Huawei partnered with legendary camera maker Leica and the Mate 9 is armed with the second generation product of their collaboration. It's built around two cameras - one with a 12MP color sensor and one with a 20MP monochrome sensor.
The phone can mix the imagery from both cameras in various ways, creating some advanced functionality. The most basic thing is the zoom - we got some impressive results at 2x zoom (54mm-equiv. FoV). The slider goes up to 6x though the quality degrades quickly past the 2x mark.
LG went the other way - V20's second camera is used to offer a wider view of the scene, essentially zooming out from 75° to 135° FoV. It's debatable whether zooming in or out is more useful. However, that second camera on the V20 has only an 8MP sensor and fixed focus.
That means it can't really augment the main camera like the Huawei Mate 9 can do. Other dual-camera tricks it does is Google Pixel-like HDR+ (super sampling instead of multi-exposure) and Wide aperture - you can create soft bokehs with a simulated aperture of f/0.95 or go all the way to f/16 to have everything in sharp focus.
And, of course, the Black & White camera on the Mate 9 is more sensitive in low light, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. We start shooting samples during the day and then we'll move on to the night shots.
The Huawei Mate 9 has the option to shoot color photos in either 12MP or 20MP resolutions. How when the color camera is only 12MP? The human eye has more rods (which see in black and white) than cones (which give us color vision) so Huawei can do this with no visible degradation of image quality. In fact, this is one of the basic ways to compress images and video (it's called "chroma subsampling").
The 12MP camera on the Mate 9 struggles with the finer detail that LG V20's 16MP camera can resolve. Even with the 20MP camera in play it still lags behind. The 20MP mode does improve the image quality, but the 20MP monochrome mode is even sharper. We noticed that the Mate 9 is susceptible to moire effects (easy to see in the second sample), which carry over to the 20MP image as well (moire is caused when there's not enough resolution to capture the minute details). That said, it handles foliage better - the LG has a tendency to paint plants in an unnatural uniform color, while the Huawei captures their beauty more faithfully.
The LG V20 has a color spectrum sensor, but it never got the white balance quite right. The Huawei Mate 9 camera offers the "Leica look" and while we detect some sharpening and a slight saturation boost (things Leica is against), the end result is quite pleasing.
The V20 always tries to preserve the highlights, which is good sometimes and bad other times. As the V20 camera tries to rescue the highlights, it often gives them a tint of color which can look off - just look at the snow, we prefer the overexposed-but-white snow of the Huawei over the yellowish snow of the LG.
We mentioned that the Mate 9 has a dedicated night mode, but that one requires a tripod - it does multiple exposures and the OIS wasn't enough to counteract camera shake (you can push exposure time all the way up to 32s with a tripod). So anyway, we stuck to the normal mode.
Both phones have OIS, though the LG V20 did a better job. We had to pick through multiple Mate 9 samples that had clear handshake. Not that the V20 is perfect, its most common mistake was missed focus. Sure, it has Laser autofocus, but that works only up to 1.5m (6ft), so it's no good for landscape shots. The LG V20 was also slower in capturing and saving photos.
It was worth the wait, though, LG has found a good balance between reducing noise and preserving detail. Huawei's post processing was more aggressive and on occasion smudged fairly large elements.
We took additional photos, this time including the black & white camera into the mix, thinking it will have an advantage (since color filters reduce the light reaching the sensor). As it turns out, there are no tangible benefit beyond the cool B&W look. These shots are processed differently - the contrast is boosted noticeably, making light and dark elements of the image stand out more.
Pixel peepers may want to head over to our Photo quality comparison tool to continue the evaluation of the LG V20 and the Huawei Mate 9. We included both 12MP and 20MP shots for the Huawei.
Winner: Huawei Mate 9. It offers features we'd use more often and while minute detail isn't its strong suit, the Leica-branded camera produced the more pleasing images. We prefer its color rendering, that it doesn't overexpose parts of the image off-white, it also handles variations in color hues better (most visible in plants, but elsewhere too).
The LG V20 still has one of the sharpest cameras on the market, but LG's processing keep it from shining. The wide-angle camera can be fun, but it is less useful in practice than Mate 9's second camera - the 8MP fixed focus just doesn't have the image quality. Whether you want to zoom in or out is debatable, but at least the Huawei does zoom (and bokeh) without taking a hit in quality.
Both phones have the option to save RAW data from the camera sensor and both export in the universal DNG format. We captured a few RAW+JPEG photos with the LG V20 and the Huawei Mate 9 and then imported the DNGs to a PC and edited them to suit our preference.
The results are similar for the two smartphones. If you know what you're doing shooting RAW will give you a considerable advantage. You get control over sharpness, noise reduction and saturation, among others - the three things that can make or break an image.
The LG V20, like any modern smartphone, applies noise reduction and sharpness to its images. But compared to the Mate 9 the LG V20's images are less processed from their DNG counterparts. There is less noise reduction applied here so in the scene below the LG V20 resolved more detail.
We played around with the sharpening and brightened the shadows a bit but that's it.
We wouldn't say shooting and editing RAW from the LG V20 is worth it as we didn't make a whole lot of difference to the resulting photos.
With the Huawei Mate 9 we found RAW to be much more useful.
Like the LG, the Mate 9 also applies a lot of sharpening and noise reduction to its photos, even more so. We toned both down in the edited file (the one on the right) and also made the shadows brighter. By editing the DNGs from the Mate 9 we were able to get more detailed textures and objects and a brighter image with more detail and much nicer colors.
The better colors are most noticeable in the red and blue buildings in the far background. In the in-camera JPEGs you can't tell what color they are.
We'd say that there aren't meaningful benefits to shooting RAW on the LG V20 and there are real benefits to shooting RAW on the Huawei Mate 9. A JPEG, edited from DNG, from the Mate 9 looks much better than the in-camera JPEG and gives the Mate 9 an edge over the V20.
The original V-phone was among the first in the new wave of dual camera phones, except unlike the 2016 models, its dual camera was on the front. The LG V20 emulates the wide and narrow FoV with a single camera which produces 5MP shots in either case.
This gives the Huawei Mate 9 a leg up on resolution, 8MP, if not field of view. Both phones have bright f/1.9 apertures for their selfie cams and can shoot 1080p video through them.
The Huawei takes a definitive victory in resolved detail, it's miles ahead of the LG (the difference is bigger than you would expect from 8MP vs. 5MP). V20's wide mode looks better than the narrow mode, but both are quite soft compared to the Mate 9 shots. Also, the background in the Mate 9 photos is slightly soft, helping the subject stand out.
When taking selfies, keep in mind that the LG V20 has a fixed focus camera and you have to hold the phone at the right distance from your face (slightly less than arm's length in our case). The Huawei Mate 9 empowered its selfie camera with autofocus, which gives you more freedom, but its range is a bit limited.
Winner: Huawei Mate 9. If you manage the right focus distance, you're in for sharp, detailed selfies. We also appreciate the autofocus (even if it wasn't the best), few makers bother even though it can make a big difference in user experience. We like LG's wide/narrow modes, but would have loved a sharp image even more.
The video recording can be split into three categories, each with its own use. The phones top out at 2160p, which should offer the most detailed image - perfect for those large 4K TVs. Then there's 1080p @ 60fps, which captures motion smoothly (but suffers a detail penalty) and finally the classic 1080p @ 30fps mode.
The LG V20 records sharp 2160p footage, while the Huawei Mate 9 exhibits some visible compression artifacts, which hurt the perceived resolution. A quick investigation reveals that the V20 shoots at 47Mbps while the Mate 9 is at 30Mbps and it shows.
Both phones exhibit a "pulsation" in image quality. On the Mate 9, every couple of seconds an extra compressed frame appears (which looks like the noise in the image suddenly increased). On the LG V20 the compression artifacts build up until they are cleared by the next key frame and then it starts all over again.
The LG V20 captures clearer sound and you can adjust the sensitivity of the microphones - effectively "pointing" them forward towards the scene or back towards you (or any position in between). This is great if you want to narrate or let the scene play out without commentary from your group.
We also love the focus peaking when you enable manual focus - on this small screen with no eyepiece, it's vital in keeping the right things in focus.
The Huawei Mate 9 captures sound at a higher bitrate (192Kbps vs. 156Kbps) but wasn't as good at removing wind noise.
Our video comparison tool makes it easy to compare still frames at 100% magnification, here is the LG V20 vs. the Huawei Mate 9, both in 2160p mode.
The 1080p @ 60fps videos from the Mate 9 appear heavily pixelated, in practice they are closer to 720p. The LG V20 showed only a minor drop in sharpness between its two 1080p modes - 60fps and 30fps. Strangely, the Mate 9 uses a higher bitrate here than for the 2160p videos (34Mpbs), while the V20 shot at about half the bitrate (24Mbps). Huawei claims that the H.265 compression used for 2160p videos saves up to 50% bitrate compared to the older H.264 used for both 1080p modes. That may be so, but we still think a higher bitrate would have helped.
Even when we move to the basic 1080p @ 30fps, the Huawei Mate 9 lags behind in resolved detail. You can easily see LG's advantage in the trees, footsteps in the snow and even the buildings.
We shot 1080p videos for the Video quality comparison tool as well, here they are.
Both phones boast video stabilization, but the fine print says that it works only at 1080p @ 30fps. For anything above, you only have OIS to rely on.
Winner: LG V20. On all counts. The 2160p videos are only slightly better than Mate 9's, but the audio is great. The difference in quality is most evident in the 1080p @ 60fps test, we just wouldn't use the Mate 9 to shoot 60fps videos. Even 1080p @ 30fps, a mode that has been available on phones for years now, wasn't perfect on the Huawei.