When a smartphone launches with arguably the most advanced camera module ever put into a production smartphone, you already know what the big question on everyone’s mind is: Is it the best? Is it noticeably better than the rest of the top dogs? Or is “variable aperture” just a fancy marketing term?
Well, we’re hoping to help you answer at least some of these questions. Welcome to the comparison you’ve been waiting for: Samsung’s latest flagship against the world.
OK, maybe “the world” was a little sensational, but we did pit it against every single flagship we could get our hands on. Here are the contenders:
We would have loved to include devices like the Google Pixel 2 XL (we didn’t have one on hand), the HTC U11+ (our device ran into some problems) and the new Sony Xperia XZ2 (didn’t have one on hand either), but circumstances weren’t in our favour.
That said, the pictures did still give us a good idea of the smartphone’s capabilities while we wait for 2018’s flagships to come compete with the Galaxy S9. Definitely stay tuned for that.
For this test, we looked at six different scenarios:
3. Low Light
6. BONUS ROUND
Let’s see what Samsung’s fancy new camera can do.
Yet again, this is the most straightforward test. It’s probably one that won’t matter to you…probably ever, but it’s still cool prop for a stick measuring contest. The methodology is, we mounted the cameras on a slider and slowly inched the camera backwards, taking a picture every 5mm it moves on our camera slider. This way you have a relatively good idea of how close your smartphone can focus, even though the measurements aren’t directly to the smartphone’s sensor. We also did the Galaxy S9 twice, once at f/1.5 and once at f/2.4.
Also, I apologise for using the same photo (above) I did during the last test, but I bet you didn’t even notice until I pointed it out. If you did, brownie points! In any case, here’s the photo/table you actually care about:
Although the Galaxy S9 looks fairly sharp right off the bat at 0mm, I wouldn’t consider that “in focus”. So, instead, it ties for first with the Galaxy S8+ though I will say that the S8+’s image does look a little softer than the S9’s at that distance.
HDR or High Dynamic Range is a camera feature that’s pretty important in smartphone cameras. A phone’s HDR capabilities usually refers to its ability to capture multiple exposures in a challenging lighting scene (high contrast between shadows and highlights) and combine them into a single image that’s evenly lit. A smartphone with good HDR capabilities should not lose details in the shadows or the highlights.
This was a pretty challenging scene for the smartphones. I would like to apologise for the slightly different framing — we didn’t have a tripod and had to eyeball it — but the phones were exposed at the same spot: Right at the top of the tower.
Running a blind test in the office, many of my colleagues preferred the Galaxy S8+’s photo compared to the Galaxy S9. But I disagree because the shadows in the crevices (and indeed overall) were a little too harsh. Being there myself, the Galaxy S9’s photo is a lot closer to how it looked in person. In fact, the entire image that the Galaxy S9 produced was mighty impressive, being evenly exposed throughout while also retaining the nice blues in the sky. Samsung’s S9 is definitely the winner for me here.
The S8+ definitely comes in a close second and I think it does a slightly better job at retaining the right amount of brightness with a slightly cooler tone, but for me, it loses points for the overly harsh shadows. Still, it’s a sight better than the other two.
Apple’s iPhone X was just a disaster with its default HDR Auto setting, but it still wasn’t as bad as the Huawei Mate 10 Pro. Huawei’s smartphone has a dedicated HDR mode but it fails miserably here, even giving the image a green tint, putting it dead last in my list.
[nextpage title=”Low Light”]
Ho boy, this is probably the test I was looking forward to the most, considering the Galaxy S9’s new variable aperture technology and super-duper-uber fast f/1.5 aperture lens. But the results are closer than expected. In fact, at a glance all the photos look pretty similar with minimal noise and fairly accurate colour reproduction. But what would this comparison be without a little quibbling.
Punching in on the images you’ll immediately notice that three of these images are fairly similar (S9, S8+ and iPhone X) with fairly similar levels of luminance noise. On the Huawei Mate 10 Pro though, there’s hardly any noise at all. But you will notice that it’s noticeably less sharp, which probably means that its noise reduction was a lot more aggressive. In fact, one thing I find hilarious is that if you look at the girl’s face, you can see that on the Mate 10 Pro, her skin is practically flawless — almost like there is some beautification going on. It’s probably just the noise reduction doing work.
With the Galaxy S9’s wide f/1.5 aperture, you’d expect it to have less noise than the Galaxy S8+ but both images are pretty similar. Curious, my colleague Hanif dug around in the EXIF data and found that they both had fairly similar ISO (S8+ at ISO400 while the S9 was at ISO320). Interestingly, the iPhone X had the lowest ISO setting at just ISO160.
Instead, it dropped shutter speed to just 1/4 sec. We suspect it’s because we were shooting it on a tripod for this test so the phone, detecting that there was no movement, knew it could drop shutter speed in favour of a lower ISO. If this is really the case then I’m genuinely impressed at how intelligent the iPhone X is at taking photos. However, the image itself isn’t what I’d call the best. There’s noticeable colour noise on the flower pot which makes it look the least appealing to me.
Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro had the highest ISO setting at ISO800 so that should give you an idea of how aggressive their noise reduction was.
Regardless, I think these images are all really close and it’s hard for me to pick a winner, especially between the S8+ and S9. However, if you’re forcing me to choose the one I like the most, I’d go with the S9 because it edges the S8+ out by just a hair.
Colour, the most subjective of the tests mostly because it’s purely about our preferred aesthetics and our ability to perceive certain colours. Some prefer vibrant images while others prefer more muted colours. For me, this was pretty difficult but my favourite is the Galaxy S9 because it’s vibrant but not oversaturated, leading to an image that’s very pleasing overall.
The Galaxy S8 is a close second with the iPhone X and Mate 10 Pro trailing in third and fourth.
I mean, the importance of capturing sharp images is pretty self-explanatory — it’s something you definitely want. Unless you’re after some artistic “bokeh on purpose” look.
In any case, we chose this scene because of the complex and detailed brickwork along the side of Arenas de Barcelona. As a whole, all the photos look pretty good and you can see a lot of detail there.
But if you punch in, you can see that the Mate 10 Pro is slightly softer than the other 3. Between the S9, S9+ and iPhone X, I find it really hard to pick a winner and I find myself alternating between the three pretty often.
However, if I had to pick a winner, it’d be the iPhone X because it has the sharpest all-round photo. The S8+ gets a little soft around the edges.
[nextpage title=”BONUS ROUND”]
Here’s a quick little bonus round for you guys. It’s just your basic landscape that I thought gave some interesting insight into how each phone renders the blues. I think the iPhone X does the best job here, with the others being slightly too cyan near the centre. The iPhone X also nails the white balance here compared to the three Androids who are all slightly too warm.
So, what did we learn today? Well, we learned that smartphone cameras are still seriously good considering their size. The ones at the top end are so close together that you really can’t go wrong with either one.
Sure, the Galaxy S9 has an excellent camera with advanced variable aperture and can take some excellent photos, but I wouldn’t say that they’re immediately and absolutely better than the rest of the competition. Nevertheless, let’s tally the scores:
Athough it looked like the Galaxy S9 dominated with a score of 4, if you actually look at the images, you’ll know it’s not head and shoulders above the competition. Any one of these phones can take great pictures so just because the S9 launched, it doesn’t mean these other excellent smartphone cameras are rendered pointless.
In fact, we’re still impressed that the Mate 10 Pro, which you can now get for below RM3,000, holds its own so well against smartphones that are considerably more expensive than it. Sure, it didn’t win any points this round, but considering its price, you’d be hard pressed to get a better camera experience for less.
What do you guys think of this test? Let me know in the comments below! Also, tell us your favourites for each of the categories. Did you agree or disagree with our assessment? Drop your thoughts down there too.