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The Galaxy S10 camera doesn’t look like a big step forward

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It’s been a while since Samsung led the Android camera world

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Samsung’s Galaxy S10 lineup has a lot going for it, with an attractive new design and the company’s best software yet. But Samsung customers that were expecting significant camera improvements may be left disappointed. While we’ll have to spend more time with the final phones to know for sure, yesterday’s launch event was not convincing.

That’s not to say Samsung didn’t talk up the Galaxy S10’s photographic potential. Product marketing director Suzanne De Silva described the phone’s new camera system as “a pro-grade camera that you don’t have to be a pro to use.” This is in reference to the triple-lens array on the back of the S10 and S10 Plus, letting you switch between 123-degree ultra-wide, 77-degree wide, and 45-degree telephoto perspectives; the suggestion was that the main advantage of professional cameras is the ability to change lenses.

But that’s not exactly true, otherwise we’d all be hailing last year’s LG V40 as the best phone camera on the market. The main advantage of pro cameras is their vastly superior image quality, and on that topic Samsung had very little to say.

At last year’s Mobile World Congress, Samsung placed a huge focus on the Galaxy S9’s photographic qualities, blanketing Barcelona in banners proclaiming “The Camera. Reimagined.” The biggest justification for that claim was the dual-aperture lens that could switch from f/1.5 to f/2.4 depending on the situation. It was certainly something new for smartphones, but in practice it was a gimmick; there are very few situations in which you’d want a smartphone camera to capture less light.

That exact same lens and sensor combination returns this year on the Galaxy S10, and Samsung didn’t even mention it on stage. Instead, most of the discussion was concentrated on the extra versatility provided by the three-lens setup. Which, to be clear, is a legitimately neat feature — I’ve been a fan of ultrawide and telephoto phone cameras ever since LG and Apple introduced them respectively, and having both on the Galaxy S10 will be great. I do worry, though, that Samsung isn’t focusing enough on the basics.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say “the basics,” because what I mean by that is actually extraordinarily complex. Google is the undisputed smartphone camera leader right now even though the Pixel 3 includes just a single lens, and that’s because the company has put more time and effort than anyone into the field of computational photography. Google uses AI, machine learning, and acutely designed algorithms to help produce phenomenal results from all of its Pixel cameras. Apple isn’t quite there yet, but did make significant strides in that direction with last year’s iPhones. And it doesn’t look like Samsung has an answer.

Samsung did mention AI on stage, but didn’t say anything about how computational techniques might be used for basic photography. The Galaxy S10 is now said to make use of a neural processing unit (NPU) to help recognize scenes and adjust image settings accordingly, which is a feature Samsung has already been shipping on its phones alongside several other competitors.

But it’s unclear to what extent the NPU will improve the results, or how the results will differ with the US-bound version of the phone that’s based around a Snapdragon 855, which has different machine learning capabilities. The Galaxy S10 sold in most other regions will use Samsung’s own NPU-equipped Exynos 9820 processor, which the company has already touted for its AI potential. Either the different versions of the S10 will have different AI capabilities, or Samsung isn’t tying its AI features particularly strongly to its hardware; neither outcome suggests that it’s a priority for the company.

For me, the best camera-related feature in the Galaxy S10 actually pertains to video: it can capture footage in HDR10+, a standard that Samsung has pushed more than anyone else as an open alternative to Dolby Vision. HDR video capture of any kind is still uncommon in phones, but HDR10+ is a dynamic format where different brightness levels can be recorded for each scene, which seems like a great fit for the often uncontrolled lighting situations that we tend to shoot mobile video in. It should also be a good way to show off the S10’s undoubtedly class-leading display.

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

There’s no reason to think that the Galaxy S10 will have a bad camera. Subjective assessments of image processing aside, the company has been competitive in this area throughout the history of the Galaxy S series, if rarely the outright leader. But the S10 doesn’t look to be innovating much either in hardware or software. Adding more lenses is one thing, but without meaningful improvements in image quality, that’s something that anyone can emulate.

And this really has to be Samsung’s major concern as it heads into 2019 under heavy attack from Chinese manufacturers. In recent years, maintaining a certain level of flagship-caliber camera performance has been one of the main reasons to go with a Samsung phone over cheaper competitors like OnePlus and Honor. We’ll have to see what kind of results the S10 turns in, but right now Samsung’s pitch seems surprisingly muted.