On several occasions, Terrence's kid had run past him and completely cleared the frame before he could get in a shot with the Samsung. The Mate on a few occasions had so much trouble locking onto the dog that photos were painfully underexposed. Despite being shot in broad daylight under a cloudless sky, they looked like they were taken in the dead of night.
Zoom and macro
Here's where Samsung finally had a chance to shine. The Note 9 was the clear winner when it came to macro shots. Terrence took a wider-framed overhead shot of several paragraphs of text, and photos from all phones came out pretty much the same. But he was able to get much closer with the Note before losing focus. The iPhone and Pixel had to be quite far away to get readable results.
The Note 9 also did well when Evan tested the phones on image quality at maximum zoom: It came in second to the iPhone. Although the pictures were muddy across the board, Apple's software was the cleanest of the lot, clearly rendering lines on a water tower and the bricks of a distant building. The Note 9 showed some bloom (softness), which can be a result of inferior lenses, but its photo still held up. The Mate 20 Pro had even more bloom and was slightly overexposed, but it still did better than the Pixel 3 XL, which didn't get as close as the other three phones and looked mushy in parts.
Interface and ease of use
A good camera not only takes great pictures but also is easy to operate. In general, the iPhone and Pixel had the cleanest, most intuitive camera apps with uncluttered, straightforward interfaces. The drawback is that they don't have as many special features and advanced tools as the Note 9 and Mate 20 Pro. But that's fine for most people.
The Mate 20 Pro in particular was finicky and confusing for Terrence, who has had less experience than Chris and me with non-mainstream phones. He kept accidentally zooming in and encountered a bewildering bunch of settings, which can frustrate most users. The symbols for toggling things like moving photos and aperture mode are similar while common modes like HDR are hidden away under Settings.
The worst, though, is when your camera doesn't behave in a way you expect, which was sometimes the case with the Note 9. It often felt like it had a mind of its own: Tap to focus didn't always work the way Chris wanted because the phone decided to lock onto something else.
Ultimately, the best camera should appeal to the largest amount of people. Not everyone wants their photos to look warmer or more saturated. For photos that are clear and realistic, the Pixel 3 is king, and it's what the four of us agree is the best camera of the lot. It blends software smarts, accurate colors and crisp details with a straightforward interface. Google's magical Night Sight feature also gives the Pixel a boost that propels it to the top of the ranks in low-light performance. Throw in a helpful wide-angle selfie camera and superior Portrait mode processing and the Pixel pulls further ahead of the competition.
The iPhone XS is still a close second though. Its portraits tend to be a little on the orange side, but in general Apple's software renders accurate colors and excellent clarity.
The Mate 20 Pro and Galaxy Note 9 are also capable shooters; they just have some minor and occasionally frustrating quirks. Those who like digging into bonus features will appreciate the myriad options these two cameras offer, and fans of dramatic photos will adore the Mate 20 Pro. But Samsung and Huawei's app interface can be difficult to navigate and inconsistent.