We have been covering consumer electronics for more than 13 years, and oh my, things have changed in the camera world. Huawei created its first smartphone in 2005, but it is only in 2013 that the brand was noticed worldwide. By 2019 the company dominated mobile cameras for that year.  Why did Huawei rise so fast, and how?

Using our Uber HW Camera score and the past seven years of Huawei mobile camera technical data, we can look back at how and when Huawei rose to the top to having today’s most impressive camera hardware on the market.

We previously explained and illustrated why and when Samsung had overtaken Apple when it comes to mobile camera quality and will now add Huawei’s data to the mix.

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About the Ubergizmo Camera HW score data

Increasing Image Quality (IQ) is mostly made possible by using more powerful camera equipment (hardware). To quantify how good that hardware is, Ubergizmo developed an algorithm that analyzes the camera(s) technical data and boils it down to a number, the Uber HW Camera benchmark.

In a nutshell, our score gauges the camera system’s potential to capture good photos. There is more to photo image quality than hardware, but data shows that hardware is a massive part. Read the Camera HW score FAQ for more information.

As part of our continual strive to improve the ranking algorithm, and as a stress-test, we dug up data from decade-old phones to see how various companies have evolved.

Huawei Mobile Cameras, from 2013 to 2020

Huawei came to our attention around 2013 when we started covering their smartphones. Back then, it was just another company from China, seemingly not so different from ZTE, another large Chinese OEM. They both had a background as wireless infrastructure companies and started building their branded phones around that time.

Both Huawei’s designs and cameras were far from exceptional at the time. The chart below shows an obvious inflection point in 2017 with the Huawei Mate 10 Pro camera, but Huawei’s photography ambitions around 2014 were evident from how the company talked about its aspirations.

Huawei vs. Apple vs. Samsung, Looking Back

We’ve described the play by play fight of the decade between Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S cameras in our previous article: The Data Behind Samsung’s Camera Dominance Over Apple, so we’ll focus on Huawei in this one.

Let us compare the best mobile camera hardware data from all three companies for each of the past ten years.

Essentially, from 2013-2015, Huawei cameras were not a severe threat to neither Apple nor Samsung. You can go back to reviews in major publications of that period to check it. Our Uber HW Camera score clearly explains why: Huawei did not have an edge in camera hardware, and probably not in camera software.

By 2016, the absolute performance of the Huawei P9‘s camera helped Huawei get noticed by reviewers (our review of the Huawei P9). Still, it wasn’t quite there yet, and we found the Galaxy S7 to outperform the P9 for most things except Bokeh noticeably.  The same year, Huawei launched the Huawei Mate 9 (check our Mate 9 review), which improved the camera a bit more upon the P9.

Huawei P9 with dual cameras

The Huawei P9 introduced the concept of having an additional sensor to help gather more Light. Although interesting in theory, we have never seen the corresponding results in actual photos, and this technique was universally abandoned since, in favor of multi-frame photography. Nevertheless, Huawei showed that it was willing to invest in hardware to improve its photography standing.

According to the Uber HW Camera score, the Huawei Mate 10 in 2017 is when Huawei achieves camera hardware parity with Apple for the first time, thank to good sensors and optics, optical image stabilization (OIS), and phase detection autofocus. Unfortunately, it was outgunned by Samsung’s Galaxy S8 at the time, but not by much.

2018 is when Huawei decided to switch to high-octane. The Huawei P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro were released, with camera hardware that probably shook both Apple and Samsung to the core. At a $1290 price tag, the phone featured larger sensors, better zoom optics, and a 3-camera package covering the broadest optical range possible, from Ultrawide to Long zoom.

Our Uber HW Camera score clearly shows 2018 as the pivot year for Huawei, and the difference is staggering. After reviewing the Mate 20 Pro, and for the first time, Ubergizmo conclusion was: “Overall, this is the most powerful mobile camera.”

"OUR UBER HW CAMERA SCORE CLEARLY SHOWS 2018 AS THE PIVOT YEAR FOR HUAWEI"

By expanding the number of cameras, Huawei could rapidly scale both Vertically (single-camera power) and Horizontally (overall camera versatility). Huawei found a way to accelerate the timeline to camera victory.

In 2019, the Huawei introduced the Mate 30 Pro with even more powerful camera hardware than Mate 20 Pro: a much more performant primary optics and an Ultrawide camera with an insane sensor four times bigger than the Mate 20 Pro, and three times bigger than the Galaxy Note 10 equivalent.

Unsurprisingly, the Huawei Mate 30 Pro went on to win Ubergizmo’s Ultimate Camera award for 2019 (read our Mate 30 Pro Camera review), and with the Huawei P30 Pro, the company completely dominated the mobile camera landscape in 2019.

2020: The (Samsung) Empire Strikes Back

So far, 2020 has been a fantastic year for mobile cameras. Samsung fired the first salvo with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which includes a gigantic 108 Megapixel primary sensor that is 72% larger than the Huawei Mate 30 Pro’s. S20 Ultra also embeds a powerful long-zoom camera. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra later perfected the camera software for Samsung’s 20-series.

Additionally, the 108 Megapixel resolution is recognized by experts as not being a gimmick: not only it delivers stunning details in daylight photography, but it is also available in the default “auto” mode that people use 99% of the time.

Huawei counters Samsung with the Huawei P40 Pro+. Its primary camera has a new 50 Megapixel sensor, TWO zoom cameras, and the same fantastic Ultrawide camera as Mate 30 Pro.

The new 50 Megapixel sensor reduces the gap with Samsung’s new 108MP sensor, leaving Samsung with a small ~8% advantage in sensor size. At the same time, Huawei has slightly better optics and much better Ultrawide capabilities.

At the present time, Huawei is not fully exploiting its camera sensor, and photos in “auto” mode have a 12MP resolution, giving Samsung’s 108MP capability an edge in daylight photo. You can read the whole story, with photo comparisons, in our Huawei P40 Pro+ Camera review and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Camera Review articles.

What the Experts Say

Since the Uber HW Camera score is designed to help professionals and consumers assess mobile cameras, we wanted to get the expert opinions of people we know, so without showing any data, we asked:

“In your mind, when did Samsung and Huawei mobile camera started to challenge and beat Apple’s (for still photography)? Cite years and models”

Note: Keep in mind that these experts are not endorsing or promoting our score but just casually replied what came to mind after reading the question.

Anshel Sag, senior analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy answered: “Mate 10 was close, but P20 Pro was it. Definitely the P20 Pro”. (Mate 20 Pro is a derivative of P20 Pro).

Looking at our data below, we could literally use Anshel Sag’s quote as a caption to illustrates Huawei’s 2017 to 2018 camera evolution.

Mate 10 was close, but P20 Pro was it. Definitely the P20 Pro (Anshel Sag, Moor Insights & Strategy)

Myriam Joire, tech journalist and host of the Mobile Tech Podcast said “For Huawei, things got interesting when Leica came on board (P9)” and “Two spikes (P9, Mate 10 Pro), then P20 Pro onward (P and Mate series)”. This is entirely true and validated by our camera score algorithm.

Rich W Woods, Senior Editor for North America at Neowin, replied “I think Huawei challenged with the P10 (Mate 10 is a P10 derivative) and beat with the P20 Pro”.

Ben Sin, a Multimedia Tech Journalist published at Forbes, South China Morning Post, Mashable and more, said: “For me, the P20 Pro was a game-changer. But Mate 10 Pro was already producing shots that I thought could be the best.”

Gary Hayes, co-founder at Story Labs and pro photographer, answered: “the early [Galaxy] Notes especially the 4/5 took a lead IMHO, then Apple fought back a bit but then Huawei came along and I moved from Notes to P20pro in 2017 ish … probably never go back to iPhone”.

Gary Hayes’s answer not only illustrates what our data shows in the chart, but he also validates our previous article by being totally in line with our algorithmic results when he says that Samsung took the lead with Galaxy S5 / Note 5.

"OUR UBER HW CAMERA ALGORITHM CORRELATES NEAR-PERFECTLY WITH EXPERTS"

Our Uber HW Camera algorithm correlates near-perfectly with experts’ assessments: the increase in hardware capabilities from P10/Mate 10 to P20/Mate 20 series was the cross-over point for Huawei, and our Uber HW Camera algorithm agrees.

It is also remarkable that our score also reveals subtle camera performance, such as the Huawei Mate 10 series “being close” of Apple and Samsung in 2017.

Verifying Real-World Image Quality

Some of the findings solely based on camera technical specifications analysis have also been verified by visually inspecting photo output with our Uber IQ Camera benchmark (full list of reviews included).

You can go back to the following camera reviews to see how good the image quality (IQ) these phones are taking and how they rank against their peers (full list in our Camera IQ benchmark page):

Conclusion

Ten years of smartphone camera data point to the fact that camera hardware is the primary factor behind photo quality evolution.

Huawei has leveraged its investment in mobile camera hardware to go from unknown (to consumers) in 2013, to contender in 2017 and to camera hardware leader in 2020 – and the company is slated to launch a new high-end phone this month. The data shows that Huawei is a camera superpower in 2020.

"HUAWEI IS A CAMERA SUPERPOWER IN 2020"

We released our Uber HW Camera score v1.0 in Feb 2019. After the v1.1 update in September 2020, we wanted to stress-test it by going back ten years and see how it would behave. We hope that you will find the results exciting and enlightening.

We agree that Software is a great contributor to digital photography quality as well, but the data’s verdict is clear: hardware is The great differentiator. It would be interesting to dedicate an article about how Software contributes to Image Quality (IQ) and why it is not as big of a differentiator as one may think. Stay tuned.

So far, we have ranked 116 smartphones camera systems, and we plan on adding a dozen this week and more the week after, with a goal of 200 before year’s end. The end game is to eventually rank the 1000 phones that are released on a yearly basis. Find the full list here.

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