop here and there might not be so bad but when magenta becomes red or cyan becomes blue you’ve got a problem.

The photo above was taken with the S90 in full auto, JPG mode. It’s the COEX Mall at night in Samsungdong, Seoul, South Korea. No post-processing was done; I only shrank the size. I think the quality is pretty remarkable for a compact digital camera. Of course depending on the monitor you’re using to view the photo, colors will vary somewhat. Although the iPhone 4 does a much better job than the Droid X or the iPhone 3GS, B&J gives the S90 the thumbs up:

The iPhone 4 won’t produce the kind of dreamy night portraits the S90 can.

Although the Gizmodo article states the iPhone 4 as having a f/2.4 lens, I have seen other more authoritative sources putting the fixed aperture of the lens at f/2.8. Check out Falk Lumo and Ars Technica.

So that settles it. The camera system used in the iPhone 4 is probably one of the best out there among smartphones. But even with a 5 megapixel backside illuminated CMOS image sensor with each photo receptors as large as the ones in the previous 3.2 megapixel version the iPhone 4’s camera just can’t compete with the S90, which is considered one of the best compact digital cameras known for its low-light photography. Even if I get an iPhone 4 it won’t be replacing my Canon S90. As much as I’d want to carry one less high-tech gadget, photo quality is much more important to me.