Samsung has just launched its Galaxy Note 9, which is the successor to last year's Galaxy Note 8. Unlike the Note 8, which was basically supposed to be a smartphone with a stylus that worked without blowing up (you're never going to live it down, Samsung), the Note 9 has a lot to live up to and some big shoes to fill this year, as I wrote in my first impressions.
With that said, the new Note 9 has one major issue, its design, which looks pretty similar to the old one. While Apple can afford to get away with using the same old design (they have been doing it for years), Samsung is always expected to show up with something fresh and new. And without a new design, buyers will really need some convincing to buy a Galaxy Note 9 over the beautiful Oppo Find X or the camera-centric Huawei P20 Pro or even the Note 8 that is now priced a lot lower and is still a performer.
But while everything looks similar on the outside, Samsung has bumped up the internal hardware and even thrown in an updated SoC from the Galaxy S9, more RAM, more storage and a bigger 4,000 mAh battery inside the Note 9. But this is still core hardware and the performance bump is not expected to be spectacular. So, this begs the question, what about that dual aperture camera?
Well, that's what we are here to find out!
Indeed, the smartphone world has evolved since the last Note 8. There are newer designs, triple camera setups and lots of AI banter. So I decided to compare the Note 9 with the most interesting camera smartphones that have launched recently, the Huawei P20 Pro and the mighty Apple iPhone X.
But first, let's take a look at the camera hardware Samsung has on offer on the Note 9.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 offers a camera setup that is very similar to the Galaxy S9+. We get a 12 MP + 12 MP dual rear camera setup with a dual aperture lens (f/1.5 - f/2.4 aperture) on the primary 12 MP sensor and a fixed (f/2.4) aperture on the secondary 12 MP sensor. The front facing camera also remains identical to the unit on the Galaxy S9+, with an 8MP sensor and f/1.7 aperture lens and an autofocus system. Along with this, Samsung has also added a 'Scene Optimiser', which will select the right scene mode by recognising what's there in the viewfinder and selecting the appropriate scene mode. Also added is Flaw Detection, which will automatically alert users when a photo has not been clicked correctly (blurred details, eyes closed, etc.) which is handy... when it works.
Indeed, this hardware update might not sound like much, but after clicking several image samples, it's easy to see that the Note 9's camera has improved and is ready to take back its crown from its rivals, not just when it comes to photo capture, but video recording as well.
Note: While shooting photos and recording videos, all settings were set to the auto mode (which is how most of us would normally shoot photos after pulling our smartphones out of our pockets). I kept all camera settings to default which means that all the smartphones had their artificial intelligence bits enabled, which is obviously in place to enhance the quality of the images depending on the shooting scenario.
All the comparison images below are in the following order: Samsung Galaxy Note 9, Apple iPhone X, Huawei P20 Pro, L to R.
Colours and white balance
Samsung's flagships in the past have always been known to produce unnecessarily punchy colours, but with the Note 9, things are changing. Since I have reviewed several smartphones from multiple smartphone brands over the years, I was a bit surprised to learn that it is now getting harder to identify a photograph shot on a Galaxy device. And this is good news! It shows that Samsung is moving past those punchy colour tones and showcasing more natural looking colours that are true to the scene.
In our comparison, the Huawei P20 Pro showcased oversaturated colours, with the iPhone X showcasing the most natural looking colours of the lot. In the picture I clicked on a sunny morning from my balcony, the Note 9 does take the crown, showcasing the best dynamic range, with the P20 showcasing the worst of the lot (especially in the darker areas). All three device quickly switched on their respective HDR modes upon pointing the camera at the brightly lit scene.
Pointing the smartphones up to the sky to click the leaves of a tree strangely saw a tremendous amount of noise from the iPhone X. I am not sure what Apple programmed the iPhone to do, but it did a really bad job, presenting me with an overexposed image.
The P20 Pro produced an underexposed image, but with its over-aggressive HDR imaging, showcased black spots in areas in shade. The Note did a fine job here and it managed to retain an impressive amount of detail in the dark and bright areas of the scene.
Details and noise reduction
Noise can be both good and bad when it comes to smartphone photography, clean up an image completely and it begins to look like a painting. With that said, Samsung has worked on reducing the noise in its images on Note 9 this year. But it's not killing them off entirely, which is a good thing when it comes to luminance noise.
While it does the best job with noise reduction and maintaining details in broad daylight, it does an equally good job in low light and street lighting scenarios. Samsung seems to have finally tuned that dual-aperture system to perform better and it shows in low light photography. Images are a lot sharper and more detailed as compared to the Galaxy S9+ I reviewed earlier, which kept producing soft images at f/1.5.
The low light images shot on the Note 9 appears to be just right. The P20 Pro shot the cleanest images, but thanks to its aggressive processing and over-sharpening, the images looked a bit too dramatic, and this can be seen in the crops of the vehicle and the leaves.
Moving to dim lighting, it's clear that Note 9 is the winner here. But there are a few minor problems. Images shot in street lighting conditions look just right, move to low light, however, and the colours clearly look oversaturated. The crop of the green leaves below the roof are proof of this. The iPhone X just becomes a noise machine while the P20 Pro just kills all details with its aggressive noise reduction.
I clicked a picture of a clay pot in bright sunlight, which made for an easy subject to check for separation. Indeed, the scene could not get any simpler for the high-end camera hardware on these expensive smartphones, but the iPhone X somehow decided that the stick in the pot just did not look right and decided to blur the stick out completely, along with the rest of the background. It also changed the colour tone for some odd reason (no, there was no filter used in the shot).
The P20 Pro just could not produce the right depth effect and gave me an image that looks as if there was no depth effect used. It was the best with edge detection among the three but overexposed the wooden plank, which only the iPhone got right. The Note 9 produced the best image here, with the right edge detection and details that were the best of the lot, except that it overexposed the area around the pot and the plank as well.
Moving to portrait mode selfies, the iPhone X produced the most detailed ones with the worst edge detection and a completely over-exposed background. Edge detection on the Samsung was average at best, with a decent amount of details. The Huawei P20 Pro did the best job here!
Huawei and Honor devices are not really known for their video recording capabilities and the P20 Pro is no different. Recording 4K 30 fps video overburdened the humble Kirin 970 inside, with the worst 4K recording of the lot. The video was not only low on details but also bad with focussing and low on bit rate. This is one smartphone you have to avoid if you record a lot of videos.
The iPhone X shot smooth, 60 fps 4K video without any problems. It's just that the footage was not as good or lacked the detail shown by the Note 9. Despite lacking stabilisation, the Note 9 produced the most fluid footage and steady framerates while panning, and tonnes of detail, which was good enough even if they footage was cropped.
All in all, the Note 9 is the best smartphone in this comparison. It's a big jump from the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and takes back the crown from the Galaxy Note 8, which was also a great camera smartphone. The iPhone X is soon expected to get an upgrade in September, so I am expecting a few improvements when the new models arrive. But in the Android realm, there's really no beating the Note 9, at least until the Pixel 3 arrives.