Smartphones can pull off all sorts of parlor tricks these days, but point-and-shoot cameras they ain’t.
Fingering the culprit is a little tricky. Most notably, there are myriad hardware limitations: tiny sensors, sub-par lenses, lack of storage space, and poor battery life top of the list. Also, most of us already own a decent pocket-sized shooter, so if you want to take a great photo instead of a “good enough to get the point” photo, it’s only a matter of swapping devices for a few seconds.
Until mobile phone cameras get way better, that’s the world most of us live in — two devices for two situations.
HTC’s myTouch 4G Slide — with its large image sensor and bevy of shooting modes — is one of the few phones trying really hard to bridge this chasm. Like most Android phones, it handles basics like e-mail, chat, GPS navigation, web surfing and good old phone calls just fine. But where it really shines is with its forward-thinking camera optics and user-friendliness as a consumer-level shooter.
Let’s dive into the vitals first.
Like the Infuse 4G and newer 4G EVO phones, the Slide is yet another full-featured fattie. Inside the bulky body hides a pleasantly clicky slide-out QWERTY keyboard, along with the usual suspects: a middling 3.7-inch display, a sliver of navigational hotkeys and a front-facing VGA camera. Rounded corners and a khaki-colored plastic back lend it that “consumerific” camera look, but for the most part, the Slide sticks to it roots and looks like a smartphone.
Deeper down the rabbit hole hides a punchy 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor and 768MB of RAM. Though I’ve never been a huge fan of the chirpy presentation of HTC’s Sense UI Android skin, it hardly detracts from the raw power of this phone. Even with all the animations, extra features, and a handful of apps running at full tilt, overall navigation and performance kept pace with my feverish finger taps during testing. It’s not invincible though; sadists like myself can most certainly bring the phone to its knees for kicks (Rdio+Google Reader+Navigation+Netflix). But in reality, that level of regular abuse is beyond the average user.
So, if you’re just wanting a 4G Android slider (and don’t mind a little extra heft), it’s an attractive option. For everyone else, the real draw is going to be the myTouch Slide’s sweet, sweet 8-megapixel camera.
From the get-go, it’s clear the device has shooting on the mind. The machined metal of the dedicated shutter button not only feels solid, but it’s also responsive. And pressing the button not only wakes up the phone, it bypasses the generic unlock screen and goes straight to the action, bringing up the camera UI immediately. Security mavens and the absent-minded needn’t worry, the shutter button won’t bypass the unlock screen if you’ve set up a lock code.
The first time I launched the camera, a tutorial video offered a great primer on the phone’s advanced photo features. I usually roll my eyes when urged to RTFM, but I actually found this video crash course surprisingly useful. Shooting modes like Auto, SweepShot, HDR, Burst, Night, Action, Macro, Portrait, and Manual control are packed into this phone, and the guided tour was great for getting the lay of the land. The Slide helps you along in little ways, too. Each shooting mode has its own Cover Flow-esque slide in the menu, which provides both an example image and a detailed explanation of the mode’s ideal shooting conditions.
Though these sound like small features on their own, the sum of their parts makes for one of the most user-friendly camera experiences I’ve ever encountered. After poking around in the menus for a couple minutes, I was armed with enough info and options to not only shoot some (fantastically crisp!) photos, but also employ modes like “Action” to capture alternate perspectives of my subjects. The control scheme was flexible as well, letting me use the shutter key, an on-screen button, or the phone’s otherwise-awkward optical touchpad for triggering the almost-zero-lag shutter. By the fifteen-minute mark, I was getting saucy with the depth of focus and stitching together panoramic shots of my neighborhood. Stopping short of turning me into Diane Arbus, this is exactly what a camera phone should do — leverage software to create a simple (yet powerful) point-and-shoot experience.
The Slide’s hardware is a big part of this equation too. HTC took a page from the pro-sumer playbook and beefed up the phone’s imaging guts. Like the EVO 4G and the iPhone 4, the Slide incorporates a back-illuminated image sensor and throws in a wide f/2.2 lens to boot. In addition to some wide angle action, this arrangement allows for more light to hit the sensor, thus producing the better low-light images.
For the most part, the Slide followed through. Night shots of Oakland’s skyline looked crisp and showed minimal graininess. Even tight, low-light portraits produced impressive amounts of detail for a smartphone. Night shooters will also dig the dual LED flash, though I personally would’ve preferred a little more illuminating oomph. But for daytime shooting (and especially quick candids of the TwitPic variety) the Slide delivers.
There are still a few quibbles. Portrait mode — which keeps the object in the foreground in sharp focus while blurring everything else — provides mixed results. Although the software savvily lets you adjust the size of the crystal clear “sweet spot,” everything beyond that boundary is artificially fuzzed in an attempt to force the depth-of-field effect. To be honest, it’s a little conflicting. On one hand, it’s great the phone offers such a creative shooting mode, but it’s disappointing that the execution is so heavy-handed. Hardcore photo enthusiasts are likely to find this aspect of the Slide irritating, and it’s fair to say that when a device tries to straddle the fun/functional line, there are a few casualties.
From my perspective, this issues largely resolves itself. If you know your way around a camera and demand flawless exposures, use the DSLR or compact system camera you most likely already own. If your goal to is to finally ditch your point-and-shoot, or to snap quick candids and occasionally noodle with filters and effects — but you still want your basic photo subjects to look good — then the Slide is a great fit. It isn’t necessarily a camera-killer or the most powerful camera phone on the market — I still like the iPhone 4’s HDR software trick better, and Nokia’s 12MP N8 has a sharper camera. But the Slide has a great camera mounted on a good phone and is loaded with imaging software that’s as user-friendly as it comes.
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