Camera ready in two shakes: Motorola Moto X camera review
The Moto X camera app’s stripped-down approach carries over to a feature set that’s limited by Android standards, but it manages to include the most important ones.
The tiny sensors in phones struggle to capture scenes that include deep shadows and bright highlights. High Dynamic Range (HDR) modes help by merging multiple images with different exposures and are quickly becoming a standard, and very useful, feature.
The Moto X’s HDR mode does a solid job of recording wide brightness ranges with a natural look. While many HDR modes crop the edges of the frame to allow for aligning the component images (resulting in a slightly lower-res photo with a narrower field of view), the Moto X does its HDR magic without these compromises. It’s also quite good at removing the ghosting traditionally caused by moving subjects: it’s not perfect, but it gets things right the vast majority of the time. While the processing lag is longer than the fastest we’ve seen (the iPhone 5s), it’s fast enough to not worry about under most circumstances.
The HDR shot above captures a much wider dynamic range than the shot taken with the feature switched off. Colors, even in the midtones, are also more saturated. The moving people don’t create artifacts. But what really sets the feature apart from competing offerings is that is can be set on, off or auto. On auto (the default setting), the camera decides whether to use HDR or not for a given scene. This is really useful, both for users who can’t tell at a glance whether a scene merits an HDR treatment, and those who would rather not fiddle with switching modes.
Usually we evaluate HDR as a special case function, an option apart from normal operation. The Moto X is the first phone we’ve tested that seamlessly integrates it into normal operation. To be fair, Sony’s Xperia Z can automatically engage HDR, but it’s rolled into the "Superior Auto" mode with consequences that aren’t for everyone. And the "HDR+" function on Google’s Nexus 5 is almost good enough to leave on all the time, but that’s not quite the same thing as a true adaptive HDR mode. Since it is the default setting on the Moto X, and the HDR function operates nearly transparently, we left auto HDR on for most of our testing. The only time we’d recommend turning it off is when minimal shot-to-shot time is paramount.
Processing power is advancing faster than sensor technologies, so we expect to see so-called computational photography playing an increasing role in phones. For example, the iPhone 5s tries to counteract blur by capturing multiple frames and blending the sharpest parts into a single image, completely behind the scenes. The Moto X’s auto HDR mode is another example of this trend.
Panorama modes are a standard feature these days, but the better ones distinguish themselves with higher-resolution output, artful stitching, adaptive exposure, and effective capture methods. The Moto X’s camera app doesn’t aspire to any of these higher goals.
You can pan smoothly in any direction, which is nice, but the output is frankly disappointing. With the phone in portrait orientation, full panos weigh in at around 5 megapixels. In landscape, that drops to under 3MP, with a slighter wider field of view but less vertical coverage and resolution.
After the pan, the camera app locks up for an astounding thirty seconds while the image is processed. It also crashed frequently during this phase during our testing, losing the image - a hard reset of the phone appeared to fix the problem.
Stitching quality is fairly good, though the low resolution could hide imperfections. The function doesn’t handle variation from the initial exposure well. This used to be an accepted weakness of automated pano modes but recent innovators have raised the bar. Any moving objects in the foreground create catastrophic artifacts.
Bottom line: if you’re serious about panorama shooting, use a third-party app. Oddly enough, Google’s own Photo Sphere app doesn’t support the Moto X.
Holding a finger on the main camera screen engages the Moto X’s burst mode, and it’ll capture continuously, averaging 2.5 frames per second for the first minute, and slowing slightly to 2.3 fps over two minutes (we didn’t test longer than that). This is better than no burst mode, but unimpressive compared to faster phones that rattle off 5 or 10 frames per second. And of course you have no control over ISO or shutter speed in burst mode either. This means that fast moving subjects will be blurry in anything but the brightest light.