Technical Camera Review: OnePlus 5, Galaxy S8, HTC U11, LG G6

July 12, 2017 - Written By Nick Sutrich

We regularly like to compare cameras between the latest smartphones, and there’s a very good reason for that. Despite all the extra features, fancy screens and loud speakers, the camera is still likely the most important feature of any phone for most people simply because it is what helps us preserve our most precious memories. While we normally like to look at specific situations to compare cameras, today we’re going to take a look at some more technical details and see which comes out on top.

Video Edition

Zoom Detail/Noise processing

First up is a scene that’s familiar if you’ve seen some of our other reviews, but nonetheless it provides a wealth of detail and interest to look at. Taking a look at the train station we can see a pretty clear difference between the phones in some areas, and not so much of a difference in others. The bush to the left paints the clearest picture of what’s going on; OnePlus’s processing makes things look terribly muddy in some places, while LG’s processing is over sharp and looks a little forced. Still the 13-megapixel sensor on the G6 pulls out the most detail out of all four phones in this scene, while the HTC U11 gets the colors and the contrast most correct. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 sits somewhere in-between the U11 and the G6, but suffers most for its overexposure and washed out colors.

Panning around the scene changes things up a bit though, and it’s here where we see LG’s sharpening filter start to make things look worse, even though they still appear to have lots of detail. It’s a harsher look, and in general it doesn’t look great, although it takes quite a bit of zooming in to really see it. OnePlus’s processing doesn’t change too much here either, as the bushes all look pretty blurry, while the buildings remain very smooth and muddy looking. Samsung’s looks the worst in this corner, as the overexposure has blown out lots of detail, and many objects like the trees and mulch just don’t have a lot of fine detail. Conversely HTC’s exposure is essentially perfect here, with great colors and excellent detail all around without looking fake.

A win for HTC, unless we’re looking at the 2x zoom mode on the OnePlus 5, which changes things entirely. This mode, which works via a combination of optical zoom and some different processing, looks like a completely different phone when comparing between the two, and brings it into first place when used specifically for seeing distance detail. It’s pretty clear that, despite the controversies OnePlus has stirred up by marketing this mode the way they did, the 2x zoom mode results in pictures with significantly more detail than other phones can muster up when zoomed in to the same level. It’s certainly not something that would be used in every situation, or even most situations, but it shows just how powerful the right mode can be when used in the right situation.

Winner: HTC U11, OnePlus 5 (2x zoom mode)

 

Color accuracy

We’re not going to spend too much time on this particular shot simply because it’s a bit of an extreme example, but it’s pretty obvious when the wrong color temperature gets chosen for a given shot. You’ll notice that Samsung’s cameras are trending on the warm side for most of this comparison, and indeed you’ll find this similarity in most of the camera comparisons we do, however in this shot of a turtle things really went south for the Galaxy S8. Likely a combination of the brown leaves and greenery behind them, the S8 is the furthest from the correct color here. The U11 and G6 nail this particular shot, with the OnePlus 5 erring ever so slightly magenta here, although it’s only noticeable when directly comparing to the others. There’s not enough of a difference here between the HTC U11, LG G6 and OnePlus 5 to pick a clear winner though, so we’ll leave it as an interesting outlier.

 

Dynamic Range

This next set explores how wide the dynamic range of a tiny camera sensor in a phone really can be. While phones have improved dynamic range over the years with a variety of different methods, HDR, or high dynamic range, is a mode that takes a number of pictures in a row and then combines them for greater effect. Right off the bat it’s pretty obvious who lost here: the HTC U11. This doesn’t necessarily hold up with every other comparison we’ve done, but I took each of these pictures twice just to ensure consistent results, and the U11 had the same result both times, even after displaying the HDR Boost mode too. The sky certainly looks great, but everything else is overly dark.

Conversely the Galaxy S8 overexposed the sky, and while the foreground is bright, it’s not well balanced and once again is overly warm in color. The OnePlus 5 comes in second place with a well balanced shot, showing both blue in the sky as well as cloud detail, all while retaining light on the building in front. There are still some blown out sections in the sky though, and overall the shot is a tad too warm looking. The G6 really nailed it here, and looks absolutely gorgeous when considering dynamic range as a whole.  Not all is rosy though, as there’s some discoloration on the white part of the roof, and the trees look pretty terrible when zoomed in, as they’re quite blurry and really don’t look good. As this is a dynamic range test though, the G6 gets the win.

Winner: LG G6

 

Culmination Test

This test will add up the culmination of the previous three tests and may just surprise you with the results. Right off the bat you can see the color differences here: Samsung’s software tried to balance out the greens by making the image too cool, resulting in very blue clouds, while LG’s software went quite the opposite way, bringing out the deep reds in the clay and turning the clouds an odd shade of grey-pink. The HTC U11’s sky looks fantastic, but the green of the grass is far too warm, making it look more like Fall than Summer.

The OnePlus 5 absolutely nailed the color temperature here, and shows better variation of greens throughout the grass than the other phones by far. It also absolutely nails the other two categories too, providing more zoom detail than the other phones, and even bringing in wider dynamic range as well. It’s a little strange to see this one perform this much better than all the others, as it doesn’t always pull so many things together perfectly like this, but it appears that the stars have aligned for OnePlus in this situation. Even without the 2X zoom mode enabled, it pulls in a better shot than the rest.

Winner: OnePlus 5

 

Focus Times

We’ll break up this set of photos with a video, but not one from the phone, rather a video of each phone’s ability to quickly refocus in a scene. You’ll need to watch the video version of this review to see it in action of course, so find the link above. I made sure to find a spot with lots of background detail, then quickly stuck my hand in front of the camera and counted the frames until my hand was in focus. Right off the bat it becomes clear which method of focusing is superior, and which phones use it. Dual-pixel phase detection autofocus (PDAF) is something Samsung introduced with last year’s Galaxy S7, and it’s been in Samsung flagships since then.

HTC is utilizing a camera sensor with the same technology, so it’s no surprise to see it focus just as quickly, with both phones refocusing from foreground to background in a lightning fast 300 milliseconds. OnePlus opted for two camera sensors utilizing standard PDAF, and it’s clear that there’s a big improvement over using a single camera with standard PDAF. It’s still twice as slow at around 650 milliseconds to refocus, but shows a double speed improvement over traditional single-sensor PDAF, which is subsequently found in the LG G6. As a result it’s obvious why the LG G6 takes around 1200 milliseconds to refocus in the scene. While this was quick just a few years ago, utilizing both of the cameras on back of the G6 would have helped a lot if the lenses weren’t so different. A tie for HTC and Samsung in this test.

Winner: HTC U11, Samsung Galaxy S8

 

Portrait shot

Selfies are certainly all the rage, but we’re not looking at front-facing cameras in this test, only the main rear-facing camera. It’s in this mode you’ll be taking pictures of other folks, and my wife took these shots of me while we were on a hike. The usual trends of color accuracy are here for sure, with the Galaxy S8 pulling in too warm of a shot, but surprisingly the LG G6 came to an even warmer conclusion with all the greens in the shot. The HTC U11 went a little too cool here, and while my skin color and the trees look more accurate in this shot, my black shirt doesn’t quite look black as it does in the other shots. The OnePlus 5 nails the colors, and on top of that adds in a gorgeous blur to the background thanks to the dedicated portrait mode. The phone saves both this “bokeh” version, as the software calls it, and a regular one without the blur, but even looking at this non-enhanced shot shows a better picture overall.

Winner: OnePlus 5

 

Dimmer Conditions

Taking shots indoors with lots of contrasting light can be difficult for a sensor, especially since lower light means that either the shutter needs to be held open longer, or the ISO needs to jump higher to grab in more light. Most of the time this either means introducing blur into the picture or facing a reduction in detail thanks to denoise filters working to scrub away as much digital noise as possible. Color differences aren’t so apparent at first, but zooming into the detail on the wood and pipes makes it more obvious. The HTC U11 is the only one that didn’t tint the wood green, and it does an incredible job at both pulling in lots of little details and tons of light to brighten up the darkest parts of the shot. Even the words on the pipes are sharper, although it’s impossible to read on any of the shots, and everything else in the shot looks better here too.

What’s really interesting is that it’s impossible to tell the temperature of the water heater on the Galaxy S8 or OnePlus 5; they’re just too overblown. The G6 and U11 are very easy to read this part, but moving down in the image shows something else that goes hand in hand with this difference. The room inside is incredibly brightly lit, and the U11’s brighter exposure on the darker parts of the scene blows more on the wall than the rest. The U11 remains the sharpest of the bunch though, with the G6 tying in some areas here. It’s difficult to read the label on the Windex bottle in the OnePlus 5’s shot, and conversely if we move over to the bottom right of the shot we’ll see the same pattern on the labels of the yellow metal too, as well as some interesting color differences between the shots.

Winner: HTC U11

 

Extreme low light color accuracy

In photography you’ll generally find that higher ISO values tend to mess up colors, and a high enough ISO will strip all color away from the scene. We’re using one of Leonid Afremov’s most colorful paintings to demonstrate this effect, and it’s interesting to see which phone does the best in the same extreme low light conditions. Many of the color differences you’ll note aren’t so much because of the phone skewing the scene toward warm or cool so much as it is a clear loss of color due to sensor strain.

The LG G6 and Samsung Galaxy S8 have the most muted colors, with the G6 pushing a 2700 ISO and 1/6th second shutter speed, while the S8 utilizes a relatively low 1250 ISO and a 1/4th second shutter speed. The OnePlus 5 goes quite the opposite way here, ramping the ISO all the way up to 9600 while leaving the shutter speed at a fairly quick 1/15th second. The U11 features the best balance, and it also shows when looking at mathmatics: 2939 ISO and a 1/10th second shutter speed is somewhere in-between the rest of the phones, and strikes both a clearer picture and one that’s got much more punchy, accurate colors despite the lack of light. A pretty clear win for HTC.

Winner: HTC U11

 

Conclusion

At the end of our test we have a winner, but not by a long shot. The HTC U11 has pulled ahead in 4 tests, while the OnePlus 5 comes in second place with 3 wins. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and LG’s G6 both tie for third with a single win each, and these results are pretty consistent with what we’ve seen in our other tests too. While the review covered more day-to-day scenarios for the OnePlus 5, these tests prove that OnePlus’s technical game is strong, and that it’s consistency that it needs to work on more than anything else, something that only somewhat disagree with what DxOMark recently found. Take a look at the full gallery below for all the full resolution shots if you’d like to see them more up close and personal.