In case you haven't read our detailed review of the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, let us sum it up for you. In its third attempt, Google has managed to deliver a truly flagship-grade experience with the new Pixel phones, and everything from the build quality, features, and performance has been improved. The Pixels' cameras have always been the one feature that has stood out about them, and this year's models are no different.
While the Pixel 3 does not have drastically different hardware compared to last years models, a few key modifications and a whole lot of software improvements make it a strong contender for having the best smartphone camera. Like every year, this time, we'll be pitting the Pixel 3 XL against two of the best smartphone cameras around — the Apple iPhone XS and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (Review). Both phones have proven imaging sensors and are currently the best of what Apple and Samsung have to offer.
We'll also be throwing the Google Pixel 2 XL (Review) into the ring, for a couple of reasons. First, the Pixel 2 XL still has one of the best cameras in the market and Google is keeping this phone around till at least the end of this year at a new price of Rs. 45,499, though it should be available at an even lesser price in the market. Secondly, the new camera app of the Pixel 3 works seamlessly with the Pixel 2 XL. All you have to do is download the APK and side-load it. This doesn't give you all the features of the Pixel 3 on the older phone, but you can take advantage of the new UI. But the most important reason we've included it is to see how it compares against the Pixel 3. Given its new selling price, it might just be a good bargain buy if your top priority is the camera.
We've split our comparison into multiple tests, which we conducted under different lighting conditions. We've also paid close attention to each phone's zoom capabilties here, since the new Super Res Zoom is of the crowing features of the Pixel 3. For each test, we took an average of four shots with each phone and then picked the best-looking one from each contender to compare with the others.
In this comparison, our focus is on the raw performance of the sensors, which is why we're concentrating on the primary shooting modes that are common across all phones. You also get additional features with each phone, such as AR stickers, a professional shooting mode, etc, which we've explored in great detail in our full review of each phone. Hit the review links above to read about what each phone has to offer.
Before we begin, here's a quick rundown of the camera specifications for each of the phones. Their primary sensors all have similar focal lengths, so we were able to capture similar frames with all of them without having to move.
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Daylight landscape
Our first landscape test has an interesting mix of colours, textures, and objects at varying distances. All phones manage to capture excellent amounts of detail in objects that are in the centre of the frame as well as in the surroundings. Even after looking at a 100 percent crop of the images, all of them exhibit very good details in the leaves and the vines on the pillars, as well as the high-rises in the surrounding area.
100 percent crops
The Note 9 does the best job at suppressing noise but in doing do, flattens some of the texture of the buildings in the distance. The sky also appears a tad overexposed. The Pixel 2 XL does a commendable job with detail too, but fails to capture the blue hue of the skyand the overall tone makes the image look a bit gloomy in comparison. The iPhone XS and the Pixel 3 go toe-to-toe here, as both produce vivid colours and really bring out the blue of the sky, but the iPhone manages to do a slightly better job in resolving detail in the shadows, which is why we pick it as the winner for this round.
In our second landscape test, we check to see how the camera sensors cope with detail in objects at a much greater distance. The Pixel 2 XL has the least attractive shot here and it fails to capture as much detail as the other three. The iPhone XS really bumps up the blue tone here, which is evident from the sky and the rooftops below, and it also delivers the most dramatic-looking shot here as it balances the exposure nicely without losing detail.
100 percent crops
The Pixel 3 XL comes in a close second, as it too has a pleasing colour palette, but it tends to crush the blacks in the trees. Also, it loses out on a bit of detail on the skyscraper to the left of the frame. The Galaxy Note 9 has the least noise once again but it also overexposes some portions of the image, like the sky on the right and the rooftop of the building in the bottom left corner.
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Daylight macro
In our macro test, we check for accuracy of colours, details in texture, and how smooth the bokeh is. The iPhone XS has the most neural colour tone here as the others have a slightly warmer hue. As a result, the purple shade of the flowers appear brighter and more vivid.
100 percent crops
The Pixel 3 XL on the other hand has slightly better sharpness around the edges of the petals. The Pixel 2 XL isn't to far behind the Pixel 3 XL in this one. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 sharpens the flowers a bit to much, giving it an almost artificial look. We pick the Pixel 3 XL for having the most natural looking shot.
Our second test is a bit more challenging as it was shot under direct sunlight. Once again, all phones manage excellent detail as they capture every wrinkle and pore on the flower and leaves very well. The shot taken with the iPhone XS is the brightest, but the shadow cast by the flower on the leaf isn't very well defined as it is with the other three.
100 percent crops
The orange shade also looks a bit jarring in comparison to the others. The Galaxy Note 9 once again cranks up the sharpness a bit too much for our liking. The Pixel 2 XL and 3 XL tie for the top spot, followed by the iPhone and then the Note 9.
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Low-light landscape
So far, we've seen that when shooting under ample natural light, the sensors of all the phones do a very good job for the most part. But what happens at night, when the light isn't ideal?
In our first test, we mainly checked to see how the sensors handle noise as we have a predominantly black sky with very little light around. Surprisingly, the iPhone XS has the cleanest image of all, with no visible noise in the sky or the shadows, while still maintaining good detail on the building. The colours and dynamic range might seem a bit flat compared to the others, but it best represents the actual scene.
100 percent crops
The Pixel 2 XL and 3 XL have slightly noisier images but the newer model is able to resolve better detail compared to the 2 XL. It also has the most dramatic-looking shot as it boosts the amber and white glow of the street lamps in order to make the image seem more vivid. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 shoots the brightest image, which shows you better detail in the shadows, but this also introduces lots of noise.
In our second test, we have a better lit subject that's not too far from us. Here, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 comes back fighting, producing the cleanest image with the least noise. It also has the best white balance. The Pixel 2 XL exaggerates the blues a bit here, giving the image a cooler tone, while the iPhone XS veers a bit towards the warmer side. The Pixel 3 XL does a slightly better job with the colour temperature of the image but it's still a bit noisy and not as clean as the Galaxy Note 9.
100 percent crops
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Low-light macro
Shooting macros in low light can be challenging, as we found out with the iPhone XS in our first test. The iPhone really struggles to lock focus on our subject but eventually managed after many tries. However, we weren't very happy with the end result here as detail and colours are poorly represented.
Cropped for comparison
The Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 XL manage nearly identical shots, so much so that we had to actually check the EXIF data when reviewing them to make sure we didn't accidently use the same image twice. There's excellent dynamic range and sharpness and colours are easily identifiable. The Galaxy Note 9 didn't have any trouble focusing either and it actually produces a brighter image, letting you see more detail in the shadows, albeit with some noise.
In our second test, we shot our subject under better fluorescent lighting. Here, the iPhone XS is quick to lock focus and manages to produce the most neutral colour tone. However, looking at a 100 percent crop, we noticed that the edges of the petals and the leaves are slightly blurry and not well defined. The Pixel 2 XL and 3 XL have a cooler colour tone but have much sharper edges.
Cropped for comparison
The Galaxy Note 9 has the brightest image but dilutes the pink colour of the flower. We would pick the iPhone XS for having the most accurate colours, even though it lags behind a bit on the detail.
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Rear flash
While shooting in low light isn't a huge challenge for these phones most of the time, there are times when you need to use the rear flash. Here, we check to see how powerful each of the rear flashes is, and more importantly, how evenly they illuminate our subject when shooting against a well-lit background. In this test, our subject was standing in complete darkness.
Cropped for comparison
The iPhone XS triggers a Slow Sync Flash which lights up our subject evenly, while still maintaining very good details and natural colours in the background. In fact, the iPhone XS sample shot has the least noise and the best detail in objects placed at a distance. The Pixel 2 XL manages slightly less noise compared to the Pixel 3 XL for the background and produces the most dramatic looking image, which would appeal to most. The Pixel 3 XL reproduces more natural skin tones, but the white in our subject's shirt appears off-white, compared to others. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has the strongest flash and lights up our subject well, but fails to capture good detail in the background.
Using the rear flash might not always be the optimal solution, especially if your subject is at a distance. This is where Google's upcoming Night Sight feature might come in handy. This will be rolling out to the Pixel 3 series as well as older Pixel models soon. If you own any of these phones, then you can try an early preview of this feature right now, thanks to XDA-Developers. Once side-loaded, it will show up as a second camera app called ‘CameraP3', which lets you access the ‘Night' shooting mode.
Shot with the Google Pixel 3 XL
Rather than keeping the shutter open for four or five seconds, which would completely blur an image, Night Sight takes up to 15 frames with a reasonably slow shutter to give you an effective exposure of about five seconds. We tried it on the Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 XL, and the results were quite impressive. Depending on the amount of light, it takes about three to four seconds to finish capturing all the frames, although this could be improved once the final version is out. Even though it's impossible to stay absolutely still for this long when shooting handheld, the final shot was sharp and highly detailed compared to the one taken without Night Sight.
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Zoom
We skipped the Pixels in zoom tests in our earlier comparisons due to their lack of optical zoom, but with Google touting its new Super Res Zoom feature, we had to see how it compared against phones with physical secondary cameras with dedicated zoom lenses. With ample light at hand, the iPhone XS and the Note 9 willingly switch to their respective telephoto sensors.
Even though the iPhone XS manages better exposure, we have to award this round to the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. It manages smoother colour gradients, excellent sharpness, and better detail. It, along with the iPhone XS, are the only two that manage to deliver plenty of detail in the trees behind the cars. The Pixel 3 XL's image isn't very sharp in comparison with optical zoom but it's still better than the Pixel 2 XL. However, both of Google's phones crush the blacks in the shadows of the leaves in the background.
100 percent crops
But what happens why you push the zoom slider all the way to the max? The Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone XS can achieve a higher digital zoom compared to the Pixels. Here, the Note 9 and iPhone XS have slightly sharper images with better detail, especially if you look at the tyre. The Pixel 3 XL isn't far behind for a phone with just digital zoom, and it's still quite impressive. The image from the Pixel 2 XL is much softer in comparison.
Shot using maximum zoom under good light (cropped for comparison)
In low light, it's a very different story. Here, the iPhone XS and the Samsung Note 9 don't switch over to their telephoto cameras due to their narrower apertures, so when we do a full digital zoom, the end results aren't great. There's way too much noise in the images. The Pixel 3 XL on the other hand has the smoothest image with the least noise, followed closely by the Pixel 2 XL. Not that we'd recommend using digital zoom in low-light but it's nice to see how these phones perform when they are pushed to their limits.
Shot using maximum zoom in low-light (cropped for comparison)
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Panorama
All four phones do a good job at stitching panoramas together. Capturing them is as easy as panning your phone from one end of your desired frame to the other. Google has finally fixed the panorama mode in its new app, which now enjoys the same ease of use as Apple and Samsung's implementations. You can get the same experience on the Pixel 2 XL too, with the APK from the Pixel 3. Barring the Pixel 2 XL, which captured a much darker image, all the others managed very good detail and colours.
Comparison of Panorama stills from all the phones
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Portrait mode
Portrait mode is a popular feature in smartphones today and can yield some amazing results, if done right. All phones let you adjust the level of blur after you take a shot. The Galaxy Note 9 lets you adjust it while framing your shot too, which is handy. We'll be focusing more on the image quality and exposure on our subject and the background in this test.
100 percent crops
In our first test, under natural light, the iPhone XS wins by a mile. The colours, level of sharpness and skin tones are unparalleled compared to the rest. It also manages to nail edge detection too. The Pixel 3 XL comes in second as it also captures good colours, but details on our our subject's face aren't very well defined and it also blurred out one of his eyebrows. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has a well-lit image but burns out the sky in the background and some of the highlights on our subjects face, which isn't a very accurate representation of the actual skin tone. In comparison, the Pixel 2 XL has the most dreary looking shot with dull colours and poor exposure.
100 percent crops
Under artificial light, Pixel 3 XL has the best shot of the four, capturing excellent detail and sharpness with good edge detection. The iPhone XS fares well with edge edition but ends up with a noisy image with less detail on our subject's face. The Pixel 2 XL does a commendable job here too but gets confused with the blinds behind our subject, resulting ineffective blurring. The Galaxy Note 9 has the softest image of the lot but manages to blur the right edges.
100 percent crops
We also tested portrait mode on objects, where the iPhone still struggles in getting the edges right. Here, the iPhone XS blurred portions of the petal when it was not supposed to, and the white colour is a little overblown. The Pixel 2 XL and 3 XL do a great job at edge detection and have some of the best sharpness in this shot. The Pixel 3 XL has noticeably better white balance compared to the Pixel 2 XL. The Galaxy Note 9 detects the edges well too but miss out on good detail.
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Selfie
In selfies shot during the day, the iPhone XS has the most natural looking result with just the right softness on the skin and the right exposure for our subjects hair. However, it does have the narrowest field of view among the lot. There has been some controversy, also known as “beautygate,” about how the front cameras on the new iPhones forcibly soften the skin on you face. Apple has since claimed that this is a bug and that a fix is coming with the iOS 12.1 update.
100 percent crops
The Pixel 3 XL would be our second choice if you're looking for a more dramatic shot. The higher contrast does crush the blacks a bit but the detail is amazing. The Pixel 2 XL has a similar looking shot too. The Galaxy Note 9 softens the skin way to much, which removes most of the detail. The Pixel 3 XL can also take advantage of its second wide-angle 8-megapixel sensor, which captures slightly less detail but gets more of the background in the frame.
Portrait selfie test (100 percent crops)
With portrait mode, the iPhone XS does the best job with edge detection as the Pixels leave out some gaps around the shoulder region while the Galaxy Note 9 messes up ever worse. However, the iPhone XS tends to overexpose our subject's face a bit too much, while the Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 XL show better balance. Except for the Galaxy Note 9, all the other phones let you adjust the level of blur in selfies too.
Cropped for comparison
We tried a few selfies indoors, under dim lighting and set the flashes on all phones to Auto. Here, the Pixel 3 XL manages the most detailed selfie and tries to colour correct the amber light from the chandelier above. The image from the Pixel 2 XL more closely represents the actual lighting and has similar level of detail as the Pixel 3 XL. The Galaxy Note 9 has a much softer image overall and the reddish hue isn't too pleasing. The iPhone XS has a comparatively dull image, with less detail, but it does manage to keep the colour tone neutral.
When shooting in extremely low light, with the flash, we wanted to see how powerful the screen flash is when you have many people in the frame. The iPhone XS has the weakest flash and we just about managed to squeeze everyone in the frame. With the Pixel 3 XL, we ended up with a reddish glow on our faces, but it's still not powerful enough to illuminate everyone's face. You can go wide-angle on the Pixel 3 XL but don't expect the flash to get any brighter. The Samsung definitely has the brightest screen flash but results are not very satisfying.
Guess the lesson we've learnt here is that if you want to get a shot of you and your friends in unfavourable light, have someone else take the picture for you.
Google Pixel 3 XL vs Apple iPhone XS vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Video recording
All the phones we tested are capable of 4K video recording, with the iPhone XS and Galaxy Note 9 capable of shooting 4K 60fps video. The Galaxy Note 9 has a 10 minute limit when shooting at 4K 30fps, while the others don't really have one. All of them also get quite warm when shooting at this resolution.
In daylight, the iPhone XS does a fantastic job with detail and the colours in the video are the most accurate to what you actually see. Audio quality is equally good too. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 comes in at a close second, delivering the best audio separation with equally good details and colours. The Pixel 3 XL had good stabilisation too but we noticed a shift in the white balance at times in this test, as it graduated from neutral to a warm tone and back again. The audio isn't very good either as our voice sounds like its coming from afar, which is an issue that many others are also facing. The Pixel 2 XL also had a similar issue when it launched, but that was later fixed via a software update so we're hoping it's easily fixable on the Pixel 3 XL too. The Pixel 2 XL also manages very good video quality and doesn't have the audio of the Pixel 3 XL.
However, it's in our low-light 4K test where the iPhone XS really gets to stretch its legs. With some noise and a slight shimmer effect due to stabilisation, the iPhone XS still manages to deliver the best quality video of the lot. The Note 9 comes in second as far as image quality goes but the video looks very ‘jumpy' and not at all pleasing. The Pixel 3 XL handles noise pretty well but the resulting footage is too soft and has a hazy look to it. The Pixel 2 XL has the worst image quality, with lots of chroma noise in the footage.
Since most people would probably shoot at 1080p, we tested this resolution too on all phones. Here, all phones do an excellent job with detail and stabilisation. The iPhone XS and the Pixel 3 XL have the most natural looking colours while the Note 9 and Pixel 2 XL tend to veer a bit towards the warmer side. We didn't encounter any focusing hunting issues in either of the phones. At night, the iPhone XS and the Pixel 3 XL are pretty close in terms of image quality and stabilisation performance, however the audio issue in the Pixel 3 XL puts the iPhone XS ahead. The Galaxy Note 9 has decent image quality too but the footage is once again jumpy. The Pixel 2 XL suppress chroma noise quite well at this resolution but the resulting footage is soft and not very detailed.
All phones can also do slow-motion video at 240fps. The resolution for the Pixels is still limited to 720p while the others can do the same at 1080p. The Galaxy Note 9 has one ace up its sleeve as it manages to shoot small bursts of video at 960fps.
The Google Pixel 3 XL might be the best smartphone camera Google has made till date, but it's definitely not a clear winner amongst the competition. iPhones have always been very good with video but if you've seen any of our previous camera comparisons, they've often paled in comparison to Android phones when it comes to still images. Now, all of that changes with the iPhone XS.
Apple has finally managed to build a good enough camera that can go toe-to-toe with the best Android phones for still photography and more often that not, beat them at their own game. The phones's new Smart HDR feature is clearly a winner here as it balances colours, details, and exposure superbly. Unsurprisingly, it also continues to carry the torch for being the best device for video recording. It's not perfect though as we could still use a better selfie camera and we also found it lagging behind in details, with low-light portraits.
The Pixel 3 XL isn't far behind the iPhone XS. It was a close second in many of the tests and managed to pull ahead in some of the challenging low-light macros we shot, it's still ahead in low-light portraits and selfies, and the Super Res Zoom does wonders in low-light, compared to the standard digital zoom on the others. The second, wide-angle selfie camera also is very handy when you need to get more of your friends in the shot or simply wish to capture more of the background. Night Sight looks very promising too from what we've seen, it doesn't seem like you'll ever need to use the flash ever again for low-light shots.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is the most affordable current-generation flagship and it has its share of strengths such as excellent clarity and sharpness with optical zoom during the day and also delivers some of the cleanest images in low-light.
The Pixel 2 XL might be a year old now but it's still no slouch. The quality of videos shot during the day was on par with the Pixel 3 XL and it managed the same level of detail in macros too. It's still one of the best phones when it comes to shooting selfies. Plus, it's also compatible with the Pixel 3's camera app, which gives you a cleaner layout to work with. It's definitely worth considering at its new selling price of Rs. 45,499, if you don't mind living with that display.
In the end, it's a close fight between the Pixel 3 XL and the iPhone XS but looking at all-round performance for both stills and video, the iPhone XS is definitely the smartphone camera to beat.