Live rock music video capture comparison: a 6-way test

In this specific group test. I look at capturing high decibel music on a variety of new and classic smartphone cameras, four of which also have OIS to help keep the picture steady too. Add in low light conditions and a dozen factors trying to throw auto-focus out and you have the recipe for a decent multi-device group test. In the ring here were the Nokia 808 PureView, Lumia 1020, Lumia 930, Microsoft 640 XL, Google Nexus 6 and LG G4. Four of the six have OIS, at least three have HAAC microphones, and one has hardware oversampling per frame in real time. Game on!

One of the trickiest bits about testing the video capture capabilities of smartphones under heavy audio load, i.e. at a live music event, is that you usually incur the wrath of the venue staff or security staff, afraid of copyright issues. Then there's the quirkiness of people seeing you pull up to half a dozen smartphones from your pockets one after the other. And the risk of getting mugged on the way out of the building! So you have to pick and choose your events carefully. 

In my case, a local covers band (gigs page here, if you're interested), guaranteed to be pretty loud, with space to film without being pestered and not so territorial about material that they forbid filming. And yes, I'd warned them that I was going to be experimenting with a 'couple' (ahem) of phones. 

I then shot 30 second segments throughout the 45 minute set, alternating smartphones and keeping track of which clip was which, of course. One production note here is that the footage from the Lumia 640 XL and 930, while playing fine on the devices, turned out to be incompatible with my Mac's iMovie software*. These two phone video cameras, though OK, were arguably at the bottom of this group anyway, so you don't miss much by their absence in the compilation - the Lumia 1020's results are much better and fly the flag for Windows Phone here. I do include my comments on the video shot by the 930 and 640 XL below, for your interest.

* this isn't the first time that I've had issues trying to take MP4 video from Windows Phones, I've always said that digital video is something of a black art!

And here's the result, though as usual bear in mind that the quality here (do max the playback window out and also the quality, to 1080p) is after both iMovie's and YouTube's own transcoding, on top of the MP4 encoding used by the phones themselves. But it's enough that you'll get the gist. Oh, and USE HEADPHONES for best effect and evaluation!

As an aid, I've summarised my conclusions in text form below the video.

One note about lighting. The band hadn't set this up very well and the singer's face was permanently in deep shadow. As you'll see above. Very tricky for the phone cameras to capture!

The phones used, then:

Nokia 808 PureView (2012) - mind blowingly good audio. Just stunning, you could film a band with this phone and almost offer the MP4 audio to them to put out as a live recording. The video's very good too, in terms of low noise (the hardware oversamples from the 41MP sensor in real time), though there's no OIS to keep the frame steady and the focus varies a lot if you let the auto-focus struggle with the changing stage lighting. In the final 808 clip above, I manually set focus and this side of things was then much better.

Nokia Lumia 1020 (2013) - good audio, with zero distortion, though not the same presence and fidelity as from the 808. Video's not quite as good either, with all the advantages of oversampling being lost on this Windows Phone version of the PureView sensor, with the result that the frame is noisy. Plua focus is as dodgy if left to its own devices, so you have to set this manually (usually by tapping on a suitable part of the frame). On the other hand, there's OIS to keep the video frame steady and this does work fairly well.

LG G4 (2015) - this is the 'hero' camera for stills, with a f/1.8 aperture that also lets in masses of light when capturing video, as you can see. There's a degree of OIS too, plus focussing is good, though it all comes to a crashing halt because the microphones used just cannot handle high volumes. The distortion in both keft and right channels is quite horrible - in fact, I had to reduce the volume of the G4 clips in the compilation above so as not to cause pain to viewers(!) A great shame, especially in light of the great performance of the other Android flagship here, the Nexus 6.

Microsoft Lumia 640 XL (2015) - audio was decent, with no distortion, though in mono only and without real fidelity. The video was a disappointment though - yes, the room wasn't lit that well, but the performer detail was much darker than it should have been. This might be fixable in software, by the way, so don't write this device off.

Nokia Lumia 930 (2014) - slightly complicated by me using Windows 10 Insiders Preview (but still with Lumia Camera) on it, this was... adequate. The audio was up with the 1020's, the OIS was better, but the frame had quite a bit of digital noise and was (as with the 640 XL) too dark - maybe it's an affectation of Lumia Camera 5 (the common factor between this and the 640 XL, along with neither producing fully compatible MP4s for me)?

Google Nexus 6 (2014) - another top Android flagship, with top notch video capture quality (in theory, its OIS could be used, but I suspect from the results here that it's only enabled for image taking at the moment) and surprisingly excellent audio, albeit in mono (again, this is a software thing and apparently could be patched by Google at some point).

At the risk of annoying table-haters here, I've put (admittedly subjective) scores for all the above into a grid, all initial scores out of 10:

Phone Audio capture
(fidelity, stereo) 
Video capture
(noise, stability,
focus, exposure) 
Total
(out of 20)
Nokia 808 PureView 10  8 18
Google Nexus 6  8 8 16
Lumia 1020  8** 8 16
Lumia 930  8 6 14 
Lumia 640 XL  12 
LG G4  9 11 

Notes

Verdict

With the caveat that it would help to have a tripod or somewhere to steady the phone on, I have to crown the three year old Nokia 808 PureView still the video capture champion, at least in this test, with the Google Nexus 6 just a whisker behind. The 808's lossless zoom also works well in gig capture, I've used it many times, the MP4 files are compatible with everything and the audio is simply out of this world.

The Nexus 6 is a surprise success here, since it's not normally pitched as an imaging/video device. If Google would just enable OIS and stereo capture in a future update (you can do it yourself with a hack) then it would get even closer to the 808 here. In a very close third place is the Lumia 1020, the 808's Windows Phone-tweaked cousin. It suffers a little from the implementation and there's a lot more digital noise in the frame, plus something in the audio chain is hobbled, reducing the sample rate and final audio quality. But still pretty darned good overall and with that same lossless zoom capability, which works, if anything, even better on the 1020 than on the 808.

The 930 and 640 XL video is tarred a little with just not working properly with all my video software (if there's enough interest, I'll upload a sample MP4 or two to the server), but you're not missing much, in that it's just all a little darker and noisier than the 1020. Finally, the LG G4, which produces such stunning images, also grabs more light for video, but suffers massively by the use of cheap microphones by LG in what is supposed to be a flagship.

Published by Steve Litchfield at 18:53 UTC, June 7th

Section: Articles
Categories: Comment, Hardware
Platforms: General, Symbian^3, General, Windows Phone 8