Table of Contents
Pretty much anyone can report the findings of DxO Mark and deliver a rating of the 2022 cameras. Or they can tell you that their phone is the best, because hey, it was expensive. I’m not going to do that. Rather, I’ll get into a bit of detail on the best camera phone of 2022 that I have actually used, and some of my photos and experiences with it. It’s easy enough to find reviews online if you just want a rating of some kind, but that doesn’t tell you everything.
So up front, I’ll tell that Honor sent me this Magic4 Pro to use and evaluate, primarily as a camera. I put that out front because I just want everyone to know. They’re not paying me for this, and they’re not reviewing my articles before I post them. It’s also due to the fact that I have an Honor Magic4 Pro in my hands in the USA, where they are generally unavailable. More on that at the end, but yeah, I have the European model, and it would be a problem as your full-time phone in the USA.
So let me dig into the technical stuff for a moment, then some photos!
The Phone Basics
The first thing you’d notice from the Honor Magic4 Pro is that it’s decidedly a premium device. Mine is the base model, which has 256GB UFS 3.1 flash memory and 8GiB LPDDR5 DRAM. It’s built with the typical glass on both sides case with curved edges all around, edges, top, and bottom. They simply call it aluminosilicate glass, which is the basic technology used in all smartphone glass these days, but it’s not a branded glass like Corning’s Gorilla Glass. I have not made any attempt to scratch the glass, and after three weeks of use, it’s still pristine. That was not true of the first Gorilla Glass 4 phone I owned, which had micro-scratches after a week of use. There’s a fingerprint sensor under the glass, which I much prefer to face unlock, though it can do that, too, though I don’t know the level of tech there.
While I do find curved glass more likely to damage than flat glass, the Magic4 does have good metal chassis, apparently made of stainless steel, which extends a bit past the glass, probably a decent design given the glass wrap-around. It’s pretty, IMHO, and feels nice. Naturally, that also means it’s likely to fly from my fingers 3 meters up in the air and smash to bits on the ground any moment. At least Honor did include a basic clear TPU case in the box. The case is also IP68 rated, meaning it should survive your fall into a pool with it this summer, but you probably don’t want to take it swimming.
Curiously, I can get any number of cases for the Magic4 Pro from Amazon, but with “about a month” delivery, they’re clearly all shipping from China. In 2019 I had another Chinese phone, the ZTE Axon 10 Pro, an actual US model, and yet, I couldn’t find anywhere near the accessories available for it here in the USA. Honor has been very successful in China and they’re branching out, so at least in this respect, I’d have some of my concerns addressed.
So the processor is the same 2022 flagship Qualcomm SM8450 Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, manufactured in Samsung’s 4nm chip process and one of the fastest non-Apple processors in a phone (there is already a “plus” version of this SOC on the market). My experience with it so far is that it’s very snappy… I’m not waiting for anything. The 1312 x 2848 pixel (19.5:9 aspect ratio) LTPO OLED display is the best I’ve used on a smartphone to date, without question. That’s including 10-bit color resolution with support for the various HDR video standards. It’s got a 120Hz refresh rate, but I’ve been running it in auto mode, so that it’s only increasing refresh rate when useful. Screen-to-body ratio is 93%, not bad.
The battery is a 4600 mAhr lithium poly battery, good enough for a day but you’ll want to bring along USB battery if you’re away from AC power for a weekend. The phone can reportedly charge at 100W, wired or wireless, which is kind of bonkers. That’s laptop performance!
Camera Tech, In Detail
The Honor4 has four cameras: ultrawide angle, wide angle, telephoto, and time-of-flight. That’s the basic setup on most premium phones these days, but the specs do vary from phone to phone.
The design of the back really is all about the camera. Honor calls this the Eye of Muse, and I guess it’s pretty different than other phones. I kind of like it, but then again, the only purpose of a premium phone for me would be a higher-end camera. The iPhone people used to like to pretend they didn’t really have cameras, until they got too many to hide. Anyway, the cameras here:
- The main camera is based on Sony’s IMX766, a 50 megapixel Quad Bayer sensor at 1/1.56″, allowing 1.0µm pixels in a full resolution readout, 2.0µm pixels with 12.25 megapixel pixel bucketing. That’s pretty close to some of the Fujifilm 2/3″ cameras I’ve used over the years for pocket cameras, quite a bit better than standard point-and-shoot and many smartphones. The lens is a 5.53mm, 7-element lens with an f/1.8 aperture, equivalent angle of view to a 23mm lens for a full-frame 35mm camera, about an 82˚ angle-of-view. So a pretty wide standard camera!
- The ultrawide angle camera is a also a 50 megapixel Quad Bayer sensor, but at 1/2.5″, the more classic smartphone main sensor size a few years ago. Unlike many ultrawide cameras, there is autofocus on this one. The lens is 2.16mm at f/2.2, with a 122˚ angle-of-view, about a 12mm lens on a full-frame camera. I suspect the lens is actually a fisheye that delivers rectilinear output via software correction, which is the case with nearly all ultrawide lenses in smartphones.
- The telephoto also uses a Quad Bayer sensor, this one at 64 megapixels and 1/2.0″, identified as the Omnivision OV64B stacked CMOS sensor. This is a popular main sensor on mid-range phones, so certainly a capable chip. That makes it the largest periscope camera sensor that I know of so far… they’re usually quite small, but they have been evolving fast. Of course, all those pixels on a 1/2.0″ sensor mean that, at full resolution, they’re only 700nm wide, or 1.4µm when merged as a 16 megapixel full-sensor shot. This is coupled with a 16.85mm lens, which Honor dubs “3.5x” relative to the main camera. Lightroom reports an 81mm full-frame equivalence… the math works!
- Finally, there are two additional sensors. The 0.3 megapixel direct Time-of-Flight camera (dTOF) is for measuring distance with a laser. A normal camera might fire an electronic flash and record the light values upon reflection. A time-of-flight camera fires a laser and records the time at which any light is reflected back to the sensor, thus aiding in building depth maps, usually for computational photography. The other sensor is a flicker sensor. Video screens, dimmed LED lights, fluorescent light, and other light can flicker faster than the eye can see, but can lead to weird effects in photography. The flicker sensor is used to synchronize the shot to the flicker, to keep frames consistent with one another.
- There’s a front camera and second ToF camera in a small punch-out in the front screen. This is a 12 megapixel camera with 1.22µm pixels, with an f/2.4 lens featuring a 100˚ field-of-view, about that of an 18mm wide-angle lens on a full-frame camera.
The Bethany Beach Concert Series
At least once a week from May through October, the town of Bethany Beach, Delaware, has a free concert. I try to get there when I can… it’s fun!
This show was the Dan & Dan Band, pretty good, and this first shot was from my seat. This is typically what you’d get from a smartphone, before they started including portrait/telephoto lenses. This shot also happened to be shot in high resolution mode, originally 8192 x 6144, though I did have to downrez it for use on Quora. This was shot automatically at ISO50, 1/100 second and of course f/1.8. Curiously, the 1x setting on the main PHOTO mode seems to default to an equivalent 27mm rather than 23mm. I’ll offer up that 23mm is wider than most people want by default, but it’s still a bit off.
I originally figured they do this to reserve pixels for electronic image stabilization, and perhaps that’s it. You don’t typically use EIS for still photography, but it makes some sense to use it for computational photography. And sure enough, switching to VIDEO or MOVIE mode crops in further.
Here’s what you can see at 3.5x, about 81mm full frame equivalent. That’s a true optical telephoto shot which is not a bad option. This might suffer a bit in lower light compared to the main camera, but it was cloudy this day and yet everything came out pretty good. It’s not as sharp as the previous shot, but I’m guessing that’s possible diffraction setting in. This was shot automatically by the camera’s AI mode at ISO199, 1/50 second, and of course f/3.5. The truth is that f/3.5 on an 1/2″ sensor is going to be diffraction limited to somewhere around 8 megapixels, but the image taken was 9216 x 6912, the full 64 megapixels. So yeah, that’s what I’m seeing… it’s just physics, folks.
So now let me “zoom” in, just to see what happens. Well, I’ll have to admit this shot came out better than I ever would have expected from a smartphone at this distance. This shot, delivered at a 16 megapixel output of 4608 x 3456, isn’t delivering an optical 16 megapixels. But hey, it’s really not bad for social media, even if I’m not going to print this at 11 x 17 and put it up on my wall. Consider that, according to Lightroom, this image is effectively shot at 479mm in full-frame numbers. There’s a pretty good chance you didn’t bring a 400mm+ lens to the boardwalk to take pictures of the band, eh? In fact, most photographers don’t own much beyond a 200mm lens, maybe a 300mm equivalent if you’re shooting with an APS-C camera. But if that’s consumer lens, it’s probably a bit soft at full magnification, and you’re still going to need to crop to match this shot.
Here’s another shot, taken at the Christopher Westfall show. This is taken at 1/100 second and f/3.5, on the telephoto camera, at a 209mm equivalent focal length.
This is a few days later, the band is Boat House Row, and now I’m shooting with my Olympus OM-1 and the M.Zuiko 75–300mm f/4.8–6.7 lens. This is an intermediate-grade lens, about $550 new, $300 used. This is an effective focal length of 493mm, shot at ISO250, f/6.4, and 1/200 second. What do you think? I think the Magic4 did pretty well against my “real” camera.
Here’s another shot from the Magic4 Pro. This is actually a composite shot (aka panorama) that I stitched in Lightroom. I could have let the Magic4 do the panorama as well. This is shot at ISO50, f/1.8 on the main camera, and 1/3800 second. As with all the Magic4 Pro shots, the camera is setting all the exposures. You can go into PRO shooting option which allows you to set manual exposure, raw images, ISO, shutter speed, continuous or single shot autofocus, manual focus, white balance, pretty much everything except, of course, real aperture. There’s a separate shooting mode for simulated APERTURE, which I play with later on.
Here’s a similar composite shot with the Olympus, using the M.Zuiko 12–40mm f/2.8 lens at f/2.8, 1/1000 second, ISO250. The lighting here isn’t quite as challenging as the previous shot with the Magic4 Pro. As with all the Olympus shots, I shot in raw format and hand edited. That’s how I alway use a professional camera. I’m including these as a comparison, so the reader can see just how well the Magic4 Pro is doing. If you don’t know how to best use a serious camera, these days, you’re already going to get better results in most situations with a smartphone, simply because they’re designed to be used by novices.
A Small Instability
It’s kind of expected to find a means of intra-frame image stabilization, either optical, sensor-shift, or camera shift stabilization on the main and telephoto cameras in flagship phones. This answers the question “What can we do to help prevent camera shake during an exposure.” The main camera in the Magic4 Pro doesn’t have such stabilization, though the telephoto camera does have optical image stabilization (OIS). This is far more important on longer focal lengths than wide angles, but particularly given that the main camera is used for some of the software “zoom” features, this is a small shortcoming.
The other thing you want is inter-frame stabilization, which answers the question “What can we do to help minimize shake between image frames.” Honor’s answer to this is Gyro-EIS, which means gyroscopic electronic image stabilization. Electronic gyroscopes are sensors that allow the camera to not only detect motion, but to get a readout of the precise motion detected. Years back, electronic image stabilization in video allowed a camera to essentially move a window of video across a larger sensor in response to motion, stabilizing the frame to frame motion. EIS can’t help you in a classic still photo, but in this age of computational photography, it can.
Nearly all computational photography is based on shooting a “stack” of photos, two or more of the same thing, which will then be “stacked” to reduce noise, to increase dynamic range, to increase resolution, all kinds of things. The first job in any stacking operation is to align your photos. So if they’re using the gyroscope, the photo to photo movement is precisely known, so alignment done quick and accurately.
So here’s a shot I took later at night at the beach concert. This is with the telephoto camera, ISO 2278 at 1/17second, f/3.5 of course, and an equivalent 270mm full-frame magnification. And, in fact, this was originally two shots I merged in Lightroom, because, hey, I do that with all of my cameras. You can definitely spot some motion blur in the audience, but between me and the OIS, the image did remain stable. I did not get as good a result with the main camera in the same lighting.
You might notice that some of the coloring looks a bit … cartoony? Is that the right word. I suspect that’s an AI colorizing agent at work. One of the features of Honor’s Ultra-Fusion technology is AI color processing. When you’re shooting an image at high ISO on a small sensor, the camera usually does a poor job at color rendition, just based on the low levels of light. I don’t yet have the full details on the inner workings of Honor’s AI color technology, but this does look like the sort of things Google and Apple get out of their respective AI coloring agents. The bottom line is that it’s better to look a little odd than to deliver a grainy mess of mud, which is about what you got with smartphone photography in low light just a few years back.
On Jerry’s Deck
I brought the Magic4 Pro and my OM-1 to a party at my a friend’s house in Philadelphia. This presents some pretty interesting scenery.
Here’s a telephoto shot with the main camera at an equivalent 90mm, f/1.8, ISO50 and an exposure of 1/280 seconds. Pretty good!
Here’s one with the Olympus, at an effective 80mm, f/2.8, ISO 200, 1/250 second. I think they’re pretty comparable, at least as far as Quora goes. I’m not getting into any pixel peeping, at least for this article, though you can zoom in if you want to. The problem, of course, is that Quora is going to do its own recompression, I expect, so you won’t see an ideal comparison.
Here’s a challenging sunset shot, and you can see the Magic4 Pro is struggling just a bit, but manages to deliver highlights, with only the sun itself blowing out (because it will, unless you’re using an ND18 or so filter), and yet not crushing any blacks. I’m trying difficult shots because, well, pretty much every smartphone or P&S camera can do the easy stuff. This is f/1.8 of course, main camera, ISO50, 1/640s.
This one’s also taken with the Magic4 Pro, but this time in raw format, f/1.8, ISO100, 1/1800 second. I adjusted this in Adobe Lightroom just as I would any other raw photo. Like pretty much every smartphone, Honor uses the universal DNG format, so all your tools already work with it’s raw format. I’m still waiting for support for the OM-1 on a few things. The raw file wasn’t bad — better than I’m used to expecting on a smartphone. But the regular AI shot got more dynamic range out of the same sensor.
Here’s a my OM-1 shot, still with the M.Zuiko 12–40mm f/2.8 PRO lens at f/2.8 and ISO200. I shot a bracket here, at 1/160s, 1/640s, and 1/3200s, in order to ensure I could capture the wide dynamic range in the shot. My camera will do in-camera HDR, most cameras will, but I prefer to shoot a bracketed shot, then figure out the best result in merging the shots. Again, I have an idea of what I’m doing. The Honor Magic4 Pro has a pretty good brain, too!
Here’s a night shot from the rooftop with the Magic4 Pro. This is f/1.8, main camera, at 1/13 second and ISO1338. It definitely nailed the shot. There’s maybe a small bit of noise reduction, but nothing objectionable. Too much noise reduction and, unless it’s very sophisticated, the image can start looking like a drawing or cartoon. Despite the lack of image stabilization, I don’t see any blurring artifacts.
I took a wide shot with the Olympus, at ISO1000, f/2.8 on that same 12–40mm lens, and 1/2 second. Olympus (now OM Digital Systems) has some of the best in-body image stabilization in the camera business, so my 1/2 second hand-held shot doesn’t have camera shake. But any moving object would have blurred considerably more in this shot than in the Honor4’s shot. Or shot… it’s probably taking multiple shots and merging them to deliver a better image.
So, Just What Is a Periscope Camera?
So I want to cover just how this long shot was possible, which also explains some of the reasons for making smartphones with crazy high resolution sensors. To start with, the telephoto lens! As I mentioned, the telephoto here is what’s these days called a periscope camera. The first of these I’ve seen, other than an actual periscope, was in the Minolta Dimage X in 2002.
The Dimage X was a very compact, almost smartphone-like digital camera with a whopping 2 megapixel resolution. It had a 3x optical zoom lens, and a unique tilted camera system. Rather than a lens that sticks out like most P&S zoom cameras, this lens used a prism to re-direct light down to a lens that sat vertically in the camera. That’s the idea of a periscope lens today, though the lens in the Magic4 Pro is not a zoom lens. But this is the only way you get a nearly 17mm lens into a phone that’s only 9.2mm thick.
The Z Word!
So, friends and neighbors, let’s talk “zoom” once again. I mentioned that I zoomed out, but what really happens there? In the past, we’ve seen things like “digital zoom”, which has another name: cropping. If I have a 16 megapixel sensor and crop it 2x, I’ve doubled the magnification but cut out 3/4 of the resolution. My 16 megapixels is now 4 megapixels, and heck, I probably could have done that in Photoshop, or even some more advanced resolution enhancement tools like Topaz Gigapixel AI.
I mentioned that these are Quad-Bayer sensors. Nearly every digital camera sensor had a color filter array (CFA), which imparts color on otherwise color-blind silicon photodiodes. Your pixels. The most popular CFA is the filter pattern designed in the early 1970s by Bryce Bayer at Kodak, called the Bayer sensor. Your phone/camera has an Image Signal Processor that knows how to interpolate the missing colors for each pixel from its nearest neighbors to “de-mosaic” the image into R, G, and B values for each pixel.
In a Quad Bayer sensor, every 2×2 cell of photodiodes has the same color in the color filter. So on a 40 megapixel sensor, there will only be 12.5 million color sites, each covering four pixels. The advantage of this is that, when you’re shooting at a normal 12.5 megapixels or so, four pixels can be “bucketed” together, allowing the sensor to behave as a larger one, with better dynamic range and less noise. Most photographers don’t need 50 megapixels, and most consumers are shooting for social media which doesn’t necessarily even allow 50 megapixel uploads.
So what do we do with all that resolution? We can deliver a cropped “zoom” of the full sensor. So as mentioned, the telephoto sensor is 64 megapixels, and usually delivers a 16 megapixel image. If I crop in 3x, I now have a 7x magnification and I still have 16 megapixels. The color interpolation won’t be as accurate, but the image will look better than a crop of the full sensor at 16 megapixels. This is how smartphones are delivering smooth “zoom” — in software, not optics — between several fixed cameras.
There’s an additional factor here in what Honor calls their Ultra-Fusion photography. Much computational photography is based on shooting multiple shots of the same thing and “fusing” them into a better whole. Honor’s AI is doing that in some modes, but it’s also using both wide and ultra-wide or both wide and telephoto for shots that fall in-between each camera’s basic range. I have seen this kind of technique fail in the past, but I was not able to find a flaw in it so far in my shooting with the Honor4 Pro.
So let’s take an actual look at “zoom.” Here we are in my backyard, looking at my house, my nextdoor neighbor’s house, and the house across the street. This is shot with the main camera, f/1.8, ISO50, and 1/1700 second. Lightroom tells me the effective 35mm focal length is 27mm.
Now I’m on the telephoto camera, at f/3.5, ISO50, and 1/210 second. The equivalent focal length is 96mm.
This is shot at f/3.5, ISO50, 1/230 second, of course on the telephoto camera. The equivalent focal length is 271mm. The usual border between “telephoto” and “super telephoto” is 300mm, so this is pretty much where most point and shoot cameras are left behind.
Now I’m at f/3.5, ISO50, 1/170 second. The equivalent 35mm focal length is 675mm. This has technically “zoomed” out past my Olympus 75–300mm lens (equivalent 600mm) and my Sony RX1 Mark IV (equivalent 600mm max reach). However, you can start to see some softening of the image without any need to magnify it. This is close to a 30x zoom, versus the main camera!
But wait, there’s more! This shot has a similar exposure setting, but now we’re at a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1352mm. And, not surprisingly, it’s getting pretty fuzzy. This is about 58x versus the main sensor.
And finally, the barking mad maximum “zoom” of 100x, which I’m told is 2700mm.
I have seen some other photos shot with the Magic4 Pro zoom out beyond 10x, and I think they’re doing something very similar to a trick that both the Samsung G’s and my Olympus OM-1 are doing, though for different purposes. This also explains why you can’t go to 100x in modes other than the basic PHOTO mode.
When Samsung was working on their “Space Zoom” function, they were calling it “Hubble” internally. Why? Not just because it’s going to let you see outer space… in fact, that’s not such a good thing on those phones. But rather, because they’re using an image enhancement technique called variable-pixel linear reconstruction, or Drizzle, that was originally invented for the Hubble Space Telescope and has been used by astrophotographers for years. This allows upscaling of multiple images shot at slightly different positions to 2x or even 3x that of the original sensor image resolution. Samsung upscales the image, then crops for their specific zoom target.
The OM-1 and a few older Olympus cameras have a thing called “Hand Held Hires” that does much the same thing, only without cropping. So you get a 50 megapixel image out of a 20 megapixel sensor. I’m pretty sure they’re doing a similar technique here. Google also uses it, they call it Super Rez Zoom, and they wrote a whitepaper on how it works (see links at the end).
My Sister’s New Band
So, my sister Kathy is in a new rock band of her own, and was playing a few Fridays ago. I had to drive two hours back from the beach, then another hour-and-a-half up to her place that day. I had the Magic4 Pro with me, but grabbed my new-for-2022 Olympus OM-1 MILC as well.
Here’s an Olympus shot, taken at ISO 6400, and you can see that in the image noise if you zoom in. This is shot at 1/20 second at f/4.0 and at 17mm (34mm full-frame equivalent). There’s the problem: I had the 12–100mm f/4.0 lens on the camera, when I really needed either my 12mm f/2.0 or maybe the 17mm f/1.2. Or both, had I thought about it.
So I decided to try out the Magic4 Pro, even though this is really not being all that fair to a smartphone, this kind of light. I make no attempt at writing traditional reviews of things, but rather, I like to show how I’d use them in the real world. The Magic4 Pro was one of “two cameras you have with you” for me that night, so I gave it a shot. Here’s a Magic4 Pro image, ISO 2388, f/1.8, 1/25th second. The full processing of the image in the phone has delivered what I expected: there’s virtually no image noise, but it’s also gone a bit cartoony. I cropped this image a bit, but did not do any noise reduction, that was all done automatically by the Magic4 Pro software. I actually did post a few of these shots on Facebook, so once again, perfectly good for social media.
The Video Was Even Better
So I also wanted to shoot video, and that’s really where I got in trouble with the Olympus. When you’re shooting at 24fps, your ideal shutter speed is 1/48 second, which ensure the standard look of a 180˚ shutter. You can technically shoot at 1/24 second. You can’t actually shoot any slower, since your shutter speed can’t be slower than the frame rate. And I couldn’t boost ISO beyond 6400 for video, at least in the modes I had set up.
One big surprise I found with the Honor camera app was that it supports both VIDEO and MOVIE shooting modes. What’s the difference? In MOVIE mode, you can shoot in 4K (UltraHD) at 24p and in 10-bit Log! That’s an actual professional format. MOVIE mode also correctly puts you in Landscape mode for video… so not the thing for TikTok fans, but for serious video, yes, this is what you want. You also have the option to shoot in HDR mode, or to apply one of about eight LUTs in the app. MOVIE mode is also limited to the main sensor with a 1x-2x software zoom, while VIDEO mode allows use of the ultrawide and up to 10x on the telephoto.
So this was shot in 10-bit Log and graded on my PC in Vegas Pro with a free LUT called “Ava 614”. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s better than the Olympus video I had to shoot at ISO 6400. I was also reasonably happy with the audio quality. Smartphones often have pretty weak microphones that can distort when recording live music. In fact, this is the first smartphone video of a performance I’ve shot that I considered worth sharing with anyone. I’ve done it on pro cameras with fast lenses many times, but this is excellent for a smartphone.
While it’s true that there are third party camera apps that off a number of cool features not generally found in manufacturer’s default camera apps, Honor really has come through with the options here.
Here’s another video, shot in 10-bit log on my friend Jerry’s roof. This is Dave Escoffrey performing his song “Punk Boy.” The Magic4 Pro was in auto exposure mode, and started out very good. At some point, it changed exposure, mostly serving to blow out the highlights on Mr. Escoffrey’s face… is that punk enough? Anyway, while you’d like a camera of any kind to set perfect exposure, they can’t, yet anyway. So chalk this up to operator error. For this challenging light, I should have picked a manual exposure setting. Which, in video ideally, is mostly just about adjusting ISO. You don’t want to go to weird shutter speeds, but keep to a 180° shutter as much as possible, perhaps longer in very low light if you can’t control the light.
Selfies, If You Must, and Artificial Bokeh
While I know selfies are “a thing” for many phone photographers, I’m not really into all that. But I guess this wouldn’t be complete without looking at the selfie camera.
So here’s a shot of me with the front camera. It’s doing the “Bokeh Effect,” which is a computational and sometimes AI technique to simulate the shallow depth of field you can get with a big camera with a fast lens aperture. This effect in general works by shooting both a photo and, somehow, creating a depth map. So the computational engine has some idea of the 3D nature of the image, enabling it to keep the subject sharp and blur background and, if sophisticate enough, foreground as well.
If you look at the front of the Magic4 Pro, you’ll see that the typical 2020s camera “punch hole” is actually more of a slot. That’s because, in addition to the 12 megapixel front camera, as mentioned, there’s a time-of-flight camera. This is what Honor’s using here to create depth maps.
You can see the intended look in this photo, which I shot with a 25mm f/0.95 lens on an Olympus Pen-F camera. There’s a region of sharp focus that gradually fades into out-of-focus areas. I’m not aware of any algorithms used by Honor here. Early versions of this effect simply used gaussian blur on the background, but at least some smartphone apps are actually using optical models, to better produce an interesting and photographically correct out-of-focus look.
You can see a few small errors around my hair, where the depth sensor didn’t quite get things right. This is one of the trickiest parts of doing an artificial depth of field trick. Far as what I’ve seen, this is good, but it’s inevitable when the ToF sensor is much, much lower resolution than the camera. They may also be applying some AI to better identify the boundaries between me and my beach house he-shed. I know that Google does that for their aperture simulation. Not sure about Apple.
There are many shooting modes in the Honor Camera app, though it’s interesting that there are limits in how they’re used with various cameras. You select the back camera by dialing a zoom slider, and some modes are this way limited to the main camera only. For bokeh effect, I could get this in portrait mode with the front camera, but it doesn’t allow me to use the “Aperture” more, which is, I suppose, a more calibrated version of the same depth-of-field processing.
Using APERTURE mode here, I was able to get a pretty decent foreground/background separation on this shot. However, on a few others, I had some of the thinner branches becoming part of the background. Again, the issue is more than likely the resolution of the ToF sensor, which is pretty common with all smartphones. If you want to use this feature, it’s worthwhile on some shots, but watch out for things that trip up the computational engine.
This one’s a bit weirder. It seems the image processing was a bit confused about the foreground vs. background of these game-oriented beer cans. When I dialed back the effect, it worked perfectly, though of course with less background blur.
These recent shots are all straight out of camera phone, too. I am convinced that Honor’s doing something pretty smart with color processing in their raw to JPEG conversion, because I have yet to get a shot that got white-point wrong. That’s indoors, outdoors, and in mixed light like my office above.
The Camera App
Like all premium smartphones, the Magic4 Pro has its own custom camera app. I have mentioned in various places that this one is modal. That means, of course, that you set different modes, and those modes define something about how the camera is going to be used. I personally like this, because, being an experienced photographer, I want to control what the camera is doing.
This might be a downside for a completely novice, though. If you look at Apple’s camera app, you’re pretty much non-modal. The camera always shoots the same series of 8 photos kept in a circular buffer, and an AI decides which mode it’s going to use (HDR, Deep Fusion, Night Mode, etc). If that’s what you want, the basic PHOTO mode does most of that, but I don’t know specifically how that compares to the other modes in terms of computational photography, etc. Honor did not supply a great deal of technical details on this, on what they’re doing with their UltraFusion computational photography, other than yes, they use two cameras for shots taken in-between specific camera resolutions, which helps improve the image quality.
The modes are as follows, many of which I’ve already touched on:
- PHOTO This is the main photo mode for general purpose shooting. It’s fully automatic, and allows software/hybrid zoom selection between “WIDE” and 100x. As demonstrated, the 100x is pretty iffy, but it’s there if you want it, eh?
- PORTRAIT This is the usual computational portrait mode. All is automatic, and you have a 1x or 2x magnification option. There’s a control for “Bokeh” and one for “Beauty”. You can dial in the beauty option, but bokeh option is for blurring the background. Bokeh is a Japanese word that’s technically referring to the pleasing quality of out of focus background objects, but it’s kind of been appropriated for any out-of-focus background effects.
- NIGHT This mode uses computational photography and perhaps AI to shoot multiple shots in low light, beyond what you’d expect to get in normal photo mode. This works on every camera, but the zoom range is limited between WIDE and 10x.
- APERTURE This mode allows selection of a simulated aperture between f/0.95 and f/16, using the main camera. It doesn’t support any zoom functions, and it’s all automatic.
- VIDEO This is a pretty normal video recording mode. You can zoom from WIDE to 10x, and apply the beauty filter live on the video, but not the bokeh effect, yet. This has the option of a “Super Night” video mode, and you can apply a color effect, a bit like a LUT in more professional videography. This allows vertical or horizontal shooting.
- MOVIE This is a more serious video mode. It’s horizontal-only. You have a smooth zoom range between 1x and 2x. There’s a slow motion option, a 4K HDR10+ encoding option, Log mode, and LUT mode. A selection of eight LUTs are included, which let you adjust the overall look of color in the phone rather than in post/editing.
- PRO Pro mode is for still shooting. It allows user specification of ISO, shutter speed, autofocus modes, manual autofocus, manual exposure settings, EV compensation, white balance. Photo options include raw, JPEG, or large JPEG (50 megapixels). In RAW mode, you have only the main camera, no zoom. In JPEG-L mode, you can shoot on any of the cameras, but only full resolution. In JPEG mode, you can smoothly software zoom from WIDE to 10x.
And there are a few specialty modes as well.
- HIGH-RES This mode shoots in full resolution, rather than pixel bucketing from 50 megapixels down to 12 megapixels. This works with any of the three back cameras, but no software zoom.
- MULTI-VIDEO This mode can shoot simultaneously from two cameras. These can be either front and back or multiple back cameras.
- DOCUMENTS This mode crops to the edged of a document you’re photographing, so you don’t need to edit out any background.
- SUPER MACRO This mode uses the ultrawide angle lens as a macro lens. That’s a recent trick in smartphones. Early on, the ultrawide angle lens — first put on smartphones by LG back in 2015 or so — was fixed focus. A very short focal length lens has a very deep depth of field and may not need focusing. But that also means there’s a ton of room in the phone to allow a focusing mechanism that can get really close. Some smartphone macro modes also crop in a bit as well. I’m not sure if Honor’s doing that here or not.
- SLOW-MO This shoots video at high frame rates, then plays it back at normal video speeds. You can set 4x or 8x here. It always uses the main camera, and offers 1x or 2x fixed magnifications.
- PANORAMA This shoots a software managed panorama using the main camera without any magnification.
- TIME-LAPSE This apparently records video but speeds it up in some unspecified way. I haven’t played with it much.
The General Problems With Foreign Phones (No Matter Where You Live)
Up front, I’m absolutely not blaming the Honor people for the fact they sent me a European model. And in fact, I’m planning to go to Germany in the fall and will get a chance to test things out on its home turf. But at the moment, Honor doesn’t make a US model of this phone, and that’s important because there are dozens of LTE/4G radio frequencies and probably about thousand 5G frequencies. I was certainly able to get some coverage on channels: 2 (1900MHz), 4 (1700/2100MHz) and 12 (700MHGz). The best 5G on my carrier in both my town place and my place near the beach is 71 (600MHz), and you’re also likely to get better coverage on band 66 (1700MHz/2100MHz) than band 4. Both the Magic4 Pro and T-Mobile support band 41 (2500MHz) for 5G, but I’m not in an area with 2500MHz support, I can’t verify if it works here. You should always check with your carrier, and try to get a US model, when buying any foreign-made phone.
That, however, is not the main reason I couldn’t use the phone as a phone. The problem was that this model, at least in the USA, didn’t support VoLTE or VoWiFi. If you look back on phone technologies, 2G was pretty much just digital AMPS, where AMPS was the voice-only analog cellular service that first hit the market in the 1980s. Technically you could send data, but the technology was primarily designed for circuit switched voice networks. When 3G came along, both Qualcomm (CDMA2000) and the ETSI (GSM) delivered higher performance circuit switched voice, but also IP-based packet switched networks… like the Internet. And when LTE (4G) rolled out, it was entirely IP-based, entirely packet switched.
If you had an early 4G phone, you might have found that you couldn’t do voice and data at the same time. I could on my Google Galaxy Nexus, because it had separate 3G and LTE chips which could work at the same time. But if you had a more modern design with both on the same chip, it was one or the other. So phones had to drop back to circuit switched networking for voice, back to 3G. Eventually the phone networks were upgraded to support Voice Over IP, either via LTE, WiFi, or eventually 5G.
So I found the Honor Magic4 Pro here in the USA dropping back to 3G for voice… and not always succeeding. Recall that I just mentioned band 2 at 1900MHz. That was T-Mobile’s 3G band, but they have some more modern stuff sharing that right now. And the main reason is that, as of July 1 — next Friday — 3G on T-Mobile is outta here! Deceased! Passed on. Ceased to be. An ex-wireless standard. So very little voice coverage today, none in a few days. Verizon sunsetted their 3G network last February. Verizon is keeping their around — the CDMA2000 network — until the end of 2022.
So just a word to the wise: be absolutely certain your phone supports VoLTE and VoWiFi before buying it, at least if you’d like to work as a telephone. I would not expect this to be a problem with Honor phones in markets they properly support, but I do feel obligated to report my findings. A number of European network providers have shut down 3G already, but some are planning to maintain 3G in some countries up until the end of 2025.
Honor, Huawei, and Real Android
Another concern some would have if they were paying somewhat close attention is “what about Android.” There are a big rout between the Trump Administration and Huawei, which lead to Huawei being banned from using any number of US-related technologies. My gut response is that, if Trump was in favor of the ban, it was probably a stupid thing, but I don’t need to dig any deeper than that.
Honor was once a subsidiary of Huawei, but that changed in 2020. In November of 2020, Huawei sold Honor to Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology. This allowed Honor to buy Qualcomm processors, use a fully Googled Android, etc. It’s been a very good move for Honor, as it vaulted them to the number three smartphone company in China in 2021. Naturally, given the close connection between Honor and Huawei devices, they’re sharing some of the same technology, some of the same design language, and some of the same software, which will, over time, diverge from one another.
The bottom line for the buyer is that the Magic4 Pro runs real Android. Like Samsung and others, Honor has their own version of a UI/Launcher, Honor Magic UI 6, which isn’t exactly bog standard Android, but didn’t give me any particular problems. It’s plenty snappy on the 2022 standard Qualcomm SM8450 Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor and Adreno 730 GPU.
So, Is This the Best 2022 Camera Phone?
I’ve been following Huawei and Honor smartphones for several years now, and really interested in trying one out, as they tend to make the top of the camera reviews every year. If you check out the DxOMark ratings, they list the Magic4 Pro at fourteenth best overall among all of the camera phones they’ve reviewed, tied with quite a few others, including the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. One reason for that is that the Magic4 Pro isn’t Honor’s best camera phone, that’s the Honor Magic4 Ultimate, which at the time of this writing has the highest camera score of any smartphone tested to date. However, these are fickle things, and next week there could be a new best phone.