The flagship smartphones are no longer just faster. They are also more expensive. Mobile brands are now not bashful to price them above S$1300, a range unheard of few years ago, and at this price you can buy a decent laptop. There is no doubt that these super-premium smartphones contains advanced technology. Photography and gaming are the main features that consumers now look out for, while display quality is already a given. But as users pay top dollar for the devices, they are constantly asking themselves: do these latest smartphone offer far better features than the less expensive models?
In this group test, we compare these four top smartphones – Apple iPhone Xs Max, Google Pixel 3 XL, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Note9. Each of the phones have strong selling points which makes it challenging to identify the best. But we will focus on evaluating the design, camera, performance, overall features and value.
(By Chester Tan, published in NXT Magazine December 2018)
Apple iPhone XS Max
The latest iPhones are clearly better than the predecessors in every way, from the improved processor to the better display and the camera. Even the price is much higher but we shan’t argue with that.
For iPhone users looking for an upgrade, the iPhone XS Max is definitely one to go for. The entire iOS experience is further elevated to such silky smoothness that it feels like the UI is floating. Like most smartphones, the new A12 Bionic processor with neural engine delivers impressive AR experiences, like measuring objects in 3D plane, play games in real environments, generate 3D effects when shooting portraits.
The design, however, remains almost identical to the iPhone X, and while the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max sound large, it is actually around the size of the iPhone 8 Plus, thanks to the stretched display all the way to the edges, achieving a bezel-free appearance. For non-iPhone X owners, it will take some time to get used to the gesture navigation in the absence of a home button. It is also more difficult to power down the new iPhones, requiring both volume button and the side button to initiate.
It might not be fair to compare the iPhone XS Max with the other Android smartphones in the list, but the benchmark-topping result says it all. Image quality appears less processed than the rest, but it delivers the DSLR-like dynamic range and details.
From S$1,799 (64GB)
Needless to say, the iPhone XS Max is the ultimate iPhone to own. Packed with the best Apple features and the most premium materials it delivers utmost smooth UI, but at an incredible price that brings Apple fans to their knees.
Google Pixel 3 XL
The latest smartphone from Google retains the same design DNA, and is the only phone in this shootout to have just one camera. It is clearly a very bold move to illustrate their confidence in software-based development. Indeed, the phone itself does not offer much hardware innovation: it’s got P-OLED display with huge notch to house the two front cameras, but still keeps some bezel space. It comes with wired Pixel Earbuds that can do real-time translation just like the wireless brother. It has a new gesture navigation which reduces from three on-screen buttons to two.
What Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL brings to the table is A.I. machine learning. The Google Assistant is smarter, the Google Lens sees more and provide suggestions without asking, phone can even detect that you are driving and turns on Android Auto automatically. When the phone docks to the Pixel Stand wireless charger, the phone becomes like a Google Home and displays photo frame, album cover, video doorbell display, and brightens up before the morning alarm goes off.
There is something simple yet sophisticated about the Pixel 3 XL, one that does not rely on bloatware or hardware gimmicks. It delivers a more complete Android experience, more than just merely “stock Android”. Clearly, the built-in smart camera, behavioural learning, intelligent listening, and companion accessories provide compelling reasons to embrace the Pixel ecosystem. The Google Pixel is the equivalent of iPhone for the Android OS.
From S$1,399 (64GB)
The Pixel 3 XL does not offer any revolutionary hardware, but builds on what Google does best: software development. There is far more intelligence that most smartphones that makes it a true digital assistant.
Huawei Mate 20 Pro
The Mate 20 series is the sixth flagship model that Huawei co-branded with camera maker Leica since the P9, and if you have followed the development of Huawei smartphones, you would have found the evolution of the main camera module to be quite intriguing. Leica’s collaboration with Huawei started with the development of a unique dual camera system featuring a dedicated monochrome sensor for the P9, which then became a triple camera system in the P20 Pro with the addition of a 3x optical zoom camera. With the Mate 20 Pro Huawei have now replaced the monochrome sensor with a standard colour sensor, but most normal users won’t notice any difference. The Mate 20 Pro features a curved edge display design that resembles the Samsung Galaxy S-series but with a dedicated square camera module, while the unique glass texture on the rear minimises fingerprint.
The Mate 20 Pro cumulates some of the latest mobile features available from the market, like the 3D face unlock technology with the same security offered by iPhone; an in-display fingerprint sensor to improve design aesthetics; and a new screen-to-body ratio. It also now supports wireless rapid charging as well as reverse wireless charging, a first on a smartphone. Its multiple camera system can scan 3D objects and bring it to live, while the HiVision – the Google Lens equivalent – can intelligently identify food and show the calorie count.
With a new 7nm Kirin 980 processor and a massive 4200 mAh battery, the Mate 20 Pro performance is almost unrivalled. Over the course of our review, the battery life improved with AI power management at work. In desperate times, the 40W SuperCharge can refuel the phone up to 70% in 30 minutes, the fastest among the test group. Like the previous Mate series, the Mate 20 can connect to an external display to allow user to operate in a PC desktop mode, but the latest model can now do it wirelessly via Miracast.
Huawei Mate 20 Pro continues to be massively competitive in its design and features. Though it pushes the price upwards, it is still the lowest price among the smartphones in this group test, while achieving the most number of features.
Samsung Galaxy Note9
The Galaxy Note9 offers little innovative surprise, but Samsung focuses on usable features. Perhaps the most surprising non-event is that Samsung remains the only major smartphone brand that has not embraced notch displays.
But Samsung knows better: Note9 users have unique needs – the powerful S Pen that lets them doodle on the screen with utmost accuracy. The addition of a Bluetooth module transforms the S Pen into a remote shutter trigger and a presentation slide scroller. The dual rear camera specs is identical to the S9 series, with the main camera having a variable aperture of f/1.5 and 2.4. Without overselling the A.I. aspects of the camera, the Galaxy Note9 also offers the ability to optimise the scene by identifying the objects, as well as prompting the user when the camera detects motion blur or an eye blink.
There is also no need for a separate DeX Station to run the phone in desktop mode, and users can operate both phone mode and desktop at the same time. The massive 512GB storage is as big as an ultraportable laptop, so imagine the amount of photos, videos, and music you can store. The 4000 mAh battery feels relatively insufficient to sustain enthusiastic users, but the Galaxy Note9 is already quite beefy. Among the smartphones, the Galaxy Note9 delivers the most pleasant stereo speaker sound, loud and full without sounding too shrill.
From S$1,398 (128GB)
The Galaxy Note9 remains the only smartphone with a built-in pen for convenient doodling. It continues its conventional design aesthetics and improves in areas to match its premium price. The phone might not win new owners, but will gratify the Galaxy Note fans.
Group Test Winner
Huawei Mate 20 Pro has emerged as a close winner in the group test, and while it may not deliver the best features in some areas, it does contains many of the latest mobile innovations in 2018 – 3D Face Unlock, in-screen fingerprint sensor, A.I. Neural Processor, augmented reality interaction, desktop mode, wireless charging and triple camera with ultra-wide angle lens. The retail price of S$1,348 may seem expensive, but is still the lowest among the smartphones compared.
Each of the smartphones in this group test holds merit on their own, and you will not be disappointed with any of them. But for tech-savvy consumers, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro has the most number of the latest features without costing an arm and a leg.
|Phones||Apple iPhone Xs Max||Google Pixel 3 XL||Huawei Mate 20 Pro||Samsung Galaxy Note9|
|Camera Features and Quality||4||4.5||4.5||4|
(All images resized to 1,008 x 756 pixels, 72dpi resolution, click on image to expand)
Close up photography
Indoor Photography 1
Indoor Photography 2