One of the most surprising things about the Galaxy Note 9 is the upgrade to its camera—not for what it brings, but what it doesn’t bring. While last year’s phone brought dual cameras with optical image stabilization for the first time, and the Galaxy S9 gave us Dual Aperture, the Note 9 has no such differentiating features. In fact, it has the exact same dual camera array as the Galaxy S9+.
But the Galaxy Note 9 (available everywhere) does have one new feature designed to make your photos better. Called Scene Optimizer, it’s similar to the AI cams on the Huawei Mate 10 Pro and LG G7 ThinQ, adjusting color and exposure settings on the fly based on what it sees. Let’s take a look at how it works and stacks up to its peers.
Galaxy Note 9 Scene Optimizer: Overview
The Galaxy Note 9’s scene optimizer is turned on by default, but it can easily be turned off via a toggle in the Camera app’s settings. When it’s off, the camera works as it normally does in auto mode, adjusting the settings based on available light and choosing what it thinks is the focal point to create the best possible picture. It’s not always perfect, but the Note 9 offers one of the best cameras you can get in a smartphone.
Screen optimizer is an attempt to make it even better. Powered by AI, the setting is like auto mode on steroids, identifying what you’re looking at to perfect the color and exposure settings. In all, there are 20 scenes that the system can recognize: portraits, flowers, indoor, animals, landscapes, greenery, trees, sky, mountains, beaches, sunrises and sunsets, watersides, street, night, waterfalls, snow, birds, backlit and text. That pretty much runs the gamut of things you’re likely to shoot (though watersides, a term for a river flowing on a mountain or other natural site, is oddly specific).
There’s nothing to do on your part once you turn it on. Just point, wait a second for the scene optimizer to identify what it sees, and snap. If scene optimizer is wrong, however, you can’t manually select what it should be. All you can do is point at something else to reset it and try again. But in my testing it never failed to identify my shot, and the results were rarely off the mark.
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Huawei Mate 10 Pro Unlocked Phone, 6″ 6GB/128GB, AI Processor, Dual Leica Camera, Water Resistant IP67, GSM Only – Titanium Gray (US Warranty)
Samsung was clearly inspired by Huawei’s AI-powered camera on the Mate 10 Pro, as the two methods are very similar. The only real difference is you can’t actually turn off the smarts on the Mate 10 Pro (though that’s reportedly going to change with the upcoming Android 8.1 update).
The Mate 10 Pro has 13 preset scenes. When you point your camera at something the AI system recognizes (such as food, a plant, or a person), it will make the appropriate adjustments. Like the Note, you can’t change the scene ID unless you move the camera.
LG G7 ThinQ AI Cam: Overview
Like the Galaxy Note 9, you can switch LG’s AI Cam on and off via a button right above the shutter. Tap the words AI CAM once and it’ll turn yellow (meaning it’s on), and tap again to turn it off.
Other than that, it couldn’t be more different than its peers. When it’s on, you’ll see words and phrases fly by in the viewfinder to let you know that the AI engine is working. They don’t necessarily mean anything, however, and usually they’re way off base. Once it locks on a proper identification, you’ll feel a slight vibration and see an icon appear at the left of the screen. That will tell the camera which adjustments to make while you’re shooting. LG says it has 19 shooting modes built into the AI Cam for things like people, plants, and sunsets.
Once it establishes the scene, you can tap the icon and select one of four filters to enhance the shot further. It’s not nearly as seamless nor as instant as either the Galaxy Note 9 or the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and the extra step could lead to missed shots. Plus the filters are broad strokes rather than subtle enhancements, and the results aren’t always superior. Additionally, the G7 takes an extra second to focus after the AI Cam triggers, as well as slightly longer processing time. Occasionally I moved the camera too quick and snapped a blurry pic, something that never happened with the Mate 10 Pro or the Note 9. In a nutshell, LG’s AI Cam is finicky and unpredictable, and the phone takes quicker and better pics with it turned off.
Galaxy Note 9: Auto mode vs scene optimizer
The differences between regular auto mode and scene optimizer on the Galaxy Note 9 are subtle, but it generally pays to keep it turned on. I didn’t encounter any shots that were noticeably worse with scene optimizer turned on, and oftentimes shots were enhanced in meaningful ways, particularly when it came to white balance and color. Most importantly, it recognized scenes instantaneously, and there wasn’t any noticeable hesitation when snapping pics.
Granted, a serious photographer will still want to use pro mode for optimal adjustments, but I was impressed with the tweaks Samsung’s AI system made to the shots I took to make them look more natural. Leaves on plants more realistic color, faces were more properly flushed, and details were given better attention. In short, it pays to keep it on.
Winner: Scene optimizer
Galaxy Note 9 vs Mate 10 Pro: Faces
When shooting faces, the Galaxy Note 9’s screen optimizer did an excellent job of highlighting unique color hues (like my son’s rosy cheeks, for example) while still keeping good, bright lighting on his face. Huawei’s AI camera tended to focus more on shadows, resulting in detailed but darker images.
Winner: Galaxy Note 9
Galaxy Note 9 vs Mate 10 Pro: Nature
Huawei’s AI cam erred in the other direction with nature subjects, snapping brighter, more vivid and realistic images than the Galaxy Note 9. Some of the nuance was lost in translation, but overall it took more natural and detailed shots than the Note 9.
Winner: Huawei Mate 10 Pro
Galaxy Note 9 vs G7: Faces
Compared to the Note 9 and the Mate 10 Pro, the G7’s AI Cam was consistently slower and less accurate (it thought I was on a beach whenever it saw wood paneling and plants), and the words the move across the screen are distracting and unnecessary. When aiming at a person, it took several seconds longer to both focus and adjust, and the results weren’t nearly as impressive. In the example above, my son’s face is completely washed out by the G7, as if it were taken in completely different lighting than the Galaxy Note 9’s shot. While some might prefer LG’s method of brightening the whole scene in order to highlight the subject, I appreciated how the Note 9 maintained the integrity of the shot while still enhancing the shadows and features of my son’s face.
Winner: Galaxy Note 9
Galaxy Note 9 vs G7: Nature
The AI Cam on the LG G7 tells the same story with nature shots. The Galaxy Note 9’s scene optimizer preserved the integrity of the subject in every shot, while the G7 seems to put a film over the whole thing, blurring out edges and missing important details.
Winner: Galaxy Note 9
AI camera shootout: Conclusion
When comparing results from the three cameras side by side, the Galaxy Note 9 is the clear winner. Not only is the system fast, responsive, and easy to turn off, but the photos I took were consistently better than both the normal auto mode and the G7 and Mate 10 Pro. In the shot of a plate of food above, only the Note 9 is able to properly capture the texture, color, and variation in the items on the plate. The Mate 10 is close (particularly with the yogurt dip in the front) and I’m not sure what happened with the G7.
In particular, LG, has a lot of work to do with its AI cam. From the mechanism to the process and the final result, taking photos with it was an exercise in futility, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone attempt to use it for photos that matter. The AI camera on the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, however, is very good, and it’s only going to get better with the upcoming Mate 20 Pro.
But until Huawei’s next phone releases and LG revamps its system, Samsung’s scene optimizer on the Galaxy Note 9 is the best way to get professional-quality shots without meddling with manual controls. It’s a fantastic addition to an already great camera, and I hope it makes its way down to the Galaxy S9+ and other phones soon.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.