BlackBerry's back: Z10 camera review
Image Quality and Performance
Most users will not base their smartphone buying decisions exclusively on camera performance and if the new Blackberry 10 operating system is right for you will depend on a lot of factors, many of them non-imaging related. However, we can say that with its dual-core 1.5 GHz processor and 2GB of RAM, the Z10’s general performance is snappy and with 16GB of on-board memory and a microSD card slot, storage isn’t a problem. The BB10 operating system is stable and runs smoothly, though we did encounter a couple inexplicable overnight battery drains, possible linked to the phone trying to sync over Wi-Fi.
We also encountered some bugginess in the camera app. Several times during testing, the app would reopen as a black screen. Apparently it continued to function; you could still take pictures, though you wouldn’t see anything on screen. Shutting down the app completely in the BB10 Active Frames view (essentially its task manager and app switcher) and restarting it fixes the problem. It’s a small issue, but disappointing nonetheless. We'd expect this to get fixed with an update soon though.
The camera is quite responsive. It opens reasonably quickly. Shutter lag is very short, which contributes to the overall nimble feeling, but you have to remember that the camera will take a picture immediately, whether or not it’s locked focus. So you can end up with an out-of-focus image if you're too quick pulling the trigger.
Autofocus speed is not impressive but certainly acceptable. It’s accurate in good light, and falls off a bit in lower light. On the whole, it’s largely reliable and predictable. Shot-to-shot times, at around three-quarters of second, are decent but some Android phones such as the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S3 have much faster shot-to-shot times. Like most phones, the Z10 annoyingly exhibits “early shutter penalty,” meaning that if you press the shutter before the camera is ready to fire again, it ignores you rather than immediately taking a picture when it can.
Daylight, Low ISO
In good light the Z10 delivers solid results that look good at screen and web resolutions but also bear up under magnification. Its noise reduction is notably restrained, which avoids some of the smeariness and loss of low contrast detail that typically plagues phone cameras. This means a fair amount of noise is visible at base ISO in areas without masking detail like blue skies. In our opinion, it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
The automatic white balance is reasonably accurate, which is a good thing since there’s no manual override. Colors tend to be highly saturated as it is often the case on phone cameras. In the Blackberry camera app image parameters such as saturation, sharpness or contrast cannot be modified.
The Z10’s lens offers good sharpness, with minimal softness in the corners. Given the lack of an exposure compensation feature it's good to know the Z10’s auto exposure system is generally doing a good job.
Low Light, High ISO
There’s no manual ISO control in the native camera app and the highest ISO the camera uses is 800, a stop or two behind much of the competition. Of course, anyone can crank a sensor to insane ISOs and call it a feature: what matters is the output. Perhaps we’re being optimistic, but we think the Z10 could do ISO 1600 without completely embarrassing itself.
The thing is, when the lights go down, the Z10 turns in a decidedly mixed performance. It’s not a simple story of nasty high ISO performance. Not all noise is created equal, and in some cases the Z10’s noise has a tight, film-like grain that, while abundant, is less intrusive than you’d expect. This is probably another testament to the camera’s light-handed noise reduction: the resulting speckles often look better than the smeary aggressive noise reduction that most phones deploy. This means that certain lighting conditions and subjects lead to very satisfactory ISO 800 performance. For example, portraits can often stand a loss of detail and remain subjectively pleasing.
But sensor noise does obscure a lot of detail as the Z10’s sensitivity cranks up. Worse, in dark areas of the frame, the camera sometimes produces nasty banding noise, which looks like pale horizontal stripes (in landscape orientation). It’s hard to predict when they’ll make an appearance, and they’re sometimes visible at lower ISOs as well. They’re more pronounced towards the sides of the frame, and obviously stand out more when there’s a lack of concealing detail in the image.
The Z10’s other low light limitation is that a minimal shutter speed of 1/15th sec coupled with a maximum ISO of 800 isn’t always enough to get a decent exposure, even with the fast F2.2 lens. Switching to the Night scene mode with its 1/9th sec exposure floor helps in these instances, but at such slow shutter speeds both hand and subject movement becomes problematic. A mini-tripod is a very desirable accessory to at least reduce the hand-shake factor.
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