Vivo X50 Pro’s micro gimbal camera outperforms the S20 Ultra at night


My comparison focused on the supposed benefits of Vivo’s micro gimbal camera, which means in most cases, it’s the X50 Pro’s 48-megapixel f/1.6 camera versus the S20 Ultra’s beastly 108-megapixel f/1.8 shooter. Coincidentally, both main cameras output 12-megapixel images by way of pixel-binning, except the latter uses 3×3 combos instead of 2×2 to mimic even larger pixels for higher efficiency. The S20 Ultra switches to its 12-megapixel f/2.2 ultra-wide camera for its “super steady” mode, which I’ll talk about as well later.

For the sake of convenience, I mounted both phones side by side onto the same handheld rig, which I used mainly for video shoots and general still shots. For long-exposure shots in the dark, I would hold the phones one at a time instead to ensure maximum handheld stabilization.

Richard Lai/Engadget

Before I headed out, I walked around my apartment with my makeshift rig to get familiar with it, and I also used that opportunity to see how the cameras performed indoors with natural lighting. As I expected, the X50 Pro’s camera had better video stabilization, and as a bonus, it offered more natural colors and better dynamic range. 

That said, Vivo’s footage was too soft — I struggled to make out the titles on my bookshelf even when I went up close. On the other side of the fence, the S20 Ultra did well with sharpness — it could perhaps even go a little easier on the sharpening, but it was certainly better than the X50 Pro’s, nonetheless.

I made the same observation with the footage I got from walking under the nice weather. The X50 Pro once again beat the S20 Ultra with more realistic colors but fell behind in sharpness. With more background noise present, I started noticing that the X50 Pro had better audio quality as well; the S20 Ultra’s footage sounded muddier and lacked details in the higher frequencies.

Whenever I picked up my pace or made sudden movements, the micro gimbal camera proved its worth by keeping the video steadier than the S20 Ultra’s jumpy video, but it could only handle so much stabilization — it eventually struggled to keep up when I started sprinting.

This is where the S20 Ultra’s “super steady” mode comes in. Once you toggle this, the camera app switches to the ultra-wide camera, in which it uses purely electronic stabilization and cropping to compensate for extreme movements. In this mode, the S20 Ultra easily tamed the shakiness from my sprinting, with the trade-off being reduced sharpness and slight wobbling from electronic stabilization.

Two sets of powerful cameras.

Richard Lai/Engadget

The X50 Pro has a similar mode dubbed “ultra stable,” but rather than switching to its 8-megapixel ultra-wide camera, it continues to use the main camera but with a more powerful electronic stabilization (by increasing the cropping angle). Sadly, this couldn’t cope with my sprinting, and it didn’t seem to make much difference compared to normal mode. Vivo’s product manager admitted that such a mode would be more effective on an ultra-wide camera, which would provide more headspace for cropping, but the team opted for the main camera’s better image quality instead.

Switching back to normal video mode on both phones, I was later surprised that the S20 Ultra managed to have better stabilization than the X50 Pro when I walked down a set of stairs. This is likely because Vivo’s micro gimbal only does dual-axis stabilization, so it lacks the third axis to dampen this particular motion. This just goes to show how far we’ve come with electronic stabilization. But of course, maybe someday a future iteration of the micro gimbal will be able to cover all three axes.

I got to the harbor soon after it went dark, and things got interesting. While the S20 Ultra aced the X50 Pro in terms of sharpness during the day, it was the opposite at night. The Samsung phone applied heavy noise reduction to its night-time footage, so a lot of fine details on both distant skyscrapers and nearby banners were missing. Distortion from Samsung’s stabilization also became more apparent as the surrounding got darker — the whole footage would shake with almost each step I took.

While the X50 Pro’s night time footage appeared a little darker, it easily beat the S20 Ultra in all other aspects. More details were preserved, colors were more accurate, and stabilization was better. The cleaner audio quality came in as a bonus to better capture the atmosphere of the light and sound show.

I once again switched to “super steady” / “ultra stable” mode on both phones to see how they would perform in the dark. Again, the difference wasn’t apparent on the X50 Pro, but at least the image quality was similar. The S20 Ultra’s footage, on the other hand, was severely under-exposed, to the point where most of the skyscrapers had almost disappeared into the dark. Such is the limitation of the slower f/2.2 ultra-wide camera used in this mode.

Vivo X50 Pro

Richard Lai/Engadget

I then shifted my focus to still photography, in order to test Vivo’s claims of better low-light shots using the gimbal camera. Indeed, much like the videos, the X50 Pro’s stills produced more accurate colors and preserved more details on the buildings. The S20 Ultra tried to make up ground by artificially sharpening its shots, but you can’t save what’s already lost.

Long exposure is apparently also a strong suit of Vivo’s micro gimbal camera, so I shifted to another location to try some late night street photography. Even with exposures of as long as 0.5 seconds, the X50 Pro still took sharper and more natural images than the S20 Ultra in most occasions. The gimbal camera’s better dynamic range also meant billboards were less washed out in the X50 Pro’s shots.

2020-07-16 11:30:39

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