Before the mobs come out and put a hex on me, remember that photography and image quality is subjective. What looks better to me might not to you.
That said, let’s get on to the camera comparisons between Google’s new Pixel and Pixel XL and the iPhone 7/7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S7/S7 Edge.
On paper, Google, Apple and Samsung’s flagship phones appear to have the same cameras: 12 megapixels on the back. The front cameras differ in resolution: 8 megapixels for the Pixels, 5 megapixels for the S7 Edge and 7 megapixels for the iPhone 7.
But as I’ve said a million times and I’ll say a million times more: megapixels (aka resolution) aren’t everything. Having more megapixels doesn’t make a camera necessarily better. Resolution matters, but if it’s at the detriment of image quality and performance, what’s the point?
To me, the best phone camera has to be a few things:
Fast to autofocus and capture: Because you don’t want to miss a shot.
Produce realistic colors with wide dynamic range: Because reality is not a comic book
Produce sharp details with little image noise: Because details matter.
Take great low-light photos: Because we like the dark and we like photos in dark places.
The iPhone 7 checks off all of these. Its cameras and image quality are well balanced across the board. The iPhone 7 Plus also has a fancy dual-lens camera that gives it 2x optical zoom and a fancy Portrait mode. Samsung’s Galaxy S7/S7 Edge is better with low-light performance and the camera is faster to launch and autofocus, but it also saturates colors more.
The Pixel and Pixel XL’s cameras falls somewhere in-between the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7. They’re super fast. Images look incredibly crisp and have great dynamic range and low-light performance is damn good. So what’s not to like? I’m not a fan of the oversaturated colors, but that’s just me.
I left all camera settings on their defaults. In the past, I’ve always turned off HDR on all smartphone cameras before shooting with them, but I’ve now had to change that testing method since most people never bother to fiddle with them.
Not only that, but phones rely heavily on software processing to help produce the final photos. HDR+ is so vital to the Pixels’ final image quality that my reviewers guide actually warned me that turning it off would result in poorer-looking photos and slower camera performance. Yikes!
As such, all photos below were shot with HDR set to auto. I couldn’t tell you which ones actually had HDR on or off and I don’t really care because what you see is what the camera considered the best shot.
Way warmer tones
The Pixel cameras’ biggest weakness is color reproduction. Android is doing so much processing to the images that all the colors end up artificially pumped up and oversaturated. I’ve noticed it’s a common symptom that plagues most Android phones like the Galaxy S7 and LG G5 and OnePlus 3.
How is it that in 2016 no phone maker can match the iPhone’s realistic colors?
I personally don’t like the saturated colors. They don’t look real. Skies are always way too blue. Yellows are too deep. Reds all blend into each other. I’ll take photos with lifelike colors over saturated colors any day.
But if you’re into the boosted colors or crank up the saturation in post anyway, you’ll love the Pixel’s pictures.
Compare these two photos below. Just look at how much bluer the sky in the upper right corner is and how much more yellow the building is.
Here’s another example where the blues and yellows are dialed up on the Pixel:
Turning off HDR+ mutes the saturation to some extent, but not by much. And turning HDR+ off on the Pixels isn’t worth it since the camera start to lag a little.
Though most photos are way warmer than on the iPhone, sometimes the rear camera goes cooler for some reason. There just isn’t much consistency for white balance:
But, at least the dynamic range is wider on the Pixel XL. The details on the fountain grass (that’s the fuzzy plant) are softer on the Pixel XL compared to the iPhone 7, but look at how vibrant the purple leaves below it look. The same leaves in the iPhone 7 photo look totally dull in comparison.
Wider field of view
Compared with the iPhone 7, the Pixel XL’s camera has a wider field of view thanks to its wider angle lens.
In English, it means you can fit more into a photo. The Pixel XL’s wider angle lens makes it a more versatile camera for landscape photography.
It’s perfrect for taking photos of tall landscapes, like the Bank of America building below:
The Pixel XL and Galaxy S7 Edge have roughly the same wide field of view:
Both photos look pretty sharp on their respective phone displays. It’s only when you view them at 100% crops on a computer monitor that you can really see some of the differences in sharpness.
Honestly, the differences in sharpness are so minor, nobody but a nerd like me would care.
Here’s another comparison showing how much more the Pixel XL cameras can capture:
And another close-up crop showing the barely noitceable sharpness differences:
Strong selfie game
As for selfies, I think the Pixel XL does a better job than the iPhone 7:
My skin looks smoother and healthier in the Pixel XL selfie since it’s brighter:
Shoots well in low light
The Pixel XL performs quite good night shots. As expected, photos are a yellower than the iPhone 7:
You can click the below comparison to see how the Pixel XL stacks up against the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 Edge:
Notice how the sky is more washed out on the Pixel XL photo and the Galaxy S7 Edge turns all the bricks on the building in the left red:
The Galaxy S7 Edge preserves sharper details of the Empire State Building, but the image noise is greater, too:
See that building just between the water tower and that skinny high-rise condominium on the upper right? The Pixel XL brings the green color out best, but the rest of the image is kind of a wash.
Impressive video stabilization
While the camera attention is almost always focused on still photography, the Pixel XL boasts impressive video recording capabilities. Like most smartphones, it records at up to 4K resolution.
That’s nothing special. What is crazy is how well the camera stabilizes video. Phones like the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 rely on optical image stabilization (OIS) to compensate for shake in different directions, but the Pixels uses electronic image stabilization (EIS) to outstanding effect.
EIS is normally inferior to OIS, but not so on the Pixels. Through software even the shakiest footage appears smooth even smoother than the iPhone 7. Here’s a video stabilization comparison between the Pixel XL and iPhone 7 (both originally shot in 4K and then downsized to 1080p):
Best smartphone cameras ever?
I don’t think so, but they’re so damn close. The color saturation bothers me too much, but again, that’s personal preference. And that’s fine, too, because if you prefer the artificially amplified colors, then the Pixel cameras will be perfect to your eyes.
It feels like a total cop-out to say this, but we’ve reached a point where the differences outside of color reproduction between flagship phone cameras are so negligible that most people will be very happy with the image quality.
We’re all benefitting in the end. Android cameras have finally caught up to the iPhone with comparable performance and picture quality. Years of competition have pushed all phone makers to innovate harder and faster and now we’re all winning because we don’t have to look at crappy photos and videos.