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Phones

iPhone X vs. Galaxy Note 8 camera shootout

Apple and Samsung's flagships both have dual-rear cameras. We put them to the test around San Francisco.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 have similar camera hardware: Dual-rear cameras, 2x optical zoom, dual-optical image stabilization (OIS), 4K video and Portrait Mode. But despite these similarities, photos and videos from each look pretty different.

I compared these camera twins in a variety of locations around San Francisco. Both phones were left in Auto HDR and iPhone pictures were saved as HEIC files instead of JPEG -- a new file format that makes photo files smaller than JPEGs with minimal loss to image quality.

To my surprise, neither phone blew the other away. My comparison is all about the nuances in their photos and videos. You might prefer one over the other depending on your tastes.

iphone-x-vs-note-8

Though the iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8 have a similar approach to dual-rear cameras, the photos and videos each produces look quite different.

Josh Miller/CNET

iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8 camera specs


iPhone X Samsung Galaxy Note 8
Wide angle camera resolution 12-megapixels 12-megapixels
Telephoto camera resolution 12-megapixels 12-megapixels
Wide angle lens aperture f/1.8 f/1.7
Telephoto lens aperture f/2.4 f/2.4
Optical image stabilization Both wide-angle and telephoto Both wide-angle and telephoto
Optical zoom 2x 2x
Digital zoom 10x 10x
Portrait Mode Front and rear cameras Front and rear cameras
Front camera resolution 7-megapixels 8-megapixels
Front camera aperture f/2.2 f/1.7

Photos

My first stop was at the California Academy of Sciences. Take a look at these photos of butterflies eating orange slices. The shot from the iPhone X has more color saturation, better dynamic range and more contrast. The one from the Note 8 is a tad overexposed.

If you look closely at the wings of the butterflies, the iPhone X captured more detail in the patterns.

Overall, photos from the iPhone X had more punchy contrast and idealized colors, which resembled a slick-looking Hollywood film. But that's not always a desired thing.

Photos from the Note 8 were often overexposed, but looked more true to life. Obviously, a couple quick adjustments with either phone's photo editor can fix things pretty simply. However, the detail and dynamic range the iPhone X captures is something that can't be added after the fact.

Both phones did well in low light, but the iPhone had the edge. Its noise correction significantly reduced image noise without appearing too painterly.

iphone-x-note-8-portrait-mode-compare

These photos were taken in a dimly lit restaurant. The one on the left was taken with the iPhone X and the one on the right was taken with the Galaxy Note 8.

Patrick Holland/CNET

When it came to focusing, the Note 8 was a monster. This was in large part to its dual-pixel sensor. It grabbed focus quickly and accurately in nearly any situation. The iPhone X had fast and accurate focus when good light was present, but slowed down when things got darker.

The Note 8 has a Pro mode which gave me quick access to light meter modes and controls for ISO, shutter speed and white balance. This came in handy to fine tune things in a pinch. If I wanted to manually control settings on the iPhone X, I would need to install a third-party app.

2x optical zoom

I like that both phones have 2x optical zoom which let me zoom in without the same hit to image quality that a digital zoom has. Both Samsung and Apple have OIS on the telephoto camera which made it even more useful especially in low light.

Photos taken with optical zoom on the iPhone X had nice detail and great dynamic range. Sometimes colors looked over-corrected, as though I'd added a colored pencils filter. The Note 8's telephoto camera rendered photos that looked more natural and sharper.

Take a look at these photos of the de Young Museum taken with 2x optical zoom. The iPhone X's shot holds the highlights in the clouds -- with minimal clipping -- in balance with the shadows in the metal structure. The Note 8's photo has lots of blown highlights in the clouds, but rendered the details in the metal structure sharper.

Portrait Mode

A popular feature on both phones is "portrait mode" which keeps focus on the foreground image -- such as a person's face -- and artistically blurs out the background. The idea is to mimic the the shallow depth of field and bokeh (background blur) rendered by a DSLR camera and a fast lens.

The iPhone X calls this feature Portrait Lighting Mode. Samsung calls it Live Focus on the Note 8. Each phone uses both rear cameras and computational photography to simulate the effect.

iphone-x-note-8-portrait-mode-compare

The left photo was taken with Portrait Lighting Mode on the iPhone X. It is sharp, has a graduated focus fall off, but over blurs the right side of her hair. The photo on the right was taken in Live Focus on the Galaxy Note 8. It is softer overall, but cuts her head and hair out more boldly from the background.

Patrick Holland/CNET

iPhone X portraits had more detail and a better range of colors even in low light than the ones taken with the Note 8. The subject's face was almost always sharp and the focus fall off (from in-focus areas to out-of-focus areas) looked like it was from a DSLR.

The Note 8 took softer-looking portraits which were more flattering to some people's skin. The focus fall off left people's heads looking more like a Photoshop cut-out than the iPhone X.

The lighting effects on the iPhone X are not filters but instead create a depth map that separates your subject from the background. Lighting effects can be changed before or after you take a photo -- some look more impressive than others. However, the iPhone doesn't let you change the amount of blur like the Note 8 does.

I discovered that the iPhone X's Portrait Lighting Mode handles portraits of fish amazingly well -- even when using the Stage Light and Stage Light Mono effect. It's worth noting that fish don't have hair, which might be part of the reason this works so well.

iphone-x-img-0133

The iPhone X's Portrait Lighting Mode works amazingly well on fish. This rockfish was swimming in the aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Video

The Note 8 shoots the best video I've seen from any Samsung phone. But the iPhone X video looks even better and offers a wider array of recording options than the Note 8. Most of the iPhone's video prowess comes from better video compression and the machine learning applied to videos to improve textures and cinematic movements.

That said, watching the Note 8's video playback on its glossy display makes things look impressive.

iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8 video specs


iPhone X Samsung Galaxy Note 8
Video 4K at 24fps, 30fps and 60fps 4K at 30fps
Slow motion 1080p at 120fps and 240fps 1080p at 60fps, 720p at 240fps
Video stabilization Cinematic stabilization Digital image stabilization

Both phones shoot slow motion video at 240 frames per second. However, the Note 8 only does it at 720p while the iPhone X shoots it at 1,080p. The image quality, detail and clarity look better in slow motion video from the iPhone. Check out the video that accompanies this article to see video and slow motion samples.

Time lapse videos from both look fantastic, but the iPhone X has the edge because it can capture time-lapse videos with either of its rear cameras, while the Note 8 can only use its wide-angle one.

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Selfies

The front-facing cameras on both phones have a Portrait Mode, which Samsung calls Selective Focus. While neither produces better results than the phones' rear cameras, both are serviceable.

iPhone X Portrait Mode selfies have nice detail in the face and good focus fall off. But many of the portraits have patches of the background blurred out.

The Note 8's Selective Focus produced photos with softer details, but separation of the subject from the background looked artificial like a bad Photoshop cut out.

The Note 8 also has a beautification mode to soften your skin, make your face thinner and your eyes larger. It is scary how well it works. There are also Snapchat-like stickers.

galaxy-note-8-selfie-options

The Galaxy Note 8's front-facing camera has a plethora of selfie options.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Overall favorite

If I were picking a phone purely for its image prowess, I'd pick the iPhone X. This isn't a diss to the Note 8 which has an amazing set of cameras. It's just that the detail and dynamic range of photos and videos from the iPhone X are more appealing to me.

If you're looking for other comparisons between phone cameras check out these: