Once upon a time, the iPhone was widely considered as having the best camera of all “modern smartphones”.
However, many consumers and experts alike also recognize that today, Samsung’s mobile cameras are more versatile and powerful than Apple’s. We have shown as much with our Camera IQ (Image Quality analysis) camera benchmark on many phones from both companies.
About the Ubergizmo Camera HW score data
Increasing Image Quality (IQ) is mostly made possible by using more and 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 Ubergizmo Camera HW score. Read the Camera HW FAQ for more information.
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 hugely contributes to IQ. More on that below. The data presented here comes from the version 1.1 (Sep 2020) of the algorithm.
The Experiment: Going Back in Time
As part of our continual strive to improve the ranking algorithm, and as a stress-test, we dug up data from decade-old phones and fed it directly to the algorithm, without any code change, to see how the iPhone and Galaxy S series evolved.
Here are the results, and through that lens we can peek at the epic battle between two tech giants.
It is not particularly surprising to see that new models -mostly- score higher than older ones. It’s completely expected, but we can spice things up by going cross-brands and use the numbers as intended: to compare camera hardware strength.
Note: in 2015 (iPhone 6s), Apple made hardware improvements that are difficult to quantify, so the HW score of the iPhone 6s should be a bit higher, in my opinion, but all cameras go through the same evaluation algorithm, so this is what we have today.
Apple vs. Samsung Camera Hardware
The chart above suggests that Samsung made a camera push to surpass Apple’s hardware around 2014-2015 (Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S6). We track a great many camera technical data points, but here are the key highlights for each generation:
From 2010 to 2012: the iPhone 4, iPhone 4s, and iPhone 5 had a sizable lead over the Samsung Galaxy S, Galaxy S2, and Galaxy S3. That is mostly because of better camera optics on the iPhone series. The original Galaxy S camera was particularly weak in comparison to the iPhone 4’s.
2013 is the year in which came close to parity with its Galaxy S4 against the iPhone 5s. Many people started to take notice of Samsung’s photo quality around that time. iPhone 5s vs. Galaxy S4 specs.
2014 is a pivot year because that is when the Galaxy S5 finally has more powerful camera hardware than the iPhone 6 Plus (S5 vs. iPhone 6+). From that moment, Samsung increased the camera hardware pressure, and Apple lost the camera hardware lead until today. The same is true in 2015 with Galaxy S6 vs. iPhone 6s+.
In 2016, 2017, and 2018, Samsung maintained a clear lead in camera optics, and by the time Galaxy S8+ came (2017), Samsung’s photo quality superiority was already mainstream knowledge.
Still, their Primary and Telephoto cameras had not changed that much compared to previous generations. iPhone 11 Pro vs. Galaxy S10+
S20U also has a high-performance 103mm zoom lens, backed by a robust 48 Megapixel sensor. At publishing time (Oct.12, 2020), we did not know for sure what the 2020 iPhone 12 camera would be.
Now we know, and here are the Camera HW scores of the iPhone 12 family: iPhone 12 Mini Camera HW score is 114, iPhone 12 Camera HW score is 118, iPhone 12 Pro Max Camera HW score is 157. You can check all the Camera HW scores we have calculated in the table
We have evaluated the image quality score of the iPhone 12 Pro Max with our Camera IQ benchmark, (read the review here): the iPhone 12 Pro Max Camera IQ score is 189, while the Samsung Note 20 Ultra Camera IQ score is 189
What The Experts Say
Since the Ubergizmo Camera HW score is designed to help professionals and consumers accurately navigate mobile cameras, we wanted to get expert opinions. Without showing any data, we asked people we know:
“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: these experts are not endorsing or promoting our score. They just casually replied what came to mind after we asked.
As for “when Samsung cameras started to challenge Apple”, a couple of people, including veteran mobile reviewer John Velasco said, “Galaxy S4” (2013). Data agrees."THE CAMERA HW SCORE CORRELATES WITH EXPERT OPINIONS"
“When did Samsung started beating Apple”? Philip Berne, a former Samsung insider, replied: “Galaxy Note 5 (2014),” and our former Ubergizmo writer Adnan Farooqui also cited the “Galaxy Note 5 / S6”. That is entirely in line with the historical data.
Myriam Joire, tech journalist and host of the Mobile Tech Podcast said that the Galaxy S8 clearly beats the iPhone X in still photography. Another photo enthusiast in the same conversation agreed. Our findings also support both opinions.
The Camera HW score correlates with these experts’ opinions. That is important to us as we want to help people find their best camera phone options among hundreds of options. A thousand phones are released each year and perhaps only two or three dozen camera systems get properly rated.
Verifying Real-World Image Quality
With our Camera IQ (image quality) benchmark, we have previously documented that the camera hardware (HW) disparities translate into noticeable Image Quality (IQ) differences, as seen in the Galaxy S9+/Note9 camera (2018) for example. The iPhone Pro 11 camera IQ review is also available.
The Galaxy Note 10 camera added versatility with Ultrawide shots, and the Galaxy S20 Ultra camera introduced a huge 108MP primary sensor and a high-performance long-Zoom that propelled Samsung to the top of the 2020 mobile cameras. Huawei dominated the year 2019, according to our Camera IQ ratings."SAMSUNG LEVERAGED MORE POWERFUL HARDWARE TO PROVIDE SUPERIOR IMAGE QUALITY"
Our Camera HW score also shows that Apple has not been willing to enter a camera hardware arms race in a bid to “dominate” the mobile camera space while Samsung leveraged more powerful hardware to provide superior image quality to its customers.
Instead, Apple has accepted to stay behind, possibly to keep the BOM (Bill of Material) under control, as the camera system is one of the costliest components of a phone. The natural stickiness of IOS and the relative quality of the camera seem carefully tuned to retain customers.
Going back a decade into the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S camera technical data was a fascinating exercise to see how our Camera HW algorithm behaves with data that spans over more than ten years of mobile camera innovation.
It also demonstrates that camera hardware is a crucial differentiator for camera quality. That seems obvious, but there was previously no practical way to quantify Camera Hardware in a meaningful, efficient, and simple way. With Ubergizmo’s score, we can effectively quantify the camera hardware’s potential."CAMERA HARDWARE IS A CRUCIAL DIFFERENTIATOR"
We also need to acknowledge the sizeable contribution of software to image quality as well. There is no question about it, and we would like to quantify it better.
Finally, the 2020 data shows a considerable acceleration of Samsung’s investment in camera hardware, a discontinuity that was most likely a response to Huawei.
But that is another story.