Testing video capture on the Lumia 950 and XL

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A video-centric test, or at least a data point. As judged from deficiencies below and on older phones running the Windows 10 Mobile Insiders Build, there's clearly work to do in Camera's video capture capabilities. So, here at Christmas 2015, at least is what Windows 10 Camera (can and can't) do. Summary: susceptibility to wind noise, unconvincing stereo and an auto-focus that will not stay 'off'.

In the video capture test below, performed on a Lumia 950 XL, bear in mind that my commentary on-mike was purely based on what I was trying to shoot and what I saw on the Lumia screen, i.e. the viewfinder. Most of the serious observations are in the accompanying text here - so don't just watch the video!

Note that I was simply trying out video capture features on a sunny (and, as it turns out, a blustery) day - I'll return to low light and indoor video (including rock gig tests at high volume) in a future feature.

As usual with embedded videos, maximise the playback window and increase the quality to 1080p if needed. Remember that the video here has been degraded slightly by the encoding in iMovie when stitching it all together and then again by YouTube in preparing its downloads/streams. And yes, I said '1080p' and yes, I know the Lumia 950 XL (like the 930, 1520 and others before it) can shoot in 4K, but I still firmly believe that for general use 4K isn't that practical:

  • few people's laptops and desktop computers have screens of sufficiently high resolution
  • ditto for processor power to play 4K without stuttering
  • captured videos are at least double the size in MB/GB, so you use up your phone's precious storage at least twice as fast
  • there's a factor of two less lossless digital zoom available
  • long shoots (more than five minutes) start to hit heat issues, allegedly - I'll test this more in the future
  • for anything less than viewing on a very large 4K TV, there's no discernable difference to most peoples' eyes

On balance, for every day video capture of scenery, family and friends, 1080p is still the best way to go - and this is what I've used here. Don't get me wrong, switching to 4K for special events with lots of action - parties, sports, etc, does then give the useful 'Save photos from video' editing option, saving at 8MP, but for more general use then 1080p is fine. In fact, these two modes do make me wonder whether Microsoft should put in a simple on-screen toggle to go between these two resolutions, to match the two typical uses?

In the video above then, and with each clip including some testing of lossless digital (PureView) zoom, there's:

  1. 00:00 - slow pan round through various light directions
  2. 01:37 - testing zoom and focus on a couple of dogs(!)
  3. 02:32 - a rower goes by - listening to ambient audio
  4. 03:02 - filming from the bridge, windy and noisy
  5. 03:50 - noisy birds!
  6. 04:20 - playing with focus and exposure on a close-up sign and distant river detail
  7. 05:30 - testing stabilisation while walking slowly

From all of the above, I do have some observations about video capture on the Lumia 950 and 950 XL. Firstly, the microphones aren't currently used to their full potential, in my estimation - the stereo isn't that convincing, aside from rendering the loud and ugly wind noise. Without direct back to back testing, it's hard to say for sure, but the sensitivity to wind noise here seemed more severe than on any previous Lumia. At the very least, some kind of physical wind filter needs to be in place in the hardware - and ideally backed up by software removal of wind effects, perhaps fuelled by data from the full set of four directional HAAC microphones. Certainly, audio should be better on all counts. Microsoft is still working on the Camera application, of course, as it is on the entire OS, so I'd expect improvements in 2016, which is why I'm claiming this feature isn't really much more than a data point.

Secondly, the autofocus system is a little erratic - it works well enough for general use, but I'd expect that if a user tapped on a point in the viewfinder then the focus should be locked there until they tap again or finish the clip. As it is, the Camera app seems to re-enable auto-focus, perhaps when it detects that the scene has changed sufficiently. I find this confusing, though admittedly I'm not your average phone videographer!

Finally, as with stills, I'll repeat my calls to Microsoft for either a limit on zoom to the resolution of the sensor, or a detent on-screen, to show when you go beyond 1:1 in terms of sensor pixels. I, for one, don't want to be degrading my video with traditional blocky digital zoom artefacts.

Comments welcome if you too have been experimenting, perhaps with a Christmas present along these lines!!