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iPhone X vs. Galaxy Note 9 dual-camera comparison

Samsung packed its premium phone with software to make pictures look even better. Can it beat the iPhone X?

Angela Lang/CNET

The brand new Galaxy Note 9 and 10-month-old iPhone X have a lot in common -- especially when it comes to photography. Both have dual rear cameras, portrait mode, dual optical stabilization and cost $999 in the US. As such, photos and videos from the two phones are fantastic.

Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone X prices


US price UK price Australia price
iPhone X 64GB $999 £999 AU$1,579
Galaxy Note 9 128GB $1,000 £899 AU$1,499
iPhone X 256GB $1,149 £1,149 AU$1,829
Galaxy Note 9 512GB $1,250 £1,099 AU$1,799

Yet, with so many similarities I was interested in the differences. So I took them around San Francisco to see how they compared in their varying apertures, photo rendering and video processing and "Pro Mode" options.

And yes, before you mention it: We know newer iPhones are expected as soon as later this month. We'll compare those to the Galaxy Note 9 as soon as they're released. In the meantime, we're using the most current iPhone available to us. 

Galaxy Note 9 has the S9 Plus' cameras but adds scene optimizations

The Note 9 has the same cameras as the S9 Plus, which includes a nifty dual-aperture that can open or close to change the amount of light the camera gets. Samsung is the only phone maker today to offer a dual-aperture. To differentiate itself from its Galaxy brethren, the Note 9 uses photo software to identify and optimize pictures from 20 different subject categories, including flowers, sky, pets, food and people. This is similar to what's found on the Huawei P20 Pro and the LG V35 ThinQ.

For example, when you're taking a photo of a flower, the camera will recognize the object and a tiny flower icon appears on the bottom of the screen. The phone then adjusts its settings to make the flower look as good as possible when you take a photo. The results are good though a bit confounding. The scene optimizations are not over-the-top like Instagram filters, which I think is a good thing because they look less obvious. But sometimes there is very little difference between the photos when scene optimization is on or off. I recommend giving it a try.

Take a look at the pictures below that I took of a croissant. The left one had scene optimizations turned off while the right one had it enabled. The Note 9 correctly identified the croissant as food. Notice that the differences in the two photos are subtle. The photo optimized for food has richer-looking colors and is better exposed, but it's not super obvious.

iPhone X optimizes photos and videos

The iPhone X does its own optimizations for textures, patterns and colors, but unlike the Note 9, you can't turn it off.

Below are two photos of the Salesforce Tower (left) and Fremont Tower (right). The iPhone X adds contrast, but the color temperature is a little off, making the sky having a dark blue color. The Note 9 gives a much more faithful representation of the scene and even holds the highlights in the clouds better than the iPhone.

Check out the gallery below for more comparison photos from both phones:

Galaxy Note 9 handles low light better

As far as low light goes, the Note 9 has the edge over the iPhone X. It can open the aperture on its standard camera from f/2.4 to f/1.5 -- that's the widest on any phone aside from the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus.

I took the photos below inside a dark bar with red lighting, which is one of the worst conditions to take a picture. The iPhone X's photo has noise on the walls, less saturation and all that noise reduction gives it a painterly look. But while the shadows are crushed, the iPhone X handles the bright lights better than the Note 9.

The Note 9's photo, on the other hand, looks brighter and has less noise. But it's also much softer. Notice how the lights blow out and become a white blob.

The Note 9's wider aperture is tricky because it lets in a huge amount of light. At the same time, it creates a shallower depth of field, making it a challenge to keep things in focus -- especially if your subject moves.

Below are photos of buildings taken on a foggy night in San Francisco. The iPhone X photo is darker, with more noise in the sky and fog. The Note 9 photo has very little noise and renders the fog around the buildings better.

iPhone X portrait lighting mode vs. Galaxy Note 9 live focus mode

Portrait mode (or live focus, as Samsung calls it) gives your photos a "pro" camera look by creating a dramatic, blurry background. Neither one is absolutely perfect, but both can yield killer results.

The iPhone X offers up different lighting looks that can be applied to portrait mode photos.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone X has portrait lighting mode, which allows you to add and change lighting effects before or after you take a photo. When the iPhone X nails a portrait, like it did above, you see wonderful sharpness in the face and eyes and a nice focus fall off around the head and shoulders.

The live focus shot from the Galaxy Note 9, below, does a good job separating the foreground and background. You can also adjust the amount of background blur before or after you take a shot. Beauty mode, another tool on the Note 9, was on for this portrait, which evens out and softens the skin. I'm not a big fan of this, because it can make people's skin look unnatural and I turn if off for the most part. But there are people who definitely are into it. The iPhone X offers no such option.

Here's a "live focus" photo from the Galaxy Note 9 with the beauty mode left on.

Patrick Holland/CNET

iPhone X and Note 9 video go toe to toe

These are the two best phones to record video. Both offer outstanding video quality and I'd be happy filming with either one in most situations. Make sure you take a look at the accompanying video with this article to see clips from both phones.

Now playing: Watch this: Galaxy Note 9 vs. iPhone X camera showdown
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The iPhone X does some software optimization for video, but the results look much more true to life than its photos which can appear overcorrected. Video from the Note 9 occasionally looks over-sharpened.

No matter the resolution, whether it's 4K or in 1080p, video stabilization on the iPhone X looks better than the Note 9. Don't get me wrong, the Note 9's stabilization is still excellent, but footage on the iPhone X is just smoother.

Also, I still can't believe that both the iPhone X and Note 9 can record slow-motion video at 240fps at 1080p resolution. That's such a high resolution frame rate and I love it. That being said, slow-motion video shot on the iPhone X has better colors and dynamic range than the Note 9. Take a look at some slow motion video from each below.

Note that the Note 9 also has a super slow motion mode that films at a whopping 960fps, albeit at 720p resolution. You can get some insanely dramatic results, but nailing the perfect 0.2 seconds or 0.4 seconds to record super slow motion is a challenge -- even when using auto capture. And without bright even lighting, the image quality can look less than ideal. Below is a clip of a circular saw filmed in super slow motion mode.

For "everyday" slow motion, I recommend using the 240fps at 1080p.

Galaxy Note 9 selfies vs. iPhone X selfies

Selfies on both phones are satisfactory, but their quality obviously doesn't compare to their respective rear cameras. In the end though, I prefer the ones I took on the Note 9 over the iPhone X because the color and sharpness look better.

The iPhone X offers "portrait lighting mode" for its front-facing camera and the results look pretty good compared to the "selfie focus mode" on the Note 9 -- see the photos below. But if you're a fan of beauty mode and smoothing out those imperfections for your selfies, the Note 9 is the way to go.

Also, I like that you can just hold up your hand to snap a selfie on the Note 9. Other Android phones do this too, and I find it useful.

As for video on the front-facing camera, footage on the Note 9 gets cropped in quite a bit. It's annoying, but the Note 9 makes up for it with video that's sharper and has better color compared to the iPhone X, which looks dull and flat by comparison.

Your photos probably look better on your phone's screen

Something I've noticed when doing camera comparisons is that the screen I view the photos on changes the way they look. Naturally, I look at photos and videos on the screens of the phones themselves, and the Note 9 and iPhone X have two of the best phone screens around.

But I also compared the photos on my laptop screen (a 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro) and my external monitor (a calibrated 27-inch Asus PB278Q). By viewing photos on a couple of "neutral screens" I reduce some of the variables between phones.

I took photos of some brightly colored chairs (see above) and at first the Note 9 photo looked perfectly exposed on the phone's screen. Later, I noticed the same photo looked a tad overexposed on both my laptop and monitor. The iPhone X photo looked relatively similar on the phone, the laptop and the monitor. As you look at these photos on your own phones and computer screens, keep in mind that things like exposure, saturation and color temperature might vary too.

The Note 9's Pro Mode and other nifty features

Out of the box, one of my favorite things about Samsung's camera app is Pro Mode. It allows me to override the auto settings on everything from focus, aperture, white balance, shutter speed and ISO. For photography enthusiasts, having this amount of control is super useful and makes it simple to get the absolute best photos and videos in nearly any situation. The iPhone X doesn't offer any such mode, but third-party apps can give you similar options.

With Pro Mode so accessible, I find myself experimenting with things like long-exposure photos with artsy light streaks, white balance and aperture for photos and video.

The iPhone X kind of has a long exposure mode, but you have to have "live photos" turned on. After taking a photo, you can scroll through the "live photos" options below your picture and select "long exposure." It uses the "live photo" video to create a long-exposure picture.

You can use the button on Note 9 S Pen as a remote control to trigger the camera's shutter to take a picture.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Then there's that S-Pen included with the Note 9. It doubles as a remote control for the shutter, so you can snap a photo while standing away from your phone. This was a big hit with the people I showed it off to.

But fret not, iPhone X fans, you have similar options (though not as intuitive). For instance, the earpods that came with your phone can activate the shutter with the volume button -- if you're within the length of the cable. And if you have an Apple Watch, you can use the Camera Remote app to not only take a photo with your iPhone X, but get a preview of it, too.

A new Note 9 or a 10-month old iPhone X?

When Samsung announced the Note 9, some people seemed disappointed about how little the company changed the camera from the generation before. But the addition of scene optimizations is a subtle improvement that actually makes your photos look better in the end. If you don't like the scene optimization feature, Samsung made it easy to disable it completely.

95-samsung-galaxy-note-9

Both the Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone X prove yet again why they are two of the best phones you can buy. But hold off on buying that iPhone until after Sept. 12 -- Apple has an announcement that day.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you like the photos and videos you see from the Note 9, I can't recommend it enough. It's a solid phone with an amazing camera and it has a useful S-Pen stylus that no other phone has.

The iPhone X, even after almost a year, still takes phenomenal photos and video. Its simple user interface is refreshing compared to the numerous onscreen buttons, swipes and menus found on the Note 9. The iPhone X is still one of the best all-around phones you can get.

But if you're considering an iPhone X, you should definitely wait. On Wednesday, Sept. 12, Apple is expected to launch their new iPhones. If you're already amped about two cameras, there are rumors that one of the new iPhones will have three rear cameras. You'll have to wait until another week to find out if it's true -- but regardless of the number of rear cameras, the new Apple phones will have a year's worth of new photo technology crammed into them. 

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