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Testing Vivo X50 Pro’s Gimbal Camera Against The iPhone 11’s EIS

Despite being the second-largest phone brand in China by market share over the past several quarters, Vivo is not as well known in the west as other Chinese brands—at least to the average consumer. Those who cover the mobile industry or are enthusiastic about smartphones, however, know Vivo as a disruptive innovator in the smartphone hardware space.

It was Vivo which showed the world the first pop-up selfie camera hidden inside a phone’s body, and then the in-display fingerprint reader. Both of these hardware breakthroughs were soon adopted by other brands.

Vivo’s latest tech breakthrough is the focal point of its new X50 Pro smartphone: a camera built on a gimbal, placed inside the phone’s body.

A gimbal, for those who may be unfamiliar, is a pivoted stabilizing system on which cameras are mounted. They can be a large rig that straps around a cameraman’s body like a suit, or a small handheld gadget that measures six inches. But never have we seen a gimbal like the one seen in the Vivo X50 Pro’s: it’s so small, it fits inside the device’s 8mm thick body with only a small camera bump.

The uniqueness of the gimbal camera tech was immediately evident the second I held up the Vivo X50 Pro, as the main camera—a 48-megapixel f/1.6 lens—moved as I moved the phone. The range of movement is subtle—it is, after all, a miniaturized gimbal—but the camera moved in the usual three-axis: x (horizontal), y (vertical), and z (the third dimensional axis towards and away from the user).

There’s a lot to like with the rest of the X50 Pro: it’s really light (by 2020 standards) at 181g, has the usual all screen design with a 90Hz refresh rate, and its 4,198 yuan ($593) price can be considered affordable in a sea of $1,100 phones. Vivo’s FunTouch software has improved from previous versions too—the old iPhone-like control center panel that requires a swipe from the bottom of the screen is gone, instead shortcut toggles are in the notification shade where they belong.

But ultimately, what sets it apart is the gimbal camera, and it needed to work to justify its existence. After testing it heavily over two days alongside rival smartphones, I can say that the gimbal camera does work—albeit not as much as marketing would claim.

For testing, I shot hand-held videos with the X50 Pro side-by-side against top rivals (iPhone 11 Pro, Huawei P40 Pro Plus, and the Google Pixel 4), in both landscape and portrait orientations, during both day and night. Results can be seen in the video below, but if you’re interested in the summarized results, it’s this: the gimbal camera does work, but the improved stabilization is only really noticeable if I run or climb stairs—situations that result in more z-axis movement. If I’m walking, even at a brisk pace, the electronic stabilization of the iPhone 11 and Huawei P40 Pro Plus can more than hold their own, to the point that it’s almost impossible to pick a winner.

At night, the gap widens, as the X50 Pro’s videos appear less jerky than others. This is due to the iPhone using mostly EIS (electronic image stabilization), which like all software driven imaging tech, requires good lighting.

So what does this mean? Well, the gimbal tech does work, but you’ll only see the difference in relative unusual shooting conditions like running or shooting in low light conditions. If you’re just shooting a typical walking video on a Sunday afternoon, it’d be virtually impossible to tell the difference in video stabilization.

Still, considering the affordability of the X50 Pro, just a slight improvement is acceptable; it’s not like Vivo is charging a premium for this new tech. Also, it’s worth keeping in mind this is gen-one tech, and it will likely improve in later iterations. This is the case with Vivo’s other two pioneering features: the pop-up camera and the in-display fingerprint reader.

When I tested Vivo’s first commercial offering of the in-display scanner two years ago, I wrote that the tech was both amazing and frustrating, because it was slow to respond. Within a year, that problem was fixed, and in-display fingerprint scanners work flawlessly today. In fact, reliable rumors say even Apple is working on adopting in-display fingerprint scanner tech in a future iPhone.

So while the gimbal tech may bring only marginal improvements now, there’s a chance this tech improves to bring game-changing image stabilization for handheld smartphone videos in the future. I think Vivo knows this is just gen-one tech, hence why the mid-tier X50 Pro is only limited to a China release. When this tech matures, Vivo will likely launch it with a flagship device, with a European release.

And if recent trends are to go by, once the gimbal camera tech gets better, other brands will adopt it.

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