Google last week officially unveiled the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, showcasing the refined design, including the addition of wireless charging. The highlight of the show, however, was the Pixel 3’s camera, which Google improved upon yet again with several new features. To see if the Pixel retains its throne as the best smartphone camera on the market, we put it against Apple’s new iPhone XS.
Google’s whole conceit with the Pixel has been software; it’s been that way from the beginning. Rather than get caught up in megapixels and multiple cameras, the company used its legendary machine learning to create images that were sharper, more true-to-life, and better than anything else on the market. Then, with the Pixel 2, it introduced the Visual Core to handle complex imaging for even better results.
With the Pixel 3, Google again focused almost entirely on software. The device still has a 12.2MP with f/1.8 and dual-pixel phase detection autofocus, as well as optical and electronic image stabilization. But that’s secondary to the many new software tricks, including Top Shot, Photobooth Mode, Group Selfie, and more.
Google’s prized feature is HDR+, which can capture up to 8 frames and merge them together for the best possible photo, ensuring shadows are bright and highlights aren’t blown out. This is the feature that has helped the Pixel excel as the market’s most impressive smartphone camera.
Apple’s iPhone XS does similar software tricky. With a new Smart HDR mode, Apple’s new flagship also combines multiple photos into one, bringing more highlight and shadow detail into images. In our review of the iPhone XS, we saw the device’s camera software produce terrific pictures.
Like Google, Apple this year primarily focused on software over hardware, integrating the iPhone XS’ ISP, Neural Engine, and advanced algorithms. The results really do speak for themselves and are a huge step up from the iPhone X, which already featured a great camera.
The big advantage the iPhone XS holds over the Pixel 3 is the device’s telephoto lens. It’s something people often fail to mention when comparing the iPhone and the Pixel. Having a second telephoto lens makes the iPhone XS a more flexible shooter and works fantastically well when taking portrait photos.
Google did address that in the Pixel 3 with a new feature called Super Res Zoom, but it’s not quite as powerful. Digital zoom isn’t nearly as good as optical zoom, no matter how amazing Google’s algorithms are.
In the sample photos we took, it’s clear that both handsets are capable of taking incredible images, and each has their own quirks. The iPhone still produces warmer images, which I tend to like. The Pixel, meanwhile, make pictures that look instantly ready for social media, no editing required.
We also noticed that the Pixel 3 images are sharper than the iPhone XS—but sometimes Google’s device can overdo it. In portrait mode, the two perform about the same. It’s clear that these images are heavily influenced by software, but they’re convincing enough. While the iPhone produces a more pleasing depth of field, the Pixel’s images do a nice job of replicating skin tones that are more true-to-life.
One area where the Pixel is a clear winner over the iPhone is the front-facing camera. The Pixel 3’s new Group Selfie mode allows users to capture more scenery in the frame. In the image we used to take a group selfie, you can see how much more we were able to get in the frame when using the Pixel 3. If you don’t want a wider field of view, you can always use the Pixel 3’s standard front-facing camera.
For a more thorough breakdown of how each camera works, you can see Robert’s breakdown in the video above. He’ll explain each shot and how each phone performed in a particular scenario.
What’s clear is that the Pixel 3 and iPhone XS are pretty much dead even in a lot of scenarios. Apple was able to gain a lot of ground with its new Smart HDR feature, but Google’s Pixel 3 still takes images that are sharper and more pleasing right out of the phone, whereas the iPhone XS images can do with a little editing.
Check out the full gallery up above.