Samsung Galaxy S10+ camera test vs iPhone XS, Pixel 3, and Nokia 9
- 24 April, 2019 20:30
In the previous episode of Last Cam Standing we saw the iPhone XS’ camera win its second straight victory over Huawei, Xiaomi, and Sony. In this matchup, Samsung steps into the ring with its S10+, Nokia pushes boundaries with the Nokia 9 Pureview, and Google’s Pixel 3 is back for a rematch. Let’s start this epic photo fight!
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 contender—so subscribe to PCWorld’s YouTube for future shootouts!
First up, let’s meet the competitors. Apple’s iPhone XS has held the top spot for two rounds now, thanks to its computational photography chops. But now it’s up against some stiff competition, so we’ll see if it can stay on top.
The first challenger is Samsung and its Galaxy S10+. It features a triple-camera system, with the main lens maintaining that ‘dual aperture’ gimmick. Samsung has never done well in Last Cam Standing thanks to aggressive processing, so we hope it’s toned back some.
Next in line for the title is Nokia. The Nokia 9 Pureview and its five camera lenses could be a game changer for smartphone photography. Nokia has partnered with Zeiss and Light to push the boundaries of what’s possible, so let’s see if it works out well in our testing.
Last but not least is Google. The Pixel 3 lost to the iPhone XS a couple of rounds ago, but since then it’s gotten patched up and upgraded, so it’s looking for a rematch!
As always, I’ll be focusing mainly on the standard camera of each phone, using them in auto mode as they were configured out of the box. This allows for consistent testing and shows just how each company puts its own flavor on camera processing.
The tests will be broken into four categories: Color, Clarity, Exposure, and Extra Features. Extra features is where I dive into supplementary tests for things like portrait mode, extra lenses, and low light modes. We hired the fabulous Natalie to model for us—be sure to check out her Instagram page.
Category 1: Color
But enough with the build-up, we’ve got a lot of test results to get through! First up is color: We’ll be looking at things like color reproduction and white balance accuracy.
Starting with this first shot of Natalie chilling on the bricks, let’s note the differences in color temperature - illustrated mainly by the concrete. The iPhone is the warmest, followed by the Nokia. The Pixel is the coolest, and the S10+ is somewhere in between. The concrete in the S10+’s photo is cool, but the siding of the house is the warmest of the bunch. I’m going to give the Nokia the edge here, as it offers a great balance.
Switching to this next shot, Nokia ramps up the warm tones way too far for my tastes. The iPhone has the most saturated red shirt, as well as a reddish hue on her skin, which is typical for Apple. And of course the Pixel is the coolest, but is pretty great overall. I think the S10+ did the best here thanks to punchy, warm colors that don’t feel overexaggerated.
I feel the same about this shot across the Bay. The S10+’s photos just haven’t been as saturated as those from past Samsung phones, and that’s a good thing. But the Nokia falls flat on it’s face yet again, and makes a very odd choice in white balance—I’m not sure what to think.
Against this wall of vines, the Nokia struggles yet again, coating the entire photo in an orangeish hue that isn’t flattering. The rest of the phones look fine, but I’d give the slight edge again to the Pixel.
Strangely enough, Nokia did the best in this situation, thanks to the prevalance of brown tones in most of the scene. It’s not accurate but it is pleasing, giving Natalie’s skin a nice warm glow that’s missing in the S10+ and Pixel’s photos. Her skin tone is far too red in the iPhone’s shot, a horrible quality Apple just can’t shake.
Overall, Nokia has flashes of briliance when it comes to color, but it’s inconsistent and unpredictable. The iPhone leans too warm too often, and I’ve never liked the way it handles skin tones. The Pixel won this category last time and continues to impress with deep colors and pleasing tones—even when it’s the coolest of the bunch.
But I was surprised by just how muted the S10 was compared to older Samsung phones, performing great in almost every situation. I’m going to have to call the color category a tie between the Google Pixel 3 and the Samsung Galaxy S10+.
Category 2: Clarity
The next category is clarity. Here we’ll be looking at things like the sharpness of each camera, and how well they stay sharp in low lighting situations.
Starting with some scenes that don’t include any people, let’s zoom in on this building and focus on the bricks. Right off the bat we can see Samsung’s signature noise reduction in play, taking away detail and smoothing textures. Nokia’s shot is clear enough but features some jagged edges and doesn’t really impress. The Pixel has the most definition in the bricks, but it’s highly sharpened, which produces artifacts. The iPhone isn’t too far behind on this one, pulling in a solid performance.
At this closer distance we see a striking amount of detail on the pole and in the wood grain in Nokia’s photo. I’m impressed by just how sharp this photo turned out without looking oversharpened. The Pixel is the only phone that comes close to that kind of clarity, but it’s hampered by the sharpening style that produces this swirling pattern.
That S10+ photo is horrible. Not only does it remove noise, it also removes any chance of showing fine detail. The iPhone disappoints here as well, but at least it’s better than the S10+.
Moving on to my favorite building in San Francisco, I do need to point out a problem in some of Nokia’s shots. Zooming in on the power lines we notice haloing around these cables. But it’s not just in this photo; it’s present in others as well. This haloing happens around edges with high contrast because of how sharpening works. It essentially increases the contrast of edges, causing the edge pixels to overlighten when pushed too far. Like I said, it only appears in photos that feature hard contrasting edges, so it’s not a huge problem, but it does reveal what Nokia is doing in its software.
Checking out some photos in this dark garage, we notice that the S10+ is almost the brightest of the bunch, but zooming in reveals a pretty soft image. There is some detail in the S10+’s photo at least, more so than with the Nokia, which turns in a blurry mess. Nokia’s five cameras are supposed to bring in more light, but it doesn’t seem like the system knows how to keep the photo sharp. The Pixel’s photo exhibits some serious chroma noise in the darkest parts of the image, which is a real bummer. The iPhone does the best here—especially in the corner.
Before I zoom on this dark photo, I’ll point out that when I was standing there shooting, I couldn’t even tell whether the Nokia even captured anything, as the screen was completely black. I thought I messed something up, but this is really how poorly it performed—an absolute waste of a jpeg file.
Zooming in reveals pretty crappy performance across the board, each breaking down in their own ways. The Pixel’s noise is out of control. The S10+ is supersoft and lacks definition. The iPhone holds up the best, but it’s still not anything to write home about. (If you’re wondering how night mode shots perform here, stick around for the extra features category.)
Now let’s move onto some examples with Natalie. For this wider shot let’s focus on the bricks as well as her face. The results are fairly similar to what we’ve seen so far, espeically on the S10+, where it’s smoothing over details like strands of hair. Luckily the Nokia does just fine here and remains a viable option in some cases.
Moving to a closer shot, I’m a bit concerned by some of these results. The Pixel’s oversharpening isn’t very flattering to skin. The Nokia’s photo has the most background blur, suggesting it’s applying blur even though it wasn’t in portrait mode. The S10+’s shot is the most extreme, smoothing over her skin to the point of her looking like a doll. Its noise reduction has been heavy this whole time, but the amount of smoothing on her face seems to go past basic noise reduction.
Moving in even closer, the effect on the S10+ is obvious. The details in Natalie’s iris and eyelashes are clearly sharpened, yet the skin on her cheek and forehead are smoothed over and exhibit barely any detail. This is far too extreme in auto mode—seriously, this type of beautification should only be applied in a dedicated beauty mode.
But what about that Nokia shot? It appears to be trying to replicate a DSLR with shallow depth of field by having most of her face in focus, while blurring everything else. Once again, this isn’t in Portrait mode, this is from auto mode, and it’s going too far for me. Of course the Pixel doesn’t flatter Natalie’s skin, and it’s the iPhone that looks the best in all the shots with her in it.
So this category has been defined by extremes. The S10+ applies heavy amounts of noise reduction and appears to smooth skin. Nokia is hit-or-miss, and tries to add depth to photos of people whether you want that or not. The Pixel can be the sharpest of the bunch, but uses sharpening to get there, which doesn’t flatter skin. So it’s the iPhone that’s consistent and performs well in almost every scenario. Apple’s iPhone XS takes the clarity category.
Category 3: Exposure
The third category is exposure. Here we’ll be looking at dynamic range and how each camera chooses to expose for a scene.
Checking out this construction site, we notice right away that the Nokia 9 is the flattest of the bunch. It has the most info in the shadows toward the bottom of the frame, but it doesn’t protect the highlights as well as the iPhone does on this sign here. Overall the Nokia 9 is a bit underexposed. The S10+ is the brightest, but it completely blows out the sign.
This street scene illustrates the differences even more, with the Pixel having the most contrast and Nokia being a bit underexposed and flat. The iPhone and S10+ are pretty similar, though Apple keeps those shadows pretty dark. The S10+’s shot looks washed-out, but in a good way for this scenario. For example, both the S10+ and Nokia images allow me to pump up as much contrast as I want when I go to post the photos on Instagram
This is where the processing of each camera is most apparent: in a high-contrast, back-lit scenario. The highlights are blown out in the S10+ and Nokia photos, while the Pixel and iPhone keep the exposure right where it needs to be in order to retain information. But the Pixel’s HDR is too aggressive and looks too processed, a trait in Google phones that I’ve never loved. The iPhone does the best here: It gives me editing flexibility and a well-balanced photo.
This next example is similar, but each phone fails to retain those highlights. That’s fine though, because I knew it would be a really hard scenario that forces the cameras to make a choice. Samsung seems to choose to keep Natalie properly exposed in all of these shots, regardless of what happens to the rest of the image. Nokia tries its hardest to keep the most dynamic range, which pleases the photographer in me, but this results in editing becoming a necessity, not a choice. But that iPhone photo has the best balance of contrast and dynamic range in mind.
I do really appreciate what Nokia is doing here by protecting hightlights and offering a flat image. Out of all of these photos, Nokia’s version is the closest to how I would capture this scene with a DSLR. The rest have a phone capture quality to them, while the Nokia feels unique and professional. But for the average user, it might be too dark.
This last example is interesting, as Natalie’s all-black outfit confuses Nokia into blowing out the sky in order to retain the shadows. I still prefer that to what happens in the Pixel’s photo, turning her into a black slab of nothingness.
If this category were defined as ‘most dynamic range,’ the Nokia would win hands down; but it’s more than that. There needs to be a balance between a flat and editable photo, and one that can be posted with minimal editing required. On top of that, the Nokia just tends to underexpose too often, which makes correction a necessity. On top of that, the five-sensor system doesn’t deliver on the promise of bringing in more light, which is most likely a failure of software tuning.
So all in all, it’s the iPhone that does the best in most scenarios, providing enough information for editing, but a pleasing photo even without it. The S10+ isn’t too far behind, but its tendency to push exposure too high results in some problems. Finally, yhe Pixel’s results are still too highly processed for my taste. Apple’s iPhone XS wins the exposure category as well.
Category 4: Extra Features
The fourth and final category looks at extra features. Here we’ll go over some of the trademark features that set each phone apart.
I’m going to tackle this category a bit differently this time, and announce the winner up front and explain why. When I laid out all four phones in front of me and honestly asked myself which one I prefered to use and has the most features, it was the S10+.
When talking about lenses, sure, the Nokia 9 has five of them, but only one effective field of view. Meanwhile, the S10+ has three cameras dedicated to three different fields of view—the only one in this fight to do so.
By this point, fans of Last Cam Standing will know that I’m a huge fan of wide-angle lenses, and the one featured on the S10+ is great. The 123-degree field of view is wide enough to capture very large scenes with minimal distortion, and it’s f/2.2 lens is wide enough to let in plenty of light.
Speaking of light, Samsung’s Night Mode just wasn’t as useful as the one found on the Pixel and never produced a widely better image over the standard shot. Luckily the S10+ is no slouch in the low light department even without Night Mode, so it’s not a huge knock. Maybe Samsung could do more in future software tuning.
Even though Night Mode wasn’t that impressive, I was impressed by Live Focus—Samsung’s version of portrait mode. Out of all four phones, the S10+ delivered the best edge detection, even better than what Nokia offers with its unique five-camera setup. Samsung’s extra options, like Spin and Color Point, are way more fun than Apple’s Portrait lighting. I also appreciate that modes are available for the main wider lens, and not just limited to the telephoto lens. It offers more creative possibilities and ensures the best quality possible.
All in all, Samsung’s camera app is easily the most robust and feature-rich. You can choose to hide unused camera modes, save RAW files when shooting in Pro mode, and export directly to Instagram if you want to. Add in the speed and reliability of the app itself, and it’s hard to find much fault.
I will say that the Scene Optimizer is nowhere near as powerful and useful as something like Huawei’s Master AI, and I will never use Bixby Vision, so it’s just taking up space on the screen. But those downsides are very minor gripes and don’t have an impact on how I used the app daily.
Not that the other phones don’t have great things going on for them, I just can’t say any of them are as reliable or feature-rich as what’s going on in the S10+. So yeah, Samsung’s Galaxy S10+ wins the extra features category.
With that, it’s time to crown a winner of this epic match-up! First, I do want to give a special award to the Nokia 9 Pureview. While I can’t recommend buying into this camera system, it does have flashes of brilliance and shows a promising future for multi-lens systems—especially for camera lovers. But if we’re talking about the best of the best available today, look no further than Apple’s iPhone XS!
This marks Apple’s first back-to-back win, and the longest streak it’s held in Last Cam Standing. The XS marks a very important turning point for Apple, and it’s thanks mainly to computational photography. The photos that come out of this camera are consistently sharp, feature plenty of dynamic range to play with, and look great even with minimal editing. Apple is at the top of its photography game right now, and is worthy of the crown.
But there will always be new and exciting Android phones to come out, like Huawei’s P30 Pro. Subscribe and tune in next time for more camera testing on Last Cam Standing.