- Rafi Letzter/Business Insider
When Google announced the Pixel smartphone, its high-end iPhone competitor, it pointed to an unexpected achievement: the highest-rated smartphone camera ever.
The rating, an 89/100, comes from the website DxOMark – edging out the Galaxy S7 (88) and iPhone 7 (86).
That’s an impressive score, and offers a reason to sit up and take notice of this smartphone’s camera.
But there are reasons to be doubtful. It simply isn’t the case, as many people seem to think, that DxOMark’s scores represent the objective truth about a camera’s quality.
A closer analogy would be college rankings. When US News and World Report declares Rice University has edged out Washington University, its conclusion is based on an internal system for weighing different statistics about the school. And that system reflects the value judgments of its creators – whether they care more about research or student experience, alumni donations or selectivity. It’s an art, but it offers the illusion of science.
DxOMark similarly has a system for assigning devices numeric scores, which gives the illusion of objectivity. But the group makes value judgments, some of which I strongly disagree with. It assigns phones like the LG G5, HTC 10, and Xperia Z5 similar scores as the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7 – scores that I’m sure make perfect sense within its system, but in my view don’t reflect how those phones perform in the real world.
So I compared the Pixel with the iPhone and Galaxy. I didn’t stick them in manual mode or perform scientific tests of dynamic range. Instead, I was interested in one question: How the phones performed when asked to capture a photo the way most people use them.
Reasonable people can disagree about which of the closely matched iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 offers better quality and features. (I’ve argued that the S7 is the winner by a hair.) But, in all but a few measures, I found the Pixel simply can’t stand up to them in real-world performance.
Take a look for yourself.
Click and drag the line in the middle of the images to see how the images from each phone compare. The first image compares the Pixel with the Galaxy S7, the second compares the Pixel with the iPhone 7.
Here’s what an average photo looks like from each phone in a fairly typical situation: plenty of sun, plenty of color, and a less-than-ideal mix of shine and shadow.
These images do a good job of showing off the shooting “styles” of each phone.
The Galaxy S7 makes by far the best exposure decision of the three, cheating down a little to capture the sky and highlights. And its white balance and image processing bring out the color differences between sunlight and shadow. But you could argue the result is more vibrant than real life.
The iPhone 7’s result is a bit more muted and conservative. But you couldn’t accuse it of a mistake or overdoing the color.
And the Pixel … looks a little flat. That’s the wrong white balance for this scene, wiping out all the subtleties of color. Plus, its bright exposure has all but wiped out the sky.
In my first hours with the Pixel, my impression was pretty negative. Again and again, it made obvious mistakes in color balancing and focus that you rarely see from the S7 or iPhone. In this example, I’d told each camera to expose for leaves on the upper-left of the frame.
There were no difficult situations where the Pixel outperformed both the iPhone and Galaxy S7. Though there were a few were it beat out just one of them — like the Galaxy S7 example below.
Turning on HDR doesn’t help matters. I find the Pixel’s results even more garish and over-the-top than usual for a smartphone.
Of course, all of those examples come from situations that push the camera to perform. In more ideal light, it’s hard to judge the Pixel better or worse than its competition.
Here’s the only measure by which the Pixel obviously blows the iPhone and Galaxy out of the water: sharpness. Blowing the above image up to full size, you can see how much more detail the Pixel captures.
I suspect this is the strongest contributor to the Pixel receiving such high laboratory ratings. Though personally, I don’t buy a smartphone for its ability to resolve details on far-away buildings.
The big area where the Pixel comes up short is its sub-par autofocus system. Not only is it fairly slow, but it simply doesn’t work in some situations.
In this example, I tried to shoot a plant fluttering rapidly in the wind.
The Galaxy S7 is far out in the lead on this one. Its autofocus system is far faster and more precise than the iPhone 7’s, and got the shot on the first try. But even the iPhone will usually get a pretty good shot within a few attempts.
After standing around like an idiot trying to shoot a tiny plant with the Pixel for several minutes, I gave up. The shot just wasn’t happening – the closest I got was the above backfocus onto the plants behind it.
That’s especially surprising because the reduced aperture on the Pixel gives it a somewhat expanded field of focus as compared to the iPhone or Galaxy.
Aperture is a measure of how wide the lens opens to allow light in. The wider, the better usually – though the result is more bokeh and a narrower field of focus. By rights, the f/2.0 Pixel should have an easier time focusing than the f/1.8 iPhone or f/1.7 (lower numbers mean wider apertures), but that doesn’t appear to be the case in my tests.
(Incidentally, this bokeh demonstration is the rare example where the Pixel captured a somewhat more pleasing exposure than its competitors.)
Now here’s the caveat. Despite all the faults I’ve identified, in most situations the Pixel’s shot isn’t much better or worse than the iPhone 7 or Galaxy S7.
The Pixel is a very good camera. And it shows. I’m just not convinced it’s the best.
And there’s one last big way the Pixel does stand out. Lower apertures can lead to worse performance in low light. But the Pixel is an exception.
The Pixel easily outperforms the iPhone in the mixed light of a dim bar. There’s enough difference and idiosyncrasy between the Pixel’s low light performance and the S7’s to fill a second article (which I plan on doing). But for now, it’s pretty clear the the two phones are neck-and-neck in the dark. Both turn up plenty of shadow detail, without blowing out highlights. And neither produces images too grainy to use. In this example, I’d argue the Pixel’s shot is better.
In an even darker setting, like this alley at night, only the Galaxy S7 can see much of anything. The Pixel and iPhone can’t see much at all.
The S7’s low-light performance still outclasses every other phone. But most of the time, you aren’t shooting with your phone in a place this dark anyway. And the Pixel’s dim-room results are admirable.
Verdict: The Google Pixel camera has some impressive tricks up its sleeve. But it’s hard to argue it’s the best in the world.
- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
The Google Pixel’s camera isn’t bad. And on some measures, like sharpness and low-light performance, it’s very impressive. But it makes too many mistakes in real-world use for me to call it the “best in the world.”
If you’re buying a smartphone for the camera, I’d still recommend the iPhone 7 or Galaxy S7.