We’ve used two types of cameras in my multimedia classes here at Lehigh, and I wanted to get a chance to compare it to the camera in Glass. So I went out on a fairly overcast day here on campus to compare three cameras in terms of photo and video. The cameras:

  • Kodak Zi8: Those of you familiar with Flip cameras would recognize this type of camera. It’s a pocket digital camera with the ability to shoot with 5.3 megapixels (MP). It shoots HD video in 1080p. What I like about these cameras compared to Flip is that it has a mic jack if you want better quality audio than what the internal mic gives you (and trust me, you do).
  • iPhone 4S: My personal phone. We experimented with mobile devices in my Visual Communication last semester. Most students had either a 4S or an iPhone 5. A couple others had Android phones with similar photo ability. The 4S has an 8 MP camera and can shoot HD video in 1080p.
  • Glass: It has a 5 MP camera and can shoot video in 720 p.

Photos

Below is a look at the photos in slideshow form. This was shot from a central point at Lehigh University and has four different perspectives. For each perspective, there’s a succession of three shots, all in the same order: first the Zi8, then the iPhone 4S, then via Glass. In case you need a refresher, the caption contains information on the camera and the dimensions of the photo at full frame.

I recommend clicking on the slideshow below, then on the page that loads asking for a fullscreen view. Make the browser as big as possible in order to get the biggest photo size possible. That will make the comparison a bit easier.

Zi8 vs. iPhone vs. Glass

A few things stand out to me when I look at these.

First, Glass gives you the smallest photo size in terms of raw image, followed by Zi8 and then iPhone. I’ve been saying for a while that the iPhone’s camera is pretty amazing and this gives you a nice comparison. It also is a reminder that megapixels are overrated. All three of these cameras are at least 5 MP (although iPhone does 8 MP), but you can see huge differences in quality when it comes to focus, exposure, depth, and color richness even for the two with 5 MP cameras. Simply put, the sensor on the iPhone’s camera is really what makes that thing go. Looking at the Glass photos confirms what I thought after yesterday’s tests – the drawbacks to its camera are more about sensors than MP.

Still, Glass does a pretty nice job with photos compared to the Zi8, which can shoot rather large photos but doesn’t have the sensor capacity to do great photos. The Zi8 struggles with contrasts in particular. What ends up getting lost is detail. While Glass’ camera isn’t as good as the 4S, it has a surprising amount of detail.

The other thing that stands out is the framing. Glass takes a pretty wide-angle shot, as does the iPhone, compared to the Zi8. I said yesterday that you are your own zoom lenswith Glass, and this gives you a sense on how close you need to get to produce pictures with more detail.

Videos

Next up is a look at a differences in video. These were shot simultaneously, with my iPhone in my right hand (it makes a few cameos as I lose track of where my head is pointing) and the Zi8 in my left hand.

I should note these videos also are completely unaltered. In order is the Zi8, then the iPhone 4S, then Glass.

All three devices are using image stabilization, but the Zi8 shows the most degradation in quality when it’s being used. You can see those when I pan too quickly, for example. I tell my students to pan slowly with that camera because of this issue, but what I was trying to do here was show the contrast of fast and slow pans.

Again, Glass’ sensor quality gives it a leg up over the Zi8 even though it’s shooting video in lower resolution. Part of this is based in detail, but the colors also are more vibrant throughout. I have noticed a tendency for Glass to shoot video that is a bit darker, so when you go to edit the footage you may need to account for that. But on the whole, Glass looks like a superior camera.

The big difference is the battery-life vs. storage issue.

  • The Zi8′s battery can get you an hour, maybe 80 minutes if you turn off image stabilization. The camera uses an SDHC card, so storage is limited by the size of your card, but using an external battery is a bit of a pain with this device so the practical limit is about an hour of video.
  • Glass’ battery is capable of about 40 minutes of recording time (although storage is another issue given the device only has 12 GB of usable storage space). I also tested it using a USB battery charger and was able to record a 5-hour video with it before the storage filled up.
  • Battery is great on the iPhone, but that can be deceiving. The iPhone is capable in theory of several hours of video based on battery, but you’d have to have a 32 or 64 GB device with little else on it to pull that off. First of all, the iPhone records in .MOV format, which is much less compressed than the .mp4 format Glass uses. Second, smartphones have many other uses and store things from apps to music, whereas Glass pretty much stores just photos and videos. So while some of this is based on how you use your smartphone, it’s not hard to imagine that most 16 GB iPhone users would be limited to 20-25 minutes of video time. Best-case scenario with an empty phone that is emptied frequently, a 16 GB iPhone 4s could match Glass in terms of storage.

Finally, notice the sound difference. I cheated a bit by using the Zi8 built-in mic; in practice I’d always use one of our plug-in mics if I was producing something of even minimal quality. Glass’ mic gives crisp audio but the sound is a bit tinny to the ear. The iPhone has a nice spectrum of noises it can capture, but the sound is also more flat on the whole. There are some nice plug-in mics for iPhone, but the tradeoff with Glass is you’re stuck with what you have.

Conclusion

Here’s a rough breakdown of camera differences

Zi8 Glass iPhone 4S
Megapixels 5.0 5.3 8.0
Video 1080p HD 720p HD 1080p HD
File Type .mov .mov .mp4
IMG stabilization Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (by video record time) 70 min 50 min 90 min
Zoom Digital Digital
Connectivity WiFi or 3G/4G via tethering WiFi, 3G

There are tradeoffs with any camera. We haven’t used the Zi8 in classes in a few semesters and given the amazing quality of the cameras on smartphones it’s not hard to tell why. The camera is great for little projects and for learning, but I’d struggle to use that while keeping the iPhone in the pocket on bigger projects that require a bit more quality.

Connectivity is a pretty big feature that still favors the smartphone camera. While Glass can do WiFi, it cannot connect to WPA2 networks that use enterprise security (basically anything that needs a username to log in). That means you have to either find a WiFi network that needs only a password or you have to tether the device, meaning you need your phone anyhow. Flip cameras and Zi8s don’t even have connectivity and that’s a huge drawback for spot reporting from the field.

All three cameras struggle when panning from low-contrast settings to high-contrast settings. It takes the sensor a bit to catch up. The Zi8 is terrible at it for the most part, Glass struggles but eventually gets there, and the iPhone is the fastest of the three. The first two also are terrible in low light no matter what, whereas I’ve found the last two generations of iPhones have remarkable quality in low-light environments.

In some ways this isn’t a fair test. The iPhone is the gold standard in camera phones, in my opinion, because of it’s great combination of lenses and sensors. It’s better than almost any point-and-shoot on the market. Still, it’s useful to ask how much you’re giving up by going instead with Glass. The short answer is not much in most situations, and the question then becomes how much having your hands free is worth it.

Most interesting: If you consider extended-battery options, Glass is a clear winner compared to the entry-level iPhone. You can record much longer videos if you’re using a battery pack on Glass compared to using a similar battery-boost technique on iPhone (and thus storage space is the only issue). The only way these end up being equal at the iPhone’s lowest price point is if you buy a 16 GB iPhone and use it for nothing but picture taking and recording, and even so that assumes you are downloading files off the phone regularly. The iPhone’s superior image quality also means bigger picture and video file sizes.

It’s a stretch to put Glass’ camera on par with the iPhone 4S camera (and we should bear in mind that the iPhone 5′s camera is better – and will be a generation behind this fall). It would be more accurate to say it holds its own. A reporter on assignment might have a choice. If quality is more of a need, I’d still use a high-end smartphone if I had it. But if you want to have the ability to shoot video on the fly without being distracted, I’d give Glass a serious look. There is a certain beauty to being able to work hands-free that is attractive with Glass.

Basically they are two different types of devices but both could be the most useful in a given context. Once the ability to do on-air hangouts is added, Glass will really start to look more useful than a smartphone because it can turn a reporter into a broadcaster.

And I expect that the camera is where we’ll see the most improvement as Glass iterates through different editions. Right now the sensors help it punch above its weight class compared to cameras with more megapixels. Once the lenses improve, look out.

In the end, I was surprised how favorably Glass’ camera was compared to my phone’s camera. This is a device that’s still in the testing phase and you figure the hardware is going to be much lower quality than the wider release will have. But either way, I wouldn’t hesitate to use this thing in the field, not for a second.

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Comparing Glass to smartphone, Flip-style cameras
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