12 years ago we published the 12 MP shootout – a head-to-head comparison of the first two phones with 12MP cameras to hit the market, the Samsung Pixon12 (released August 2009) and the Sony Ericsson Satio (released October 2009). Since we’ve been feeling nostalgic about some of the greatest cameraphones of years past, we decided to try and recreate that shootout.
In last week’s Flashback article that focused on the Satio we noted how narrow the field of view of the camera is compared to the main camera on a modern phone (to say nothing of the ultrawide cam). So, let’s start here – which phone fits more in the frame? Just looking at the thumbnails below it should make it clear that the Pixon12 has a noticeably wider FoV (all photos were taken from the same position).
Samsung advertised the Pixon12 as having a 28mm lens (in 35mm equivalent), though in reality it was closer to 30mm. The Sony Ericsson Satio has a 35mm lens, while the modern Xperia 1 II is much wider at 24mm (for the main cam).
That should put the Pixon12 a disadvantage when it comes to resolved detail since the same 12MP resolution is stretched to cover more of the scene. However, the Samsung camera phone once again has the upper hand with low noise and well-defined detail. We’re also including the shots we took with the Sony Xperia 1 II for last week’s article as a benchmark of what a modern phone can do.
The photo Sony Ericsson Satio is quite noisy, which drowns out the finer detail. This is especially noticeable in the grass and in the chipped paint of the snail. Here’s a cropped in view:
And just out of curiosity, here’s the same crop showing the Pixon12 and the Xperia 1 II. Don’t forget that you can hit the Compare button to the right of photo thumbnails and pick two photos to have a closer look in the gallery.
You may have noticed in the snail photo that Pixon12 prefers punchier colors. The Satio does tend to produce colors closer to reality. However, with both phones the grass could look slightly different in two consecutive shots.
The wider lens of the Pixon12 again puts it at a disadvantage when it comes to dynamic range – it captures more of the sky and since it was a cloudy day (but still in the middle of summer, so quite bright), the phones had their work cut out for them. With that in mind, the Pixon12 has the upper hand as it resolved the clouds slightly better (and it fit more of them in the frame).
The Samsung Pixon12 has a wider lens and a brighter aperture too – f/2.6 won’t impress anyone today, but it’s still better than Satio’s f/2.8. This allowed it to shoot at 1/15s shutter speed, compared to Satio’s 1/8s, which resulted in much less visible handshake in this scene.
Here’s a closer look that makes the handshake evident. Of course, neither of the old phones have Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and they don’t know tricks like image stacking that their modern day descendants use to produce much better images even in low light.
However, this is a fairly well-lit scene. The next one was shot with the flash disabled – this is all about what the sensor can do. While phones performed quite poorly, the Pixon12 didn’t even try.
This scene has one wall lit by a somewhat dim (and quite yellow) street light and one wall being in shadow. There are decorative bas-relief panels on each wall and you can almost make it out in the Satio photo. Check out the Xperia 1 II photo as reference for what the pattern should look like.
Besides image quality, we also want to talk about autofocus. Both the Pixon12 and Satio are quite slow at the best of times, in the dark they failed to get a focus lock quite often. It is a known weakness of contrast detection autofocus – in the dark it just doesn’t have much to latch on to.
The Satio did do a better job of it, but even it couldn’t get a lock half of the time. The Pixon12 failed most of the time. Modern phase detection autofocus is more resilient when it comes to focusing in the dark. It also helps that modern photodiodes are much more sensitive, making the job of the AF system easier. This has a major impact on the experience – the modern flagship got instant focus lock and gave us confidence that it is correct, while the older phones hunted for autofocus and made us worry if they got it even half right.
You don’t see a lot of xenon flashes these days, but they used to be standard on premium camera phones
That was a test with no flash, but both the Pixon12 and the Satio are equipped with xenon flashes, unlike modern phones. Xenon produces a short, very bright burst of light, perfect for night time photos. The Satio once again has the upper hand. To its credit, the Pixon12 captured a good amount of detail in the foot statue, but the Satio got closer to the correct color (the green of copper patina) and it even managed to see some of the background.
Here’s a closer look:
Of course, neither can match the performance of a modern phone. The Xperia didn’t really need its flash since the statue was right next to a well-illuminated mall, which cast plenty of light on the statue. And LED flashes are not effective at that distance, anyway.
Here are a couple of more camera samples:
The Samsung Pixon12 and Sony Ericsson Satio were unveiled 12 years ago and that they still manage to take some decent photos is a testament to their prowess. They were the cream of the crop back in 2009 and cost accordingly. The Pixon12 was rather pricey at €640 (€735, adjusted for inflation). The Satio also “cost a fortune” at €550 (€630 in today’s money), however, it is still half of what a Sony Xperia 1 II cost at launch – €1,200. And the Xperia has 12 years of progress in image sensors and image processing on its side.
It was fun revisiting some of the all time greats and seeing how they hold up after all this time. Nostalgia aside, this is a great example of how far we’ve come – we barely care to mention things like phase detection autofocus these days, even though it’s much more effective than contrast AF.
It’s just that it is expected on modern phones. As are Backside Illumination (BSI) image sensors. We don’t have details on the Pixon12 and Satio sensors, but seeing how Sony introduced the first BSI sensor in 2009 (a 5 MP CMOS sensor), these are certainly frontside illuminated. Again, this is a major improvement in camera design that we take for granted today that wouldn’t be possible by camera phones like the Pixon12 and Satio convincing people that a phone can actually replace your camera.