Best smartphone telephoto camera: iPhone X vs Galaxy Note 8


The iPhone X and the Galaxy Note 8 are two of the hottest smartphones of 2017. Being the cream of the crop of the efforts of Apple and Samsung, the iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8 have a lot going on for them. Bezel-less design? Check. Awesome displays? Check. Super-fast hardware? Check. Dual cameras with great performance and new modes? Double check!

As you probably already know, both the iPhone X and the Galaxy Note 8 are each rocking an oh-so-trendy dual-cam setup that combines a regular wide-angle shooter with a "telephoto" camera for lossless optical zoom. Both cameras are capable of achieving roughly x2 optical magnification and both are similarly spec'd, but the question is, as always, which one is better in practice? We've already seen the Note 8 outperform the iPhone 8 Plus when it comes to zoom in one of our previous camera shootouts, but the iPhone X sports a new telephoto lens with a wider aperture (f/2.4 vs f/2.8 on the 8 Plus), which more closely matches that of the Note 8 (also f/2.4). On paper, at least.

But as we all know, "on paper" is often times not good enough in practice, so, with that said, let's see which phone does optical magnification better: the iPhone X or the Galaxy Note 8? It was a cloudy day when we went out to shoot these samples, which is never good for taking good-looking photos, but it is not a big deal when it comes to camera tests. In fact, it can help showcase which camera has better dynamic range, since getting a lively image in flat light is not exactly easy. But either way, since we are comparing just the telephoto cameras of the iPhone X and the Galaxy Note 8, we will also be paying a lot of attention to how much detail the two are able to resolve, both in daylight—albeit on a cloudy day—and in low-light as well.

Scene 1




The clock tower at the railway station was a good subject to test out the cameras' dynamic range. Since it was backlit (by whatever little sun light there was), I thought both phones would use their respective HDR modes to achieve better results—or to properly expose the tower, at least—but neither of them shot in HDR! And although both were set to meter for the tower, the results are, as you can see, not perfect. In both photos, the clock tower is way too dark. However, we can still see that the iPhone shot has a better dynamic range, with the sky popping nicely with more pronounced highlights, whereas the Note 8 photo looks a bit duller and darker. However, let's take a closer look at the two:

Zooming in, we can see Samsung's smart noise reduction algorithms at play. Evenly colored areas in the Note 8 photo look cleaner and less noisy than they do in iPhone X shot. Furthermore, the Note 8 seems to be doing a better job at preserving details, as evident from the stones that line the building's edges. Notice how in the iPhone X photo, a great deal of the crevices covering these stones have been all but washed away, while they are more clear-cut in the Note 8 shot.

Scene 2




This scene is similar to the previous one, in terms of lighting at least, and the results are similar as well. Again, the iPhone X produces a slightly brighter and punchier image. Colors are very similar between the two, but the iPhone manages to pull out more detail from the sky, water, and the ship's figurehead. However, when examining the two images from up close, it again becomes evident that the Note 8 photo is a tad sharper, albeit not by much this time around. As we've said before, this is due to Samsung's smart noise suppression and unsharp mask algorithms.

Scene 3




This is a close one. Both phones do a similar job here and are pretty much spot-on this time around. Aside from some slight differences in color, what we've already said about the two previous scenes holds true here as well. However, it might be worth nothing that the bright slit between clouds is a bit blown-out in the iPhone shot, whereas it looks alright in the Note 8 photo.

Scene 4




This is another close one. Just like in Scene 4, both phones handle WB similarly, but the iPhone manages to pull slightly ahead by demonstrating a greater exposure range and micro-contrast. Notice how the highlights on the building, as well as the driveway leading to it, are more pronounced in the iPhone X photo, which creates the illusion of greater depth. Same goes for the sky – it's looks almost completely flat and uniformly gray in the Note 8 photo, while in the iPhone X shot it looks more natural, with better separation between highlights and shadows.

Scene 5 


Now here's where it gets interesting, low-light photography! As you probably already know, when there's not enough light, both the iPhone X and the Galaxy Note 8 use their main, wide-angle cameras exclusively, due to the larger apertures (f/1.7 on the Note 8 vs f/1.8 on the iPhone X). This means that, rather than relying on lossless optical zoom, both employ digital magnification instead, which is not nearly as good as what the telephoto cameras can produce. But still, the zoom button is always there, at the bottom of their screens, enticing you to use it, no matter how dark it may be. So, let's see how both fare in low-light:


Since the iPhone X and Note 8 had very different auto white balance readings in this scene, we are including the combined color histograms for both shots. 



As far as detail is concerned, both phones fare similarly, with the Note 8 having an edge in some areas of the image, such as the foliage, and the iPhone X performing better in others, such as the facade of the building. Moving on to color, things are drastically different here. The Note 8 has managed to nail a closer-to-life palette, while the iPhone's colors are way too cool.

Scene 6




In this scene, the Note 8 produces a brighter, livelier image, that's richer in detail when viewed from up close. Of course, neither manages to achieve the sharpness that true optical magnification would be able to deliver, but as we've already said, both phones are at this point shooting with their main cameras and using digital zoom. The Galaxy Note 8 is capable of delivering a somewhat sharper result, again courtesy of its unsharp masking and noise reduction algorithms.

Conclusion


It really isn't easy picking a winner between the iPhone X and the Galaxy Note 8 when it comes to cameras. The iPhone has a smarter, well-ballanced HDR mode that is capable of making photos pop without oversaturating colors or cranking up the clarity to 11. The Galaxy Note 8, on the other hand, makes use of some pretty darn clever software post-processing that's capable of ironing out noise in uniformly colored areas while preserving detail where it's needed. But all of this comes down to the software running on the phones. As far as raw camera performance is concerned, both are neck and neck. The iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus were held back by the narrower apertures on their telephoto cameras, but now with the iPhone X, Apple is able to match Samsung in this area. If the performance of the telephoto camera is of great importance to you, both the iPhone X and the Galaxy Note 8 are excellent performers and you won't be regretting your choice, no matter which one you pick.



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iPhone X
  • Display 5.8 inches 2436 x 1125 pixels
  • Camera 12 MP (Dual camera) 7 MP front
  • Hardware Apple A11 Bionic 3GB RAM
  • Storage 256GB, not expandable
  • Battery 2716 mAh
  • OS iOS 13.x
Galaxy Note8
  • Display 6.3 inches 2960 x 1440 pixels
  • Camera 12 MP (Dual camera) 8 MP front
  • Hardware Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 6GB RAM
  • Storage 64GB, microSDXC
  • Battery 3300 mAh
  • OS Android 8.0 Oreo Samsung Experience UI

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