The past year has been an exciting time for mobile phones. We've seen an abundance of phones with dual-core processors, 4G connectivity, and bigger and better displays--all of which has led up to the first wave of 3D smartphones. Sprint has introduced the HTC EVO 3D, and LG has unveiled the Optimus 3D, which will be rebranded as the Thrill 4G on AT&T. Both are incredibly powerful phones with glasses-free 3D displays and dual-lens cameras that allow you to shoot 3D photos and video. With both an EVO 3D and an Optimus 3D in house, I decided to pit the two against each other in a 3D-display and 3D-camera battle.
Part One: 3D-Display Head-to-Head
The quality of 3D on such a small surface is really tricky to judge. Ideally, the effect should resemble a shoe-box diorama, with an equal amount of sharpness in both the foreground and background objects. But every person perceives 3D differently, it seems, and some people can't see 3D at all. After comparing the images and videos on the two phone displays, I started to feel as if I were going cross-eyed. To accurately judge which 3D display looks better, I recruited a few fellow PCWorld editors to weigh in. I loaded up the same two images (professional 3D photos taken with a high-quality 3D camera) and the same video clip (a professionally shot 3D video of Iceland).
We judged the photos on clarity, color, and the density of the 3D effect; we rated video for playback smoothness, clarity, and 3D density. The reviewers were pretty critical of both phones, but three out of four editors picked the HTC EVO 3D over the LG Optimus 3D for better overall 3D quality.
The majority of editors agreed that the HTC EVO 3D's display had the better color, clarity, and 3D effect for still photos. One editor commented that the EVO 3D had "good layering and foreground pop" for the stills. Another said that while the 3D effect is apparent on the EVO 3D, it looked only okay. The editor who picked the Optimus 3D over the EVO 3D said that the latter phone's colors looked dull, and that the Optimus 3D was bright though oversaturated.
On video, we were conflicted. One editor noted that 3D video on the LG Optimus 3D was "barely there." Another remarked that the EVO 3D's video had a weird "bubble effect," where the middle of the picture seemed more raised than the edges did. Although the LG Optimus's video had less depth, its brighter colors and better clarity made it the stronger phone for 3D video, according to another editor.
All editors agreed that the phones are extremely finicky about their positioning; you have to keep each one directly in front of your face in order for you to see the 3D effect. If you move the phone, even slightly, the 3D effect fades.
Part Two: Cameras and Camcorders
The HTC EVO 3D and the LG Optimus 3D both have 3D cameras and camcorders, so you can capture 3D photos and video and play them back on a 3D TV or on the phone itself.
To see which phone had the superior camera, the PCWorld Labs conducted a variation of its regular testing methodology for stand-alone point-and-shoot cameras. We assembled a still-life scene with a variety of objects placed at different distances from the camera. If you look at the image to the left, you'll see markers that indicate the distance the object is from the camera. This setup gave us a nice range of depth so that we could judge how effective the 3D was. To make things more interesting, we also included a stand-alone 3D camera, the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D, in our subjective tests to see how the phones stacked up.
We affixed each device to a tripod so that we could take all photos from the same distance. We captured all images using full auto mode, with no post-processing. A panel of five editors viewed the photos from each device on a Panasonic TC-P50ST30 3D HDTV, and scored the images for their color, sharpness, 3D depth, and overall 3D experience. The editors gave each category a word score (Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, or Poor), and then we averaged out those scores.
The Fujifilm camera scored the highest, receiving Good marks across the board. However, the majority of our panel noted that it was hard to focus on the image. One editor said that the foreground was "headachey," and that a slight flicker was evident. Another said that it was a bit dark, which is what kept it from getting an overall Very Good score.
Coming in second was the HTC EVO 3D, receiving a total score of Fair. Although the EVO 3D's image was easy to focus on, it seemed grainy. One editor remarked that the colors were brighter than those of the other test photos, but that they seemed oversaturated. The EVO 3D photo had good background depth compared with the other test images.
Coming in third, receiving a total score of Poor, was the LG Optimus 3D. This image was also easy to focus on, but we noticed some aliasing. Its colors looked really dark, and details in the image were fuzzy. As for 3D, we didn't see very much of the effect: The foreground had no "pop," as we saw with the other images.
Overall, we weren't blown away by the image quality from any of the cameras. You won't be shooting the next 3D blockbuster (Piranha 3D, anyone?) with any of these cameras in the near future.
I'm still not convinced that mobile phones are the best medium for consumer 3D, but I definitely had a lot of fun testing the HTC EVO 3D and LG Optimus 3D's displays and cameras. Both are very good phones, with or without the 3D, but the 3D winner is clear: The HTC EVO 3D has the superior 3D display and camera. This isn't to say that it's good, necessarily. Both its display and its camera have their own fair share of issues when it comes to handling 3D.
I have to wonder whether 3D will get better on phones as more models come out, or whether it's just a passing fad in the fast-moving mobile world. For the time being, I wouldn't recommend buying a phone solely because it has 3D support. Hardware design, software, the chipset, and a solid 2D camera are all specs you should consider when you are shopping for a new phone--3D is merely an extra frill at this point.