Huawei Mate 10 Pro Review

 
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Megapixels
Non-Zoom 1/2.9 inch
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image of Huawei Mate 10 Pro
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Huawei Mate 10 Pro Field Test

Goodness is this camera ever good

by | Posted

I cannot believe how good the Huawei Mate 10 Pro's camera is. After a little over a month of using this device in a host of different environments, there remains one constant: this bad boy is the best overall cell phone camera I've ever used. In some instances it's objectively less good than the Google Pixel 2, but in others, Mate 10 totally blows it away. Overall, across the various uses you will find yourself with your cell phone, it's hard to not just gape aghast at how darn excellent the device is.

Given that Huawei is facing some pretty huge setbacks in terms of its distribution in the US, with Amazon.com and NewEgg really being the only places you can get them now thanks to news that Best Buy is going to stop carrying Huawei products, it sucks as a consumer that one of the best camera devices you can own, you probably won't. In fact, most of you reading this will never see a Mate 10 in person. And that sucks.

But for the rest of you who are really thinking about picking up a Mate 10 Pro, there is so much to love about its imaging potential, and that's not even looking at the device as a phone first and foremost (and it's pretty excellent at that, too).

So let's take a look at why I'm so enamored with this smartphone and what you can expect from it's Leica-branded camera if you decide that the Mate 10 Pro is right for you.

Build Quality

First of all, the Mate 10 Pro is a beautiful device. It's sleek, comfortable to use, and feels like a luxury electronic. The screen is absolutely gorgeous and looking at photos on the Mate 10 is a wonderful experience. Nearly the entire front of the Mate 10 is filled with the screen, save for a small bar on the top and bottom of the display. I personally think they could have even eliminated the bottom bar, since it appears only to serve as a spacer/place to put Huawei's logo. The Mate 10 Pro features a 6-inch AMOLED 18:9 screen with HDR 10, which Huawei says results in a more vivid, bright experience when viewing anything on the Mate 10. More specifically, the Mate 10 uses a 6.0" HUAWEI FullView Display, with a 2160x1080 pixel screen at 402ppi. So while not 4K, it's a higher resolution than Full HD.

The backside of the Mate 10 is pretty nice and extremely simple. Aside from the two Leica-branded lenses and the fingerprint sensor, there isn't much else there. Huawei's literature tells me the entire phone is made with "3D glass," so I'm inclined to believe them despite how I think the back of the phone actually feels. If you asked me what I thought it was made of, I would say plastic. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's not sleek aluminum or anything like that, so it doesn't feel as "fancy" as I think Huawei was hoping.

The fingerprint sensor is extremely accurate. The only time it has failed to immediately open the phone was when I used the wrong finger. I wish I was exaggerating, but it's so impressive that I often scowl at my iPhone 7+ now when it improperly reads my print (this happens the most when I'm playing video games. I'm guessing the iPhone's weakness is that it doesn't do a good job with sweaty thumbs?).

But let's take a look now at what we really care about: The camera.

The Mate 10, Leica combo

The Huawei Mate 10 actually has three separate cameras. On the front, it sports an 8 megapixel camera with a 26mm f/2.0 lens, which isn't bad at all. It's not going to be exceptional in low light, and it, of course, is going to take less quality images than the rear cameras, but it's not bad.

Speaking of those rear cameras, that's where the real money is. Both of the rear cameras have a 27mm f/1.6 aperture lens, with the RGB sensor being 12MP and the Monochrome 20MP. Huawei says they utilize an intelligent algorithm to create a single image by combining the two images captured by the separate cameras. The RGB camera records the color information while the Monochrome one captures the outline of a grayscale image and all the fine details. The Monochrome sensor can capture more light, therefore enhancing the clarity of the details. Huawei has told us that the "Monochrome+Color" dual camera solution greatly improves the image quality in low light environments and ensures the highest level of image quality.

Of those two lenses, only the RGB lens is optically stabilized.

With both lenses being set to 27mm, Huawei achieves the "zoom" on their camera (as well as support for bokeh effects in Portrait mode) by using their proprietary technology called "Hybrid Zoom." They did not go into detail on how this worked, but... it does work. In my time with the Huawei, I can't say I ever thought that there wasn't one lens that was just a longer focal length. I only learned that they were both 27mm while writing this review. Whatever they are doing, it works really well.

On the plus side, using two sensors together to produce one image gives a very rich, high quality finished file in both JPEG and RAW. On the down side, without using a physically longer lens to achieve zoom, Huawei is forced to digitally zoom. While the file generally looks pretty good most of the time, bear in mind that this process results in a RAW that shows no zoom at all; only the JPEG will display "zoomed in," and that's kind of a bummer. If you are used to having a physically longer lens option on your cell phone, this might disappoint. However, the benefits Huawei achieved with non-zoomed images might have been worth the tradeoff.

Because of what Huawei has done with the two sensors, the result has left me with this very strong opinion: I have never been so impressed with a cell phone camera. Honestly, I haven't been this impressed with a small, handheld camera in my entire career. I wish this was hyperbole because then I could convince myself I was happy with other compact cameras, but it's not. There are many images I've taken with the Mate 10 Pro that, to me, look as though they were captured with a full size camera. I mean look at these:

4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/60s, ISO 160
(Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.)
4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/50s, ISO 100
(Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.)

An added bonus to using the Mate 10 is that you have complete control of all camera settings in the "Pro" mode. You have access to all of the capture settings so that you can make the image you want to make without relying on anything automatic. I really appreciate this built in to the native camera app, and it makes me yearn for it on any phone I've used since the Mate 10.

That same Pro mode also allows for the capture of RAW and JPEG images concurrently, which is great for those who want to edit images later on their computer but also have quick access to the JPEGs in the moment.

Portrait Mode: 4mm (27mm eq.), f/4, 1/100s, ISO 100
4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/50s, ISO 100
(Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.)

I will say I wasn't sure why it would do this, but on occasion even after setting myself in the Pro Mode, it would sometimes kick me out of it and default back to the automatic settings and also just go back to shooting only in JPEG. It's why for several shots in our test gallery you will not find both JPEG and RAW. It was in those cases I thought I was capturing both, but the Mate 10 decided to jump back to default settings. I was probably doing something that made it perform like this, but I'm not sure what. This is pretty much the only slightly annoying firmware situation that occurred for me through my time with the Mate 10.

Anyway, as far as pure image quality goes, in well-lit environments, the Mate 10 just absolutely knocks it out of the park. JPEGs produced in-camera look spectacular, especially when viewed on the phone (there is no way this is a coincidence), but even more impressive, the RAW files provide a ton of latitude in post production. The dynamic range is also extremely impressive, all things considered.

But what about in not ideal lighting conditions?

Low Light Performance

In low light, you get mixed results. But I don't mean this in the way that I normally would. You see, the higher the ISO on the Mate 10, the less you're going to want to rely on the RAW file. Normally, the opposite is true for a camera since the RAW will give you more data to correct for noise and color shift in post. But with the Mate 10, Huawei's built-in noise reduction is easily one of the most impressive I've ever encountered.

For example, let's look at one of the ISO samples I captured at the highest ISO on the Mate 10: ISO 3200. Besides the fact that this is extremely high and really a nice feature on its own, I want to focus on how the Mate 10 deals with noise internally. Here is the RAW file converted to a JPEG with no other adjustments made:

RAW conversion: 4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/200s, ISO 3200

It's pretty noisy right? I don't think I would like any photo taken like this. But because I was shooting in RAW + JPEG, I was also given a straight out of camera result that uses Huawei's noise reduction processing:

In-camera JPEG: 4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/200s, ISO 3200

The difference is staggering: the JPEG looks good. Not just usable, but really quite good, despite the tiny camera sensors. If I were given the RAW file, I'm not confident I could produce a finished product that comes anywhere close to as good as the Huawei's native processing.

I of course wanted to know more about how Huawei was able to do this in-camera, but they were not particularly forthcoming on the specifics or details (company secrets and all). What they did tell me was that while they don't comment on specific technicalities and processes, the noise reduction can be attributed to Huawei's own Kirin 970 chipset with a dedicated Neural Processing Unit (NPU) and a newly upgraded Image Signal Processor (ISP). The dual ISP supports AI-powered Real-Time Scene and Object Recognition, which automatically chooses the settings that are best suited for a given object in a specific environment. Some of its other features include (and these are all direct quotes from a Huawei representative):

  • AI-powered Digital Zoom - advanced autofocus function for clearer portraits
  • AI Motion Detection - motion capture that enables perfectly focused images of objects in motion.
  • Enhanced noise reduction - across multiple bands of spectrum for more clear and natural photographs in low-light conditions
  • Fast Response - compared with the previous generation, the response speed increase by 15%
  • Rapid Focus - 4-in-1 hybrid focus supporting face-detection, laser, depth and contrast. The face detection and advanced face tracking technique ensures that portraits are clearer
  • Best Snapshot - Intelligent motion detection that identifies a motion scenario in real time and Less noise: With the help of detecting dark scenarios, the improved low light noise reduction technology can make low-light shooting more natural.

So while they won't reveal how it is working, all we can say when looking at the result is that it works incredibly well. Hats off to the engineers at Huawei, because this is a stellar result.

So given the really high-level noise reduction, it's kind of hard to show you an ISO test in the typical manner. Below I'll show you what the camera did through all the ISOs available, but if you're curious how the RAW files look, I encourage you to download them directly here. Spoiler: they aren't nearly as good as the JPEGs.

 

Huawei Mate 10 Pro: ISO series
ISO 50
ISO 100
ISO 125
ISO 160
ISO 200
ISO 250
ISO 320
ISO 400
ISO 500
ISO 640
ISO 800
ISO 1000
ISO 1250
ISO 1600
 
ISO 3200

One other thing worth noting is that while testing the Mate 10, I was also testing the Google Pixel 2 and using my iPhone 7 as well as seeing what my friends were getting on their iPhone 8 or iPhone X cameras. Though this is likely worth an entire test on its own, I do want to mention that the Huawei seemed to be much smarter about how it metered and captured low light scenes than any of the competition. There are some cases where light wasn't really ideal (such as neon or purposely colored lighting you might find in a club) where the Huawei was the best performer in distinguishing details despite poor lighting. Even more impressive, the Mate 10 was able to see a scene and use much lower ISOs than competitor cameras in the same scene, resulting in a far less noisy image. One example of this was the Bellagio Fountain, where those around me were struggling to capture photos that didn't exhibit high levels of noise. It's probably the wide aperture of f/1.6, but shooting the fountain I found that the Huawei was never needing to go above ISO 500 for any of the photos I took.

4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/30s, ISO 320

Other Modes

The Huawei ships with some special photo modes that might appeal to some, but these are the kinds of settings I generally ignore on cameras that come to market. For example, there is a "beauty" mode on the Mate 10 that is designed to make selfies look better. And it might, but for some, like my friend Gordon here, it makes for some rather terrifying results.

Beauty Mode: 4mm (27mm eq.), f/2, 1/30s, ISO 320

The only feature I tend to like is the "Portrait" mode because it can make images look more like what you can get with a larger sensor and more expensive lens. On the Mate 10, the portrait mode works pretty well, but can get confused with similar colors, textures, and dark places. For example, it works pretty well in this image (with the exception of some smudging on the aluminum):

Portrait Mode: 4mm (27mm eq.), f/4, 1/50s, ISO 100

But then pretty poorly in this one:

Portrait Mode: 4mm (27mm eq.), f/0.9, 1/20s, ISO 640

As is common with this feature on all cell phone cameras, the Mate 10 has a hard time with hair texture. Though it does expertly show us what should be the in-focus section of the image, it doesn't do the best job of actually rendering that section properly.

This feature, of course, works best in ideal lighting conditions, but it's worth noting how something performs in all uses cases.

The Mate 10 also offers a "burst fire" mode that works pretty well in most circumstances, but you shouldn't try it with very fast moving subjects. Though the camera's aforementioned AI is really good at finding a subject, it's not great if the subject is rapidly moving towards or away from you. It is best when a subject is moving around, but at about the same focusing distance for a few seconds, like a horizontal move from a soccer player, for example. In contrast, something like a runner or a car driving at you or away from you quickly will result in several missed frames. I was able to get one shot though, which does show that the camera can capture and stop action when it locks on to moving subjects.

4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/6536s, ISO 50
(Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.)

In my experience, the Mate 10 excels at portraits and still life photos. Just about every photo I took in those categories came out spectacular. For most end users of this camera, that is going to encompass the entire spectrum of images taken with the Mate 10. So for Huawei, this being the camera's strength is a definite plus.

4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/2762s, ISO 50
(Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.)

Overall, this camera just kills it

If it wasn't obvious enough from the first two paragraphs of this review, I'll reiterate: the Huawei Mate 10 camera is absolutely spectacular. Images not only look great on the beautiful screen, but somehow look even better when you get them onto a computer for editing. I can't say I've ever been this impressed with images I've taken on any compact camera, let alone a cell phone. Though it's not the best in every category (I still think the Pixel 2 makes better, crisper portraits), it's so good across the board that it's hard to not revel in the excellence of the Mate 10.

4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.6, 1/60s, ISO 160
(Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.)

There were only a handful of times where I would take a photo and not like the result when using the Mate 10, and those times were all with special photo modes like Portrait or Beauty. When just using the camera like a camera, it's phenomenal.

It really is a travesty that so few people in the United States will ever consider a Huawei, as the incredible technology that they have packed into this device should be something the masses have a chance to appreciate. It's got some of the most user-friendly features I've ever encountered in a phone, and the noise reduction at high ISOs is easily some of the best I've ever encountered in any camera, ever. If you do get a chance to try out the Mate 10 Pro, I urge you to give it a shot (ha, pun). The photos you can make with this little device will really change your perspective on what you think a cell phone camera can, and should, do.

 

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