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Note 10 Plus vs. iPhone XS Max: Which phone has the best camera?

Last year's iPhone XS Max put up a good fight, but it's no match against the new camera features on Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 Plus. Check out the results of our comparison for yourself.

Vanessa Hand Orellana CNET Senior Editor
As head of wearables at CNET, Vanessa reviews and writes about the latest smartwatches and fitness trackers. She joined the team seven years ago as an on-camera reporter for CNET's Spanish-language site and then moved on to the English side to host and produce some of CNET's videos and YouTube series. When she's not testing out smartwatches or dropping phones, you can catch her on a hike or trail run with her family.
Vanessa Hand Orellana
9 min read

The new Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus  pulls out all the stops when it comes to the camera, with five different sensors, more shooting angles and better tools for video and low light photography. On paper it seems to have the upper hand against Apple's iPhone XS Max , which only has three cameras and none of the bells and whistles. But impressive specs don't always translate into results, and to find out which one takes the best photos and videos, I took both of these giants out for a photo shoot around San Francisco Bay.

Angela Lang/CNET

The Note 10 Plus has a similar setup to this year's Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus, with a three camera array including an ultra wide-angle lens (a first for the Note line), a traditional wide-angle and telephoto lens. But it also includes a new Time of Flight sensor that's used for 3D mapping, the same as the Galaxy S10 5G. There's also a single front-facing camera on the Note 10 Plus. 

Read the Note 10 Plus review.

The iPhone XS Max has two lenses on the back: a wide-angle and telephoto, and a True Depth front-facing camera that does double duty for Face ID authentication and selfies. It doesn't offer as many shooting modes as the Note, but it takes great looking stills and video -- making it one of our favorite camera phones since its launch in 2018. 

Read the iPhone XS Max review.

It's worth noting that the iPhone XS Max stands at a disadvantage because it's last year's model. Apple is set to launch a new batch of iPhones with new camera features at a Sept. 10 event.

Galaxy Note 10 Plus vs. iPhone XS Max specs

Galaxy Note 10 PlusiPhone XS Max
Wide-angle resolution 12 megapixels12 megapixels
Telephoto resolution 12 megapixels12 megapixels
Super Wide-angle resolution 16 megapixelsN/A
Variable aperture f1.5, f2.4 f1.8
Telephoto aperture f2.4f2.4
Optical image stabilization YesYes
Super steady video stabilization 1080p, 720pNo
Optical zoom 2x2x
Digital zoom 10x10x
4K video fps 24, 30, 6024, 30, 60
1080p video fps 30, 60, 120, 24030, 60, 120, 240
Front camera resolution 10 megapixels 7 megapixels
Front camera aperture f2.2f2.2
64GB price N/A$1,099 (£1,099, AU$1,799)
256GB price $1,100 (£999, AU$1,699)$1,249
512GB price $1,200$1,449

General shots are great, but the Note 10 Plus has a secret weapon 

For most photos taken in decent lighting conditions, it's hard to tell these two phones apart. They both produce good looking shots with even lighting, great dynamic range and sharp detail. I noticed a few subtle differences in color temperature and exposure when comparing results, but I couldn't pick a consistent winner between the two. The Note 10 Plus did a better job at evening out the exposure in most shots, likely thanks to its dual aperture main camera, but can go a bit overboard with saturation. (Photos from previous Samsung phones such as the S10 and S10 Plus sometimes can also look a little oversaturated too.) The iPhone XS Max, though a bit more subdued in its colors, looked slightly more natural and did a better job at evening out my son's skin under the harsh afternoon light. 

But only the Note 10 Plus has the ability to take your landscapes up a notch by letting you get a much wider vantage point with its ultra wide-angle lens. To get the same dramatic wide-shot of the Golden Gate bridge on the iPhone I would've had to climb up on a bluff or a tree.

And that extra ultra-wide angle isn't just for landscapes. It gives you that much more flexibility when framing shots of pretty much anything with minimal distortion at the edges, in both stills and video. You can film at up to 4K resolution.

Winner: Note 10 Plus. The ultra wide-angle lens on the Note gives it an extra edge over the iPhone. 

The Note 10 Plus has ultra-wide, ultra-stable video 

For taking video of people, I prefer the softer, more cinematic quality of the iPhone, but the Note gives you three different vantage points to flip through while you're filming (telephoto, wide and ultra-wide angles) and smoother tracking shots. 

I recorded a tracking shot with both phones while running on the beach, and though they both did exceptionally well, the Note 10 Plus was the clear winner. The iPhone XS Max had just the slightest bounce to it, but it had a hard time figuring out the exposure. It constantly switched between the white clouds and the dark gray sand which ended up producing a weird jello effect in the video. The Note 10 Plus didn't have the same exposure issue and looked just as smooth on its regular video stabilization setting. The Note also has a new Super Steady video mode that you can activate from the main viewfinder. This made the same running clip look almost as if it had been shot on a gimbal. The only downside is that this Super Steady mode only works up to 1080p, not 4K.

Watch this: iPhone XS Max is no match for Note 10 Plus when it comes to the camera

Also new to the Note 10 Plus is the ability to zoom in on audio. As you pinch into the shot, the audio source is supposed to get louder as well. It worked as promised when I tested it out on the beach and I can see how it would work well if you are recording just a single sound source or person. But if you have multiple audio sources like I did when I recorded a clip at the beach, it will crank up the volume on everything. For me this meant the ambient noise of the waves completely drowned out my voice in the video. You can always choose to turn it off in the settings. 

Both phones have a time-lapse feature and record slow motion video at 240 frames per second at 1080p, but only the Galaxy has a Super Slow Motion feature that lets you go to a really slow, very dramatic 960 fps at 720p. 

Winner: Note 10 Plus: The Note can shoot ultra-wide angle video and offers a smoother shot thanks to better stabilization. 

Portrait mode in video sounds better than it looks  

The blurred background or bokeh effect is not new to either one of these phones -- on the iPhone it's called Portrait mode, and on the Galaxy it's called Live Focus. But the Note 10 Plus is the only one that lets you do Live focus, or Portrait mode, on videos. 

You're supposed to create this effect on video in the same way you would create a Live focus photo by placing your subject within range, locking in focus and recording. But getting the same effect to work on video was a struggle. For starters, it didn't seem to recognize pets as subjects and kept asking me to find a face when attempting to take Live focus video of my dog. I even had a hard time getting it to work on human subjects. The effect only works from a specific distance, so fast-moving toddlers (like mine) were almost impossible to capture as the background went in and out of focus depending on how far away he got from the camera. And because Live focus needs a face, it would stop working when my 2-year-old turned away from the camera. 

Even when it did work, it didn't look great. The shot looked a bit blown out and the cutout around the edges seemed unnatural, like a cheesy dream sequence in a teenage rom-com. 

For stills though, it's a different story. Both the iPhone XS Max and Note 10 Plus deliver great looking portraits with flattering skin tones, soft features and a natural bokeh effect (or as natural as you'd expect from a phone). They also let you adjust the intensity of the blur before and after you've taken your shot and have a variety of different effects. The iPhone has different lighting options, while the Note lets you swirl the background or make it monochromatic. But only the Note 10 Plus lets you take Live focus shots with the regular wide-angle lens as well as the telephoto lens, which is a useful option to have. 

Winner: Note 10 Plus. Live Focus video on the Note may need some work, but you'll get two portrait mode angles to choose from in stills. 

The hole-punch front camera on the Note 10 Plus excels

Live Focus video makes a lot more sense on the front camera. If you're taking selfie videos, you're way more likely to get a consistent blur because you're probably taking video of your face from a set distance (arm's length). 

Even without the effect, video from the front-facing camera on the Note tended to be more flattering. The Note has a slightly wider angle, while the iPhone's close range is less forgiving. 

The same goes for stills. I like the realistic skin tones and textures on the iPhone, but that's not necessarily what you're looking for in a selfie. The Note takes softer, brighter and more flattering selfies (even without beauty mode on) and lets you choose from two different angles: a regular and a slightly wider angle that lets you fit more in your shot. 

Winner: Note 10 Plus. You get Live focus video and wider angle selfies. 

The Note 10 Plus shines brighter in low light 

The Note 10 Plus isn't the first Galaxy phone with a dedicated Night mode in the camera, but it's the first one to have it baked in from the start. Both the Galaxy S10 and the Note 9 got it via software update after they went on sale. 

To test the iPhone XS Max against the Note 10 Plus in low light, I took them to the dimly lit Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Francisco. I activated Night mode on the Note for most shots, and left the iPhone on the regular photo mode. 

The iPhone held its own considering it doesn't have a designated low-light mode yet. It produced more natural looking colors and captured the glowing sea creatures with little noise. But the Note's shots were consistently brighter and sharper, even when I'd forgotten to activate Night mode. 

Low light video was a bit tougher to call because the differences in brightness were not as pronounced and the Note exaggerated the blues in the underwater aquarium to the point where they almost seemed unnatural. 

Winner: Note 10 Plus. Night mode makes low light scenes pop. 

All the extra bells and whistles you may never use

When it comes to extra features, there's no competition. The Note 10 Plus gives you a lot more options to choose from: Night mode, an ultra wide-angle lens and Super Steady stabilization. But the Note takes it a little too far with a few extra features that might end up collecting dust in your camera app, like AR doodles. 

The Note 10 Plus has the power to make your doodles come to life in your videos, be it on another person, or in a 3D space. Draw a bow tie on your subject, then start recording and the doodles will stick to the subject, even if they come in and out of frame. 

You can also use the S Pen like a magic wand to control the camera remotely. Wave it up as you press the button and it'll switch to the front camera, wave it to the side to change modes and press it to record. Using these air gestures, however, requires you to leave your phone propped up in shooting position unattended, which I didn't always feel comfortable doing. 

The most practical extra for me was the native video editor, which allows you to trim, rotate or add a filter to your video without leaving the camera app. It also lets you edit different clips together from your library to create a short film or memory. The iPhone will also get a native video editing tool with the next iOS 13 update, out later in September, which will give it many of the same features. 

Winner: Note 10 Plus, until the iPhone XS Max catches up with native video editing in iOS 13.

The camera winner is…

Both phones take great looking photos, videos and portraits, but the Galaxy Note 10 Plus has more tools to make them even better. Gimmicks aside, the brighter night shots, smoother video and wider angle for video, photos and selfies are reason enough to edge out the iPhone in this round. 

That said, the iPhone XS Max is last year's model and most of the features it misses out on are rumored to be coming to the new iPhones within a few weeks. If and when that happens, we'll have to challenge the Note 10 Plus to a second round against the 2019 iPhones once there's an even playing field. 

Galaxy Note 10 and Note 10 Plus look incredible

See all photos