Last Cam Standing XI: Samsung Galaxy S9+ vs Huawei Mate 10 Pro, Apple iPhone X & S8

PCWorld | Mar 8, 2018

Samsung always has one of the best cameras in a smartphone, let's see if the S9+ can take the top spot from the Huawei Mate 10 Pro.

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Here it is! Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S9 family has arrived with what they’re calling a ‘reimagined’ camera. Let’s put that claim to the test against the current smartphone camera champ, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro. We also threw the iPhone X and Galaxy S8 into the mix for a truly epic showdown!

Last Cam Standing is PCWorld’s video series that determines the best phone camera for still images in a King-of-the-hill style battle. Whichever phone wins moves on to face the next major smartphone release, so subscribe to see the journey unfold!

The reigning champ for two matches so far is Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro. It boasts impressive Leica hardware and AI-powered software in a single, high-end camera package.

But Samsung claims to have revolutionized smartphone cameras with the Galaxy S9’s dual-aperture setup, which automatically flips from f/2.4 to f/1.5 in low lighting situations. It could be a major breakthrough in phone photography, or just a gimmick. Our tests will bear that out.

And whats this?! Apple’s iPhone X wants a rematch after it lost to the Mate 10 Pro in last years Last Cam Standing?! Well, it only makes sense to have the two largest smartphone manufacturers face each other in the ring, so I’ll allow it.

And even though it has no chance of winning, Samsung’s flagship from last year, the Galaxy S8 wants in on the action as well. Let’s see just how ‘reimagined’ a camera can be in 12 months.

As always, we divide our testing into four catagories: color, clarity, exposure, and user experience. All our testing mimics how people use phones in the real world. I just pull the phone from my pocket, and use the stock camera app with HDR processing set to auto. For this round of testing we also hired Victoria to model for us--be sure to go check out her Instagram!

Now let’s go over the testing results. The first category is color, and we’ll be going over color accuracy and white balance.

This first shot with Victoria hanging out it in San Francisco’s Chinatown plays out just like we’ve seen in past episodes. The Mate 10 is more desaturated and leans to the cooler side where the iPhone leans warmer and is very saturated. The S9 is a little closer to the Mate 10 than the S8, which surprisingly delivered the most natural color.

We move inside ths store and it’s almost the opposite. The iPhone 10 is desaturated and counteracts the yellow lights very well. The Mate 10 turned the models hair red, while the S9 produces a yellow hue over her face.

Back in the street, color reproduction is a little more even. Study the skin tones, the blue jeans, and the yellow strip on Victoria’s shirt. The colors on the iPhone 10 are just a bit too oversaturated for my taste, while the S9 is too cold. I’d personally got for the Mate 10 because it looks more natural to the eye.

Same thing in this shot. The concrete is just too warm on the iPhone and the Samsung phones are both a bit cooler than the Mate 10.

Now this last shot is really telling and the results speak for themselves. The iPhone is oversaturated and blown out, and the S8 is very warm and muted. The Mate 10 and S9 are pretty close, but the Mate has a more pleasing skin tone. Overall this first category is a close one and the S9 keeps up, but the Mate 10 was more consistent in it’s white balance readings and didn’t oversaturate images. So I’m giving it to the Huawei Mate 10 Pro.

The second test category focuses on clarity. Here we look at the sharpness of each camera, and how well they stay sharp in dark environments. For the S9 I’ll note the apeture value the phone chose.

First up is the classic Adam shot of a brick wall. Zooming in reveals a massive amount of sharpening on the Samsung phones, but that’s Samsungs trademark. Interestingly the iPhone is soft around the edges, but the Mate 10 has the best texture here.

Here on the steps, I’m surprised by just how soft the letters are behind the model in the S9 photo. Samsung says the camera’s aperture closes down to f/2.4 in order to stay sharper, which should theoreticaly be true. But at 2.4, the phone should also be able to keep the object in the distance in focus. But that’s just not the case here.

Same thing on this wide shot here -- the Hilton sign should be sharper than that when the S9 is stopped down. So it got me thinking, Could 1.5 be even softer?

Switching to manual mode on the S9 lets you manually toggle between f/1.5 and 2.4. And shot after shot, I wasn’t seeing a huge difference in terms of sharpness between the two apeture values. If Samsung included dual apetures so that the 1.5 could help in low light while allowing the 2.4 to keep photos sharper in bright light, then I’m not seeing it.

In fact, for the most part I can’t find a reason why Samsung couldn’t just let the camera stay at f/1.5 and call it a day. This whole ‘dual apeture’ thing feels like a gimmick to me.

So back to the rest of the phones. In bright lighting scenarios the Mate 10 has the sharpest images. Both Samsung phones exhibit a weird ghosting pattern around the cars here, which doesn’t help clarity overall.

Even at dusk, this shot of a building is sharper on the Mate 10, and at such great distances, the iPhone comes in second. Also, the S8 actually does better than the S9 here.

But lets move into some very dark scenes to check out low light performance, because here is where Samsung shines. This wider shot is impressively sharp on the S9 -- just check out the spokes on that motorcycle. The Mate 10 and iPhone keep up, and even the S8 does pretty well.

Moving in a bit closer to the wall, and we have a surprise! The S8 kills the S9. In fact the Mate and iPhone are even clearer than the S9 in this shot. So, while Samsung does some impressive things in low light, the S9 is inconsistent whereas the Mate 10 is solid throughout every lighting scenario. The Huawei Mate 10 Pro wins the clarity section as well.

The third test category is exposure. In this one we cover how the camera exposes for a scene, and find out just how much dynamic range is retained in the shot. I’ll be including histograms in this section so you can get even more detail.

Let’s start with a nice city shot. The Mate 10 and iPhone 10 both capture a pleasing exposure and retain plenty of information in the extreme ends of the histogram. But the S9 and S8 both overexpose the sky, losing some cloud detail and color.

Same thing happens here: the sky is blown out on the S9. The shot on the Mate 10 is flatter but if I was to edit these photos I’d rather add contrast into the shot than try to take it out.

But here the S9 does better. The Mate 10 is a bit underexposed, and the skin on the model in the iPhone shot is blown out. The S8 is on the darker side, just like the Mate 10.

This next shot was to test how the cameras handle backlit scenarios. Every phone other than the Mate 10 blows out the highlights on the red bench and white wall in the background. Focusing just on the face, the Mate 10 also feels the most natural and evenly exposed.

In this first alleyway shot Victoria looks ghostly on the S9. Shes not too bad in the Mate 10 shot, but I actually perfer the iPhone exposure here. It’s a more even exposure while still having some depth in the shadows.

This last photo has the S9 once again exposes the model’s skin too brightly. It’s a fine line between having a punchy image with contrast that adds depth and retaining information in the exposure, but the iPhone feels too proccessed here so I’m going with the Mate 10s shot.

Both Samsung phones lost information from overexposure in too many scenarios, and the iPhone tended to blow out skin tones. The Mate 10 underexposed in some scenarios but didn’t loose anything that couldn’t be brought back in editing. So Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro goes 3 for 3, taking the exposure category.

The fourth and final test category looks user experience. Here I get into what it’s like using the camera day to day, and highlight extra features as well.

We’ll start with the Mate 10. It has a fast and powerful camera app, but it’s not the most user friendly. Trying to find the Pro mode isn’t very straightforward, and unfortunately that continues through the rest of the app’s menu features.

But Huawei does have an amazing black and white mode, using a secondary 20 megapixel sensor. Cap that off with Huawei’s AI powered scene and object recognition, and you have a great and reliable user experience.

For the S9, Samsung has redone its app layout to something that iPhone users will recognize. It’s pretty straightforward and easy to use, and has a fun AR emoji option built right in.

But I had a couple of problems using the app daily. First off, I found switching between modes to be very slow. As I was testing out the dual apeture in manual mode, I was dreading trying to to get there over and over again from auto mode. Second, Bixby vision always pesters you in auto mode and man is that frustrating.

The iPhone X is fast and easy to use as always, but I really don’t like how long it takes to launch. All the rest of the phones have you launching the camera app with a double press of a button, something I can do before even looking at the phone. The iPhone on the otherhand has you raise the phone, then long press on the camera icon to launch. That’s too slow for me. But once again, it’s defintitely the most easy to use right out of the box.

And finally we have the Samsung Galaxy S8. This phone has been out for a year now so it’s a known quantity at this point, but it delivers a solid experience nonetheless. My biggest painpoint while using the S8 was the lack of a second lens for doing fun things like Portrait Mode.

Speaking of Portrait Modes, I did do some quick testing between the three phones that have it, and didn’t find any huge improvements to the edge detection. I still use it all the time but can’t wait for further advancements in the tech. I lean towards perfering the Mate 10 with it’s wider field of view, but each option has it’s problems.

At the end of the day I continued to love using Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro, which takes the user experience category.

So to close it out, let’s crown a winner! The S8 is still a very good camera that excels in low light, but it’s been surpased by the S9 in almost every way. And while the iPhone X keeps up with the pack, it wasn’t able to win a rematch.

The Galaxy S9 is Samsung’s best camera to date, but continues Samsung’s habit of oversharpening and blowing out highlights. And because the dual aperture approach doesn’t deliver substantial improvements, I’m calling the S9 camera an evolution, not a revolution.

So, winning 4 out of 4 categories, and continuing it’s reign is Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro!

The Mate 10 Pro has been a blast to take photos with over the last couple months since it came out. It’s a huge improvement over the Mate 9 that came before it, building off of the strength of Huawei’s unique two camera system. Add on top of that the Leica patnership and impressive AI algorythims and you have a camera system that might stay in the top spot for a while.

But where is LG and it’s successor to the awesome G6? I’m hoping it’ll come soon. Subscribe and stay tuned for more in depth camera matchups!
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