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HTC One M8 vs Apple iPhone 5S vs Moto X: Smartphone cameras compared

HTC's newest phone has a camera layout unlike any other. The pair of sensors on the back allow the M8's Ultrapixel camera to add a ton of extra data to the photos that are taken, which in turn allows them to be manipulated in new and exciting ways. While the ability to adjust these photos on the HTC One M8 is a real treat, at the end of the day you still need to know how the photos compare to those taken by the other smartphones out there. We took an iPhone 5S and a Moto X along for a trip through a few indoor photo layouts to see what the M8's camera is capable of.

In-depth: Hands on with the HTC One M8

The photos in this collection were taken with the default settings provided by the manufacturer. This means that the HTC One M8 and the Moto X photos are 16:9 and the iPhone 5S is 4:3, so you'll notice that two of the photos are noticeably wider than the others. Additionally, Motorola uses "Auto HDR" by default on its camera. This feature allows the camera to determine whether or not HDR is necessary, so you will see some photos where this function has been deployed and others where it has not. Unfortunately for the Moto X, all that really did was create some situations where the camera was on par with what the other two cameras were taking by default.

In these pictures, the HTC One M8 is on the left, the Moto X in the middle, and the iPhone 5S is on the right. Click on the images to see bigger versions for a proper look at the shots.

HTC's camera is all about "bigger" pixels instead of more pixels. The 4.1-megapixel shooter is of a unique construction when compared to most smartphone cameras because their sensors gather more information per pixel than the rest.

This is part of why the original HTC One did such an amazing job in low light. The 8-megapixel sensors of the iPhone 5S and the Moto X capture a physically larger photo, but there's less information in each pixel for the camera to process and ultimately adjust to what the software thinks is best.

The end result is a photo that looks great on screens but probably wouldn't be something you'll ever be able to print out and hang on a wall.

Since most people aren't in the habit of printing the photos from their smartphones, this is widely seen as a non-issue and one of the big reasons users should avoid looking at just the number of megapixels a smartphone camera has when determining superiority.

As you can see in these photos, the HTC One M8 (on the left) has no trouble at all keeping up with the iPhone 5S (middle) when it comes to sharpness (remember – click on the image to see a larger version).

What really matters in these photos is how well the cameras represent colours, and that's something that HTC demonstrates a surprisingly powerful grasp on.

HTC cameras have a history of looking overproduced, showing colours that are unrealistic but beautiful. The HTC One M8 is surprisingly colour-accurate in these photos, especially when it comes to the flat white background these images are taken against. The iPhone 5S shows a number of white balance issues, while the Moto X struggles to capture enough light to make the colours accurate enough to matter.

This environment clearly demonstrates the HTC One M8's real strengths, and will be a huge deal for someone looking to grab that casual photo.

The HTC One M8 did occasionally demonstrate some issues with too much light in the background, making the items behind the primary object in the photo appear washed out. It's clear that the One focused quickly on the foreground and the depth of field effect caused by the f/2.0 aperture on the phone. The Moto X demonstrates the best control of the background, but that's somewhat artificial due to the Auto HDR mode on the camera by default. The iPhone 5S demonstrates the best middle ground here, and while the differences between the two photos in the background are significant you can see the same difference in quality in the foreground where HTC has demonstrated more control and a sharper image.

There's one more major difference between the HTC One M8 in these photos that can't be demonstrated with an image. The added 2-megapixel sensor on the back of the camera allows the Duo Camera to collect more information about most photos that are taken. The position of this second camera makes it so less information is offered when you take a photo of something up close, which is why a Macro option is available, but more than that you'll notice that the file sizes for these photos are wildly different. There's an expected variance in file size when taking photos with any camera, since the data gathered in the photo is going to be different each time. The depth information provided by the added sensor can make some photos in the 800KB range and others around 2.5MB. In these photos here, size difference was unusually dramatic when compared to the iPhone 5S and Moto X.

HTC has produced another phone with a crazy good camera on it that encourages users to rethink how they look at what makes a smartphone camera great. The iPhone 5S is an impressive camera on its own, and it's still one of the best point-and-shoot smartphone cameras out there, but the HTC One M8 has clearly demonstrated that it boasts some unique qualities that deserve special recognition.

For more on HTC's new flagship offering, see our hands-on with the HTC One M8. We also have a raft of spec comparisons pitting the freshly launched handset against the Sony Xperia Z2, Samsung Galaxy S5, Google Nexus 5, Apple iPhone 5S, and of course its predecessor the HTC One from last year.

Photography by Chris Sewell.