Let’s pit the one of the very best that the Android side has to offer with the best of the iOS bunch to see which is worthy to sit atop the smartphone camera summit. With both the iPhone XS Max and Note 9 having eerily similar entry price points, for the camera conscious, how do they compare?

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Both smartphones have dual camera systems, with the iPhone XS Max sporting a couple of neat tricks over the Note 9 in terms of camera software — I’m unsure if this really makes a huge difference in everyday shooting scenarios though. Smart HDR aims to improve the iPhone camera capabilities in lower light — up to 50% more than the iPhone X was able. The Depth control feature is also a new addition, which works very much like the Live Focus mode on the Galaxy Note 9.

Test One: Live Focus / Depth Focus

With Live Focus and Depth Focus in mind, this is one of the major differentiators between the two cameras — at least in my opinion. I’ve found the Note 9 to be particularly spotty when in Live Focus mode, with portions of your background sometimes in focus in tiny pockets. The iPhone XS Max (and standard XS) for me does a much better job of mimicking the bokeh effect of a professional camera. You can see these differences in this first image, with each exhibiting noticeable — almost signature — variations.

I think overall I prefer the iPhone image, as the Live Focus feature on the Note 9 is just not all that great. It feels way more natural and the colors are instantly superior to the Samsung, especially with regard to the exposure. The Note 9 seems to have a problem with properly separating the background leaves and the foreground owl ornament. Not that the iPhone has done a perfect job; you can see visible fringing of the ‘fake bokeh’ on the extremities of the Owl — something that even the Pixel is not safe from.

Test Two: Light control

Apple have claimed that the new HDR features mean better photos in a wide variety of lighting conditions — both natural and unnatural. So what better way to test that in a very dimly lit restaurant that only uses filament bulbs to enable diners to see their dishes?

Taking a direct picture of a bulb might not be the best way to truly test camera capabilities, but to be completely honest I think the Note 9 has done a wonderful job with the overall exposure and color tone. The iPhone — despite all the ‘new’ tech — hasn’t done such a good job thanks to visible lens flare, shadow control and a slightly warmer tone. I have no idea what it is doing with the ceiling, as it seems way to brightly lit for this particular intimate dining area.

The Samsung camera seemingly does a superior job here, with great control of this tricky scenario. It has managed to retain a heck of a lot of detail even when pointed directly at the light source, what results from the iPhone is less detailed but still has bags of character in isolation.

Test Three: Low-light capabilities

Possibly the biggest selling point of the Galaxy S9+ and the Note 9 was the ability to control the aperture for potentially greater low-light photo-taking. In this low-light photo example you’d be surprised to see that both cameras are absolutely on par with one another — with the iPhone XS doing a slightly better job in my opinion. You can see that the sky looks so inviting on the iPhone photo, it also helps that the picture produced by the iOS device is in slightly better focus — but that’s by-the-by.

I’m as surprised as any at how good a job the iPhone has done, given the failing light conditions and just how dimly lit this landmark is. It had me wondering how both cameras compared when the sun actually descended. So just a few short hours later I headed out to take photos in almost total darkness.

Both phones haven’t done perfectly with this car, but each has a fairly unique look. Firstly I need to say I think the Note 9 has done an overall better job with detail. It’s especially clear when you zoom in on the wheels, where there is still plenty of detail. The iPhone gets soft pretty darn quickly, with the majority of the car being quite fuzzy. The background is a heck of a lot darker too. Apple has improved the overall low-light capabilities and it’s clear just how good low-light photography has become on mobile devices.

Test Four: Color control

Samsung might be renowned for contrast-heavy photos, but in when you compare the new iPhone with the Note 9 you could be forgiven for thinking that the iOS-powered device had a hint of Samsung-ness to it. The entire image has a little bit of a yellow tint, whereas the Note 9 image feels a little brighter and whiter — some might say a little washed out by comparison. It feels like there is tiny bit more detail in the image produced by the Samsung, but I personally prefer the slightly warmer picture produced by the iPhone — straight out the camera. But to share to Instagram or online, I’d prefer the slightly more detailed Note 9 — where I could adjust to match the look of the iPhone.

I noticed quite a few of the daylight pictures taken by the XS Max seemed to have a slight yellow tint — at least in my opinion — so I wanted to see how both cameras handled the iconic British town staple — the Red Phone Box. You can see straight away just how yellow the image is when compared with the — surprisingly — color accurate Samsung. The focus is also slightly better in the picture produced by the device from the Korean tech giant.

Personally, I’d say — somewhat surprisingly — the Note 9 has done better in my small test. Does this mean that the Note 9 is better at color control overall? I’m not confident enough to say yes, but having used both devices — the Note 9 is my main phone — it’s clear that both handle colors in very unique ways.

Final Thoughts

After a long time leading, Apple very quickly fell behind in camera hardware, but the 2018 iPhones do manage to claw back some of that lost ground. That being said, for me at least, the stock iOS camera app is exponentially better than any found on Android. Is it enough of a reason to switch allegiances? Well I suppose that depends on what you make of the results posted within this test.

Let us know your opinion on which you think is the best option below in the comments — after all, it’s mostly subjective as when cameras are as good as these.

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About the Author

Damien Wilde

Damien is a UK-based video producer for 9to5Google. Find him on Twitter: @iamdamienwilde. Email: damien@9to5mac.com

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