First impressions of three new smartphone cameras: LG G5, HTC 10 and Huawei P9 Plus

In this post you will read my first impressions of three new smartphone cameras I've been working with for a short while now - the Huawei P9 Plus, LG G5 and HTC 10. I will post a picture comparison later, hopefully including some shots from the Galaxy S7 edge and Lumia 950 XL, which would be the odd one out with a much larger sensor. This post is just to avoid the next one becoming way too long - and it's interesting to see what the new ones have to offer anyway.

Price level
First, these are three high-end Android smartphones. The LG G5 is the "most affordable", but there isn't much (about €50) of a price difference with the other two. Both the HTC 10 and the Huawei P9 Plus will cost you a whopping €749, which especially for the latter brand is somewhat surprising. No wonder Huawei has recently been warning Samsung about patent infringement, clearly communicating they are now active in the same league.

You can also choose for the 'standard" Huawei P9 which would then be the cheapest option in this comparison - and still get the same camera optics. I recently decided to buy the Plus version (renewing my contract made it affordable) for other reasons: a bigger, Super AMOLED display, and the standard 64GB/4GB combination. The even cheaper version - Huawei P9 Lite - is much more limited and doesn't offer the double sensor, nor can it show the proud Leica brand.

Weight, look and feel
All three phones are about as heavy (around 160 grams). The Huawei P9 Plus has the biggest display size (5.5 inches, Super AMOLED) which makes it the heaviest, but the differences are marginal. It is the thinnest device of the three (7mm only) and has a full metal body. Due to a ceramic coating however, it doesn't feel as "cool" in your hands. The coating makes it less slippery to hold it, but it does attract more fingerprints.

Its design is unique in the sense that it doesn't remind me of any other brand, which is quite an achievement from a device coming from China these days. I've fallen in love with the fingerprint scanner on the back which is blazing fast to unlock your phone.

The only two buttons are on the right side, on the left side you'll find one tray for both the simcard and micro-SD. On the back you'll see two camera sensors on the upper left side, the flash next to those in the middle and the proud Leica brand on the right (more about that later, of course).

The HTC 10 has the smallest display size (5.2 inch, LCD5) in the all-metal body we know from its predecessors. It feels very cool in your hand and combined with its thickness (9mm) it definitely gives it a heavy impression. The angled edges on the front and back of the metal body are the most remarkable design feature.

Directly from the front it looks kind of like a combination of a Motorola and Samsung device though - not very refreshing in that sense.

You'll find the buttons on the right side and two separate trays for sim and micro-SD on both sides. The camera is in the middle of the top half, more or less the same place where Huawei has the fingerprint scanner. The HTC has the fingerprint scanner directy under the display - like Samsung - and although you can't actually press it, it does function as a home button as well.

The LG G5 has a 5.3 inch IPS LCD display and is only 7.7mm thick. This makes it appear to be the smallest of these three devices, but it isn't: it's wider and longer than the HTC 10. Howevever, it's the lightest of the three and its body feels very smooth, both due to the fact it's a mix of metal and polycarbonate. It looks smooth in a way as well, with its rounded design corners (also from the front to the bottom).
Although you'll have a hard time finding a smartphone without rounded corners, the LG G5 does appear to have a style of its own. I'm happy to find the volume button on the left side of the device this time, instead of on the back - I could never get used to that feature on its predecessor. The fingerprint scanner is on the back and you can push it to wake your phone or put it to sleep - which is very easy to get used to. There is one tray hidden on the right side for both the sim and micro-SD.

Yes, all three devices are fast. I don't do benchmarks as you may know and I won't be writing much about chipsets - although you might find it interesting to know Huawei uses a octa-core HiSilicon Kirin 955 (2.5GHz and 1.8GHz), whereas both the HTC 10 and LG G5 use the same quad-core Qualcomm MSM8996 Snapdragon 820 (2.15GHz and 1.6GHz). So yes, the Huawei will definitely perform faster than the other two, but I personally didn't notice any major differences in daily use so far.

Internal memory is 64GB on the Huawei P9 Plus, whereas you'll typically find 32GB on both the HTC and LG, although you may buy the HTC 10 with 64GB in some countries. All offer a slot for micro-SD which will support up to 256GB - if I'd be willing to spend the money on a micro-SD card that big I could have 310GB of available memory in the P9 Plus.

I shouldn't forget to add that not only do all use the nano-SIM format, all offer the new USB C-type connection as well. Of all the five devices I'm planning to do a photo comparison with, only the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge uses the now "classic" micro-USB.

Although you all know I'm very much into smartphone photography, sound is a very important thing for me, too - speaker sound that is, since I don't like using earbuds all that much (especially not from review devices). I do listen to my phone quite a bit when streaming digital sources on my bike or in the car though, so sound does matter to me.

There used to be one clear winner in this field: it was simply impossible to top HTC's "BoomSound" of the stereo front speakers in the HTC One M8 and One M9. And guess what: it still is. HTC has removed the stereo front speakers in their new flagship to choose for a split system: the bass comes from the bottom speaker and the treble from the ear speaker. Does that sound as good? Not even close.

Funny thing is the Huawei P9 Plus does exactly the same and does sound a lot better than the HTC 10. I can't believe HTC decided to let go of one of its unique selling points and implementing the new technique in such a way the competition can blow it away. It's not like HTC doesn't have enough trouble already.

To add insult to injury, even the mono speaker on the LG G5 sounds better, less "metallic" or "sharp", than the HTC 10 does. So if that was your main reason to consider the HTC, I'm really sorry to say it's gone. And although I was a bit disappointed to discover the Huawei P9 Plus doesn't offer real stereo, it's definitely the best sounding smartphone in this comparison.

There we are, finally. First of all, I think it's very interesting to note that all three devices offer a maximum resolution of 12MP. We can safely state the MegaPixel race is once again over - even Samsung chose the same resolution for its newest flagship.

The big thing these days isn't more, but larger pixels - to improve low light performance for one thing. Credit where credit is due: it was HTC that started it with the "UltraPixel" concept on the first HTC One (M7) in 2013. HTC was way too optimistic limiting the resolution to a meagre 4MP back then, but apparantly it did shake things up. Also, companies realized consumers don't like protruding cameras but love thin design, so a much larger sensor is physically impossible.

Now first of all, you'll get 12MP when you choose 4:3 aspect ratio and 9MP choosing 16:9. Here's my plea to all smartphone producing companies. Please add 3:2 aspect ratio as found on all "real" cameras. It's not as wide as 16:9, not as square as 4:3. The 3:2 aspect ratio has become my favorite by far when using my Samsung NX1 or Fujifilm X100t. I do understand the 1:1 (inspired by Instagram), so please just add 3:2, with a software update preferably. Thank you very much in advance, on behalf of myself and millions of other smartphone photographers.

It's no suprise all three offer several main modes for photography.  LG has three: Simple, Standard and Manual (the Pro Mode). HTC offers both a Normal and a Pro Mode, like Huawei.

The LG Simple Mode is idiot proof and will only let you choose between the normal and ultrawide setting, which is one of the unique selling points of the LG G5. Using the second sensor, this "fish eye" kind of technique will provide you with a "one click panorama" which makes for an awesome effect - especially in 16:9 I must admit.

It is available in all modes and even in video. Below you will see two examples to demonstrate the impressive difference - first in "normal", second "ultrawide" (captured from the exact same distance).

In its basic mode you can choose different other settings, like "pop out", "multi view", "panorama", "slow motion" or "time lapse". Also you can change aspect ratio (which you can't in simple mode, it will just remember the last setting), HDR, timer, voice control for selfies for instance (say 'cheese', 'smile', 'whisky' or 'LG' to capture a picture). Also you can choose using different "films", which in fact are color filters, and you can activate OIS. 

In its pro mode you can still change aspect ratio and choose filters etc., but most importantly you can change white balance (using Kelvin scale system), focus, exposure correction, ISO (50 to 3200) and shutter speed(1/3200 to 30 seconds). You'll even find an AE-L (auto exposure lock). Most importantly for some is it will let you choose to capture JPG or JPG/RAW combined.

The LG G5 will remember the last setting you used in Pro Mode, so when you did some shooting late in the evening, the next sunny morning it will be absoutely impossible to see the settings in your display. Not sure what you prefer, but I think it would be more practical if the sofware would choose some average setting after restarting the camera - it often takes too much time to adjust the settings according to the circumstances.

I shouldn't forget to add the LG G5 is a "modular" device. You can actually change its appearance and functionality by exchanging modules, like the LG G5 Cam Plus. I'm still hoping to receive one soon to see how well it works.

HTC 10

In its standard mode, the HTC 10 will only let you activate flash or HDR. In Pro Mode, it's possible to change white balance (Kelvin again), exposure correction, ISO (100-3200), shutter speed (1/8000 to 2 seconds) and manual focus. Obviously, the longest exposure is not as long as on the LG G5.

Apart from this you'll find way more modes in the menu, like HTC's Zoe camera, Panorama, Hyperlapse, Slow motion, the inevitable selfie modes, and several other general settings. Most importantly - for some - in Pro Mode HTC will let you choose either JPG or RAW, but not both (JPG/RAW) like LG does.

Huawei P9 Plus

The camera UI of the Huawei P9 plus is both simple and clever. Swipe to the left and you will get all different settings (resolution, GPS tag, timer, etc). Swipe to the right and you find the different modes, like HDR, Panorama, Night shot, Light painting, Time lapse, Slow motion and again the inevitable "beauty" modes for selfies (voice control included) - there even is a beauty mode for video.

The Pro Mode is only one swipe away when using the camera (a small symbol directly next to the shutter button). In Pro mode you can change ISO (50-3200), shutter speed (1/4000 to 30 seconds), exposure correction, focus and white balance, offering both the classic symbols (sun, clouds, lightbulb) as the Kelvin scale. 

In Standard Mode, you have the possibility to play with "depth of field" (blurring the background). It makes you choose where to focus after taking the picture and change depth of field from that point, using different aperture values - from f/0.95 to f/16. In case this is new to you: the lower the aperture value is (like 0.95) the more depth of field you get, making you subject stand out against the background. The larger the value is (like 16) both foreground and background will be sharp.

This is where the second sensor comes in: blinding it will make it impossible to use this effect. It is software related of course, since the maximum aperture (opening of the lens) on the Huawei P9/Plus is f/2.2, not f/0.95. It's fun to fool around with and the effect can be impressive, but for me there is a much more important function of the second sensor: black and white photography.

The Pro Mode is only available in full colour and monochrome, not in any of the other modes (like HDR, Panorama etc.). So in Monochrome also, I can change ISO or shutter speed. It's interesting to see how changing the ISO automatically changes shutter speed, but I can also fix ISO and set shutter speed manually - and add exposure correction at will. 

The Leica brand (not the red dot though)
As far as I know, the Huawei P9 and P9 Plus are the first smartphones to offer Monochrome setting - after the mighty Nokia 808 PureView that is. Nokia collaborated intensively with Carl Zeiss, and now Huawei is proud to be able to say it's collaborating with Leica.

But there's not an actual Leica lens in the Huawei P9/Plus, so it's interesting to know what the collaboration consisted of. Below I quote from a joint statement, issued April 21 this year.

The camera module of the P9 series and the achievable picture quality is the result of the intensive technological collaboration between Huawei and Leica. Leica has been deeply involved in the development of the camera-module of the P9 and P9 Plus. Our joint objective was to achieve the best possible image results and optical imaging performance in order to provide consumers in the smartphone photography segment with the best possible picture quality. The result raises smartphone photography to an entirely new level.

Our co-engineering is deeply embedded in the product and Leica’s contribution has involved:

- Collaborative development, evaluation and optimization of optical design (lens calculation) in compliance with Leica standards.
- Collaborative development of the mechanical construction of the camera module to reduce stray light effects (“ghost and flare”).
- Definition of imaging quality in terms of color rendition/color fidelity, white balance, stray light reduction (“ghost & flare effects”), exposure precision, dynamic range, sharpness and noise characteristics.
- Processing of image data with the aid of long-standing Leica optical and signal processing expertise
- Definition of the most stringent common quality standards and production requirements for serial production by Huawei to ensure consistently high quality.

So this why you'll find the Leica brand written on the Huawei P9/Plus, but the famous red Leica logo is only printed on the box, not on the device. It's not a real Leica camera after all, which would make it an extremely expensive smartphone anyway. 

So far, I've really been enjoying the Monochrome setting on the Huawei P9 Plus. It really took me a while to find the setting, but there is a possibility to save a combined RAW/JPG file on the Huawei P9/Plus as well! Maybe I didn't look for it using Pro Mode, since that's the only possibility to activate the option. So the only thing on my wishlist is the 3:2 aspect ratio.

I hope to be able to share a picture comparison within a few weeks from now, not only including these three smartphone cameras but the Lumia 950 XL and Samsung Galaxy S7 edge as well.

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