Flagship Shootout: Huawei Mate 20 Pro vs Apple iPhone Xs Max vs Google Pixel 3

The world of phone imaging is settling somewhat in late 2018, with such immense processing power available in today’s chipsets that camera software can process multiple images almost in real time. Typically, many shots will be taken for a single photo and then these will be combined using ‘computational photography’. Throw in the ready availability of telephoto and wide angle lenses, with software again managing any parallax issues from having multiple cameras side by side, and we’ve never been able to take such high-quality images on our smartphones.

Here I take the top three contenders, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, Apple iPhone Xs Max and Google Pixel 3, and push them to the limits in terms of subject matter, lighting, and zoom.

On paper, the Mate 20 Pro, with its three lenses (8MP 3x telephoto with OIS, 40MP main, 20MP wide), should win out, but there are – as ever – question marks over Huawei’s image processing and their love of ‘enhancing’ everything. The iPhone’s twin lens set-up (12MP 2x telephoto and 12MP main, both with OIS) is an excellent middle ground, while Google has stuck resolutely to a single camera (12MP, OIS) and prefers to do even more in software, including ‘lossless zoom’ (using multiple frames and natural hand wobble!!)

Phone cam shot
Phone cam shot
Phone cam shot

But which approach is best and can I pick a winner? As usual, I’ll throw some challenging example shots at these three phone cameras and then look in at 1:1 pixel level to see the innate IQ (Image Quality) of the photos.

Notes:

  • all three phones were on very latest firmware and application updates
  • all shots were taken in full auto (except where stated) and handheld, as would be the case for most phone users
  • if you don’t trust my judgement and selection of the crops below, then you’re welcome to browse my folder of all the full resolution photos here and do your own analysis(!)

Test 1: Sunny landscape

An easy test, every phone camera in the world should nail this one…! Here’s the overall scene, then see below for 1:1 crops.

church-scene2

And here are the 1:1 crops from, in turn, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the iPhone Xs Max, and the Google Pixel 3:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

As expected, even down at the pixel level, all three phone cameras produce good results. Just a tinge of edge enhancement spoiling the handling of the greenery from the Mate 20 Pro, but not enough to dock it a point. Honours even so far!

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 10 pts, Apple iPhone Xs Max: 10 pts, Google Pixel 3: 10 pts

Test 2: Zoom time!

The same church scene as shown above, but this time zoomed in on the clock on the tower, by 3x on the Mate 20 Pro (i.e. using its telephoto), by 2x on the iPhone Xs Max (2x telephoto) and by some unknown zoom factor on the Pixel 3, since the UI doesn’t give any clues! Here are the 1:1 crops from, in turn, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the iPhone Xs Max, and the Google Pixel 3:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Some clear differences here, though the iPhone does better with its 2x telephoto than the Mate 20 Pro with its 3x, I think. The Mate 20 Pro zooms in further but doesn’t actually resolve any more detail, plus the sun reflections off the clock face get blown out in ugly fashion. At the other end of the zoom spectrum, the Pixel 3 uses a software-based ‘Super Res Zoom’ system to render sub-pixels as your hand wobbles during capture, and the system kind of works. Kind of. It’s better than traditional digital zoom, but it’s not as good as a true telephoto lens. As is proved by the iPhone here, with stunningly good zoom shot – details and no blowing out of reflections. Just perfect.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 8 pts, Apple iPhone Xs Max: 10 pts, Google Pixel 3: 7 pts

Test 3: Ultra-HDR

Shooting almost into the sun, here’s a nice aviation landscape. I could see very little with my eyes because it was so bright. But can the phone cameras work their magic with multi-frame,  multi-exposure combination? Here’s the overall scene, then see below for 1:1 crops.

hdr-scene2

And here are the 1:1 crops from, in turn, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the iPhone Xs Max, and the Google Pixel 3:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Although all three photos were incredible considering what I was asking, you can see the edge enhancement and noise reduction reducing the detail in the Mate 20 Pro shot – see the engine cowling and the small red sensor thing on top the wing. Yes, I’m being picky, but these are the flagship phone cameras in the world, so I think I’m entitled. The Pixel 3 does slightly better in terms of real detail but I think it goes just a bit too far, with texture and grain that’s a little ugly. Meanwhile, the iPhone Xs Max gets a superb balance of detail and noise reduction and wins this shot by a nose.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 8 pts, Apple iPhone Xs Max: 10 pts, Google Pixel 3: 9 pts

Test 4: Zoom take two

I wanted to try zoom again, especially in light of the Mate 20 Pro and iPhone Xs Max’s telephoto hardware. In this case there was a reason too – a closed aviation museum meant that I couldn’t get closer to this Gannet than peering through the front gate! Here’s the overall scene, then see below for 1:1 crops of zoomed photos.

gannet-scene2

And here are the 1:1 crops from the zoomed photos of, in turn, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the iPhone Xs Max, and the Google Pixel 3. Note that in this case I wanted to fill the frame with the plane and I used each phone’s natural digital zoom algorithms over and above any telephoto capabilities:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

I picked out detail in shadow here, to make things even harder for the phone cameras. A dramatic win for the Mate 20 Pro here, as you’d expect, given that its 5x zoom is hybrid, formed from both the telephoto lens and cropping into the main 40MP sensor. An amazingly detailed shot from a phone camera. Meanwhile the iPhone Xs Max’s part telephoto, part lossy digital shot is disappointingly noisy and indistinct. And one step behind again – obviously – is the Pixel 3’s pure digital zoom. Which produces a surprisingly clean result – Google’s algorithms are pretty good, but it has slightly less detail than the iPhone’s shot.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 10 pts, Apple iPhone Xs Max: 7 pts, Google Pixel 3: 6 pts

Test 5: Indoor fine detail

Inside the church, here’s the altar, with a handily placed Bible and loads of detail to try and capture. Here’s the overall scene, then see below for 1:1 crops.

altar-scene

And here are the 1:1 crops from, in turn, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the iPhone Xs Max, and the Google Pixel 3:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Three pretty good overall photos (again, see my folder of full shots if you care to browse!), but look closely and you can see that the Mate 20 Pro again struggles with really fine detail, producing ‘jaggies’ and uncertainty where it really should do better. The iPhone does quite a bit better, with a decent balance of detail, purity and sharpening, while the Pixel 3 just nails all the detail here, you can even make out some of the page edges. Very impressive.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 7 pts, Apple iPhone Xs Max: 9 pts, Google Pixel 3: 10 pts

Test 6: Detail in the dark

Up at the back of the altar area in the church, there were engraved figures lurking in the shadow. They were very hard to make out with the naked eye, but I thought these phone cameras would have a much better chance. Here’s the overall scene, made much lighter to the camera here than to my eyes!

figs-scene

And here are the 1:1 crops from, in turn, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the iPhone Xs Max, and the Google Pixel 3:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

The Mate 20 Pro’s large main sensor (40MP pixel-binned in a quad-Bayer arrangement) comes through here, with amazingly clear and pure detail. Yes, there’s a bit of the usual edge enhancement going on, but the algorithms suit this sort of subject very well, it seems. The Pixel 3 isn’t that far behind – with far more noise but also more genuine detail, while the iPhone Xs Max has more noise and less clarity again. However, I should emphasise again how well all three phones did here, the figures were in deep and gloomy shadow!

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 9 pts, Apple iPhone Xs Max: 7 pts, Google Pixel 3: 8 pts

Test 7: Low light

In even deeper gloom, hard to make out details with my naked eyes, is this pile of books on a small cabinet at the back of a side room. Here’s the overall scene from the amazing phone cameras here, making it look like a well lit alcove and not gloomy at all. Should I be upset that none of the phones accurately represents how dark the scene really was or should I celebrate that we can now all ‘see in the dark’ at last?!

alcove-scene

And here are the 1:1 crops from, in turn, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the iPhone Xs Max, and the Google Pixel 3:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

You can see how dark it really was when you look at how much the phone cameras are struggling here at the pixel level. The Mate 20 Pro has the most in terms of ugliness, arguably. The noise reduction makes its photo look clean, but when you look at the greater detail and texture from the Pixel 3 then you can see how far the Mate 20 Pro could go. The iPhone is somewhere in the middle, with enough noise left in keep original detail, but without enough multi-frame combination to get rid of the digital noise.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 8 pts, Apple iPhone Xs Max: 9 pts, Google Pixel 3: 10 pts

Test 8: Flash time!

With LED flash forced on, in a dark room, here’s a shelf full of natural detail – toys, books, etc. Here’s the overall scene, then see below for 1:1 crops.

flash-scene2

And here are the 1:1 crops from, in turn, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the iPhone Xs Max, and the Google Pixel 3:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

At first glance, the Mate 20 Pro seems to nail this shot, with a bright and clear result. But look at some of the captured text, e.g. the author and title of the bottom book, for plenty of artifacts caused by the Mate’s edge enhancement. The iPhone has the best detail but the darkest image, while the Pixel 3 is somewhere in between, in terms of noise, detail and captured light. I can’t pick a real winner here, so all three get the same score!

Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 8 pts, Apple iPhone Xs Max: 8 pts, Google Pixel 3: 8 pts

Verdict

Adding up the scores gives us an idea of how the phone cameras did:

  1. Apple iPhone Xs Max:  70/80 pts
  2. Google Pixel 3:  68/80 pts
  3. Huawei Mate 20 Pro: 68/80 pts

Regular readers will know that I’m not an iOS user or fan and I was genuinely surprised by the iPhone besting the Pixel 3 and Mate 20 Pro here. Apple has a great balance of zoom, detail, sharpening and noise reduction, the X, Xs Max and Xs all have great cameras that get things right more often than not.

Having said that, the Pixel 3 (reviewed here) and Mate 20 Pro (reviewed here) aren’t far behind. If you ignore the two zoom tests then the Pixel 3 actually wins, showing that Google’s HDR+ camera software is perhaps top dog for ‘snap it in one’ table stakes. Plus Google is still tweaking its software, not least the fancy software zoom.

Huawei is also still adjusting its camera software, with new OS builds coming out monthly and it’s worth noting that imaging purists like me can take advantage of a bizarre provision whereby if you set the Camera software to Pro mode and also turn on RAW capture then its JPG output improves markedly, without the edge enhancement that let the phone down here. The downside? You lose 80MB per photo as you have to live with the RAW creation too! I’m sure Huawei will fix this in the future, possibly by making all photos shot in Pro mode miss the edge enhancement. That alone would almost certainly in it the imaging comparison here.

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