Ever since Google scrapped the Nexus series to make way for the premium Pixel lineup that could challenge iPhones, it has taken cameras and smartphone photography very seriously. So much so that the Pixel series has become synonymous with great cameras – it’s in the name after all.
The Pixel 3 phones continue this tradition as we saw in our Pixel 3 XL review. But now we come to the question of whether it is the best camera in a smartphone in 2018. We put the Pixel 3 XL against the iPhone XS, Huawei P20 Pro, and the Galaxy Note 9 to see whether it’s still the best camera. All of these smartphones are at the top of their game when it comes to photography, but this face-off should give you a fair idea about the best performer right now.
In terms of hardware, Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL use the same 12.2MP camera on the back as last year but Google has shown a significant improvement when it comes to image processing as well as the computational photography powering the Pixel phones. On the front, there is now a dual camera setup comprising an 8MP primary sensor with autofocus and another 8MP sensor but for wide-angle selfies. We’ll talk about these cameras in separate sections.
Pixel 3 XL Camera Performance
I’ve been using the Pixel 3 XL for a week and despite my mediocre photography skills, I’ve been able to click some stunning, and more importantly, some really memorable shots. This is largely thanks to Pixel 3 XL’s HDR+ which takes several shots at different exposures to create a image with excellent dynamic range.
Here’s my take on the camera performance of the Pixel 3 XL in different scenarios, starting with daylight.
Under strong or usable amount of natural lighting, the Pixel 3 XL ensures that most of the detail in the frame remain intact. The Pixel 3 is great at capturing accurate pictures; all areas of the images are not only well lit, but the color reproduction also falls in line with what you are seeing.
You can confidently pull the Pixel 3 XL out of your pocket and jump straight to the camera for taking great and highly detailed shots, with the best dynamic range, without having to find the best settings.
Indoors & Nightlight
While most smartphones start gasping for air when you want a picture in low light, Pixel 3 XL relishes the challenge. Surprisingly, I found the Pixel 3 XL to illuminate the images with more light than what my eyes could see on the viewfinder.
The smartphone is capable of getting a striking amount of detail, even in low light. In fact, the Pixel 3 XL is clever enough to ensure that detail or colour is never lost, even though the trade-off is in the sharpness.
Some night images have a lot of noise in the images, but in most cases, the low-light photos turned out really well.
Ever since Apple first introduced the feature with the iPhone 7, artificial background blurring or portrait effect (also known as bokeh) has become an important fad for smartphone makers. Smartphone cameras are evaluated and ranked on their abilities to capture the accurate bokehs and the Pixel 3 XL simply excels in this area.
The Pixel 3 and 3 XL have a very reliable portrait mode, with a high degree of accuracy when it comes to detecting edges. This is impressive especially because Pixel 3 XL sticks to a single camera on the back unlike the host of smartphones that have blindly jumped the dual camera bandwagon aping Apple.
Selfies in Daylight
Moving to the front camera, Pixel 3 XL’s dual camera setup is not always in use and is dedicated to wide-angle selfies. So essentially, this can be treated as a single camera too with the nearly similar capabilities as the one on the back. Autofocus on the front is a welcome addition which helps ensure that the faces are in focus.
The autofocus also allows for impressive details in the camera while the original skin tones are retained. I like the fact that there is no artificial smoothening or coloring going on.
Selfies in Low/Indoor Light
The Pixel 3 XL lets you click highly detailed selfies in low or indoor lighting without asking you to walk out into daylight. The texture and the colors of the selfies are preserved to a great extent although focusing and image capturing might be slower than in case of daylight shots.
At night, there is a visible drop in the amount of detail, and there’s some noise in these images, but the results are still much better than many other smartphones.
The second camera on the front is when you have to fit a large number of people within the frame without using a selfie stick. The wide-angle camera has a 97° field of view and can easily accommodate more half a dozen people. This camera is also capable of clicking wide selfies in the Portrait mode.
However, there are a couple of trade-offs with this camera – first, this is a fixed focus camera unlike the primary selfie sensor, and second, images clicked with this camera have a slight deformation due to a minimal fisheye effect. Google is using AI to rectify these defects, making the secondary 8MP sensor much better than most in its competition but still not as good as the main one.
The Pixel 3 XL offers a uniform portrait experience even when you’re using the front camera. In most lighting conditions, the smartphone captures crisp portrait selfies. These shots are almost perfect when it comes to daylight shots but the performance at night is compelling too.
Portrait selfies at night may lack the same finesse as we see during the day but the edges are easily detected and there is minimal bleeding, but the overall quality depends on the contrast between the foreground and the background.
Super Res Zoom
The Pixel 3 XL has 8X digital zoom and uses OIS as well as data from your shakes to give you as crisp an image as possible despite the magnification. Google’s AI picks up your shakes and uses the data from these to give you the final image. The result is 8X zoom that’s not entirely unusable as would be the case
This technology captures sufficient detail even in shots taken at 8X. While I cannot say the same for low light, the fact that it at least captures some details at all at 8X during the night is not short of impressive.
Using the Pixel 3 XL’s stock camera app, you can invite certain characters from popular franchises such as Star Wars or Avengers, and a host of others, into your images or videos. The AR effects are pretty on point but playing a lot with these characters might heat up your Pixel device.
The feature is a step further from the AR Stickers in the Pixel 2, as some of the new stickers including Iron Man imitate your facial expressions and hand gestures. The only limitation is that despite top-of-the-line hardware, the Pixel 3 XL starts lagging when there are more than two persons in the frame.
The Pixel 3 XL has a useful feature using which you can capture pictures by only smiling. All you must do is enter the Photobooth mode once and start smiling to click the pictures. While smile shutter is not something new, all of this happens in real-time which is impressive.
Top Shot & Motion Auto Focus
The Pixel 3 XL is able to identify when there are moving objects or people in the frame and instead of taking a single image, it captures multiple images in a burst instead of just one shot, allowing you to choose multiple good shots from just one capture. This feature is called “Top Shot” and it works for both the front and the rear camera automatically. The only times I’ve found it not working as expected is when clicking portraits and I hope Google resolves that with future updates.
Watch this video to see it in action:
With Motion Auto Focus, the camera keeps a tagged subject in focus as you move the viewfinder around, which is very handy for kids or pets.
At the launch event, Google talked about another feature which will be coming to the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3 XL later this year. Called “Night Sight”, the feature will help you capture detailed shots in low light without using any external light or flash. We will know for sure how this works when the update rolls out.
You can record up to 4K video on the Pixel 3 XL while the frame rate has been capped to 30fps. It could be disappointing for certain users looking to buy the Pixel 3 or 3 XL for videography. If you’re among them, you’re better off with iPhone or a Galaxy S9 or Note 9.
However, if you’re okay with shooting at 30fps, you might be delighted to learn about the Fused Video Stabilization feature on the Pixel 3 XL which uses a blend of OIS and EIS to keep the video stable on the rear camera.
Here are two sample shots clicked with the Pixel 3 XL in 4K resolution.
Pixel 3 XL vs iPhone XS vs Galaxy Note 9 vs Huawei P20 Pro
In daylight, Pixel 3 captures a well-balanced image in terms of saturation and color reproduction whereas the iPhone XS (camera review) and Note 9 (camera review) tend to overexpose and capture warmer tones.
P20 Pro, on the other hand, goes for the overkill by artificially enhancing the saturation to create a more “contrast-ey” photo. Overall, I think the Pixel 3 XL has the truest colors and the most natural tone of them all.
In situations, when there’s a mix of natural and artificial lighting, the Pixel 3 does an excellent job of retaining detail while the iPhone XS again unnecessarily overexposes the shot light, which robs the image of that high dynamic range look.
The Galaxy Note 9 and the P20 Pro don’t make a dent in the Pixel 3 either; while the former has washed out colors, P20 Pro tries to get that cool HDR look but fails hard in the darker areas of the scene. Again, the Pixel 3 XL clearly takes the win.
At night, the Galaxy Note 9 takes the lead when it comes to how much light it captures and this can be attributed to the bigger aperture in the main camera, which automatically adjusts in low light. Likewise, the iPhone XS also manages to capture enough light in this scene.
However, when you look at the shots below, it is evident that both the smartphones mentioned above are overexposing shots. The Pixel 3 XL, thanks to its computational photography, ensures that the final image has a good balance, while the P20 Pro is struggling to catch up.
I need not talk too much about this because we have a clear winner here. The Pixel 3 XL is simply much better than its rivals at capturing detail, contrast and the colors. It does not go haywire with saturation and manages excellent edge detection.
The Galaxy Note 9 and the P20 Pro oversmoothen the skin and that is simply not appealing to me. Lastly, the iPhone XS is unable to reproduced the natural tones that Pixel 3 does so well. It’s a little too aggressive on the saturation, and again overexposes the scene by adding more warmth.
When clicking selfies in daylight too, the Pixel 3 XL does noticeably better than others. Again, the iPhone messes up the colors, while Note 9 and the P20 Pro are caught up in smoothening the skin. The extensive smoothening on the P20 Pro makes me feel giddy.
In the case of portrait selfies, too, the Pixel 3 XL is much better than the peers. The iPhone XS holds its own here, but the color reproduction is disappointing throughout the scene. In contrast, Note 9 goes for a cooler tinge, while the P20 Pro is still making me feel weak in my knees (not in a good way).
Lastly, at night too, the Pixel 3 XL has the calmest demeanor of them all. The iPhone XS follows but with slightly lesser quality. The Pixel 3 just nails the balance on the photos and doe not touch your skin, which should be the default behavior. The Note 9 lacks the detail that the Pixel 3 can extract, and was slower to focus too, and I feel I need not talk more about the P20 Pro.
Google Pixel 3: Slaying The Competition
The Pixel 3 XL is clearly the leader in the smartphone photography game, and even outperforms the ultra-expensive iPhone XS Max. As evident from the shots above, the other two devices in the competition are well behind the Pixel 3.
Notably, the Pixel 3 has no ‘Pro mode’ but I can confidently say that’s not needed at all for this phone. This is not to say that the other devices are bad at taking pictures, but the Pixel 3 XL is clearly better and by a lot.
Every picture clicked with the Pixel 3 XL has plenty of detail, amazing contrast and that fetching high dynamic range look without throwing the balance off kilter. If you are looking to buy a smartphone primarily for its cameras, you must choose the Pixel 3 XL. Another reason to say that is the stunning display which shows off these photos in their truest colors.
The Pixel 3 XL deserves a bow for its stunning camera performance and it looks like it will go into 2019 being the smartphone camera to beat.
Pre-order Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL on Flipkart (starts at Rs 71,000)