I just upgraded from the Pixel 2 XL to the 3 XL last week, mainly for the improved camera. While the Pixel 2 had an incredible camera that seemed like it would be impossible to beat, I decided I needed to give the newer version a shot to give my photos even more of an improvement.
While waiting for the new phone to arrive, and after selling the old one, I was left with nearly a week without a real phone. After trying out my old Fire phone for a few days, I realized I needed something more real, so borrowed a team iPhone XS for the week. Over the weekend, I had a chance to put both to the test in the same situations.
Honestly, both phones are fantastic photo shooters. If the pictures weren’t side by side, I would be completely happy with both. Even when putting this comparison together, I had a hard time picking out which were from each phone and had to look at the metadata. The flagship phones from Apple and Google in 2018 are a far cry from the sorry state of smart phone cameras even a few years ago.
In general, I believe each camera is optimizing the images it creates for the screens and users they believe will have the most use. Apple, knowing that most users will view their photos on a relatively new (probably OLED) iPhone, produces brighter, but more flattened images. The Pixel, possibly because Google knows it’s users may view the images on a variety of devices, produces more contrasty photos that to me at least, seem more true to life.
iPhone XS pictures on the left, Google Pixel 3XL on the right
Here’s a zoomed in photo where both camera do pretty well. Seen side by side, it’s easy to see that the iPhone photo is brighter across the entirety, blowing out some of the detail in the rocks and trees. It was a fairly challenging day for lighting with a mix of strong sun and clouds. Google keeps the photo a little darker, which is closer to real life. As a result, there’s a bit more detail across both the foreground and the background. The sky is a bit harsh, but the landscape is more clear. Part of this difference may be the physical telephoto lens on the iPhone which due to the aperture takes a bit more light in. Google does this with a single lens which is noticeable when zoomed in.
This photo, at 1x zoom is much closer between the two phones. The Pixel again has more contrast and detail, but the iPhone smooths the lighting a bit more and makes the interesting parts of the photo like the fence details and the zebras pop out a bit more.
At full zoom, it becomes far more obvious that Google’s software zoom, while still better than previous digital zooms, can’t keep up with the iPhone’s physical optical zoom thanks to the telephoto lens. There’s a noticeable amount of noise and lack of detail in the Pixel one, though I do still prefer the colors on the Pixel here.
Zoomed out, the difference in color and smoothing is very clear. The iPhone produced a picture with this unnatural chlorine green color to the water, blown out clouds, and smoothing in the trees that makes the picture look more like a water color than a photo. The Pixel is order of magnitudes closer to real life here. Again, the iPhone’s photo actually makes the penguins a bit more noticeable than the Pixel and thus the picture is actually better for smaller screens.
At 2x zoom, there’s a bit less difference again. The colors are just as noticeable here. Even though the Pixel photo has less detail and is a little fuzzier, I prefer it to the iPhone one which looks unnatural to me. There’s almost a smudging effect in the middle of the photo that distracts. The trees are also smoothed to the point of complete blurriness on the iPhone.
Now onto the most dangerous creatures of all, and some of the hardest subjects to get a good picture of with a smartphone camera, children. These portrait mode photos show one key difference between the phones. While a bit unfair to the iPhone, it clearly mis-focussed here, an important aspect of a good phone camera is that it shouldn’t require manual effort and should “just work”. I never had to re-take a Pixel photo as the autofocus and software were good enough to cover up any of my mistakes. While Google’s portrait mode does seem to make more of a cut out of the subjects and just blur behind them, the iPhone messed up worse here and blurred the subjects.
On the regular shot, it’s incredibly close here. It’s hard to pick out any real difference between the two shots, even when zoomed in. There’s a tiny sense of the iPhone over brightening some parts like the blue toy that is definitely dingier in real life. It’s hard to pick a winner here and both phones did pretty well considering both kids were squirming around.
This shot is interesting as a comparison for a trickier lighting situation. The harsh light from the sun coming through the window is definitely hard to balance with the darker light inside and on the subject. I find the iPhone to be the winner here as the image is far more pleasant to look at. However, the Pixel was probably closer to real life and actually does a good job of keeping the lighting details and shadows preserved on the subject. The iPhone shot is more ready for immediate sharing, but the Pixel one might make for a better photo with some editing.
Ok this one is just for fun. The left is the Pixel 3 XL and the right is… you guessed it… the Amazon Fire Phone from 2014. I took this just to show how much better cameras have gotten in that time. I actually think the Fire Phone did a decent job here, though the conditions weren’t that challenging. The colors are definitely a bit more overblown and the detail is definitely not there, but all things considered, it’s not bad. It does show how much better smart phone cameras have gotten in a few years though, especially in detail and color reproduction.
So which camera is better? It depends. If you want a camera that captures the most detail of any smart phone camera and is incredibly, nearly perfectly consistent, the Pixel 3XL is hard to beat. The iPhone has caught back up a bit in the last year, but the photos are just ever so slightly less detailed, a bit over smoothed, and it isn’t quite as consistent as the Pixel. The Pixel still can’t match the real optical zoom of the iPhone even with it’s sophisticated software, but it’s still remarkably better than any other camera without a telephoto lens. Most of all though, I was surprised just how evenly matched they really are. Buyers of either phone will be very happy with the pictures they are able to capture.