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With Note 10, Samsung Blinks in the Battle for Better Camera Phones

To some people, a phone’s camera is the most important part of it. So it’s understandable that Huawei, Apple and Google have been locked in a tit-for-tat battle for mobile photography supremacy in recent years, exchanging blows with every successive phone launch. It’s the kind of competition that stimulates innovation, and makes all the devices we buy better as a result.

(Image credit: Future)

But you’ll notice one company strangely absent from that rivalry — the very same company that unleashed the highly-anticipated Galaxy Note 10 and Note 10 Plus upon the world today (Aug. 7). Because while those other flagship phone manufacturers have been busy one-upping each other, Samsung has been struggling to keep pace.

The reason why is anyone’s guess, though now that Samsung has pulled the cover off its latest phablets, it seems the South Korean tech juggernaut is doing little to bolster the reputation of its phones’ cameras.

The latest Note series uses the same set of triple- and quad-cameras featured in the Galaxy S10 family. And while those lenses are fine, they paled quite obviously in comparison to the single-lens stack in the Pixel 3, when we pitted Samsung’s and Google’s devices against each other in a shoot-out earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Pixel itself lost (though by a more respectable margin) to Huawei’s P30 Pro when we took that phone out for a spin, too.  

More of the same hardware

Galaxy Note 10Galaxy Note 10 Plus
Rear camera16-MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2); 12-MP wide angle (ƒ/1.5-ƒ/2.4); 12-MP telephoto (ƒ/2.1)16-MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2); 12-MP wide angle (ƒ/1.5-ƒ/2.4); 12-MP telephoto (ƒ/2.1); time-of-flight VGA
Front camera 10-MP (ƒ/2.2) 10-MP (ƒ/2.2)

To Samsung’s credit, it’s not like the company isn’t trying to level the playing field. The Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus added a third, ultrawide-angle lens to the Galaxy S9’s dual shooters. The Galaxy S10 5G went even further, introducing a time-of-flight camera for more accurate depth effects (and that same sensor can be found in the Note 10 Plus). The company was one of the first to provide AI-aided scene recognition and optimization, and is still the only major phone maker offering variable lens apertures in its range-topping models.

Still, none of that has proven enough. The Note 10 and Note 10 Plus share the same primary 12-megapixel, f/1.5-f/2.4 camera present in every version of the Galaxy S10. That’s nothing worse than the ordinary; the Pixel 3 and iPhone XS and XR utilize 12-MP sensors, and those phones all take great photos. But Huawei’s P30 Pro packs a huge, 40-MP primary image sensor, with the ability to bin megapixels to balance and maximize detail and light. Samsung is reportedly working on a 64-MP mobile sensor of its own, though at this point, we won’t see it until the Galaxy S11 debuts next year, at the earliest.

(Image credit: Future)

Things only get worse when you compare Samsung’s telephoto lenses and optical zoom capability to the competition’s. The P30 Pro’s clever prism technique yields 5x optical zoom, and 10x hybrid zoom (where the 5x feed is cropped to 10x power, then digitally enhanced for clarity). The best the Note 10 can do is 2x, and anything beyond that inevitably turns into a blurry mess.

The S10’s main camera performs admirably in dim conditions, though it’s easily flummoxed by white-hot highlights when snapping Live Focus photos. In fact, Samsung’s shallow depth-of-field bokeh effects have always been a particular area of weakness, thanks to algorithms that overexpose and lend a cheesy soft glow to dramatic portraits.

Galaxy Note 10 camera changes

Instead of addressing those shortcomings, Samsung tells us it’s concentrated its energy on delivering new video capture modes with the Note 10. Live Focus can now be used for video, for example, with the ability to selectively apply color to the subject. The new AR Doodle feature allows you to bestow scribbled-on hats and mustaches on your friends, and then share those goofy clips across all manner of social channels.

But those are cute gimmicks at best, and certainly no fix for the S10’s faults. Somehow, maybe the Note 10, even with its identical imaging hardware, will surprise us with night shots that dazzle the same way the P30 Pro’s do, or gorgeous portraits that put the Pixel 3’s to shame. We’ll find out one way or another when Tom’s Guide puts the phone’s camera through its paces. But given what we know on paper, that wish seems anything but likely to come true.

(Image credit: Future)

At this rate, Samsung can’t afford to rest on its laurels or continue to invest in new features and technologies that might not pay off. The variable aperture design is mechanically impressive but seems to provide limited benefit. (The difference between ƒ/1.5 and ƒ/2.4 might sound significant in terms of phones, though in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t.) And while it’s encouraging to see the Note 10 Plus receive a time-of-flight sensor, that camera didn't help things much when it first appeared in the S10 5G.

Samsung may not have any reservations about adding yet more lenses to the backs of its handsets, but if there’s one thing 2019 has taught us, it’s that more cameras don’t always make for better photos. With budget phones like the Pixel 3a hitting the market for less than half of what the Note 10 costs and offering an arguably flagship-class photography suite, it's looking like Samsung will have a tough time proving its $1,000 phablet can deliver $1,000 photos.

Adam Ismail is a staff writer at Jalopnik and previously worked on Tom's Guide covering smartphones, car tech and gaming. His love for all things mobile began with the original Motorola Droid; since then he’s owned a variety of Android and iOS-powered handsets, refusing to stay loyal to one platform. His work has also appeared on Digital Trends and GTPlanet. When he’s not fiddling with the latest devices, he’s at an indie pop show, recording a podcast or playing Sega Dreamcast.