The camera in a smartphone has become a crucial part of any shopper's buying decision. Whether you're a photography enthusiast or a casual Instagram-er, it's important to have a good camera in your phone. We get this question all the time - which is the best smartphone camera?
Well, we've tried to answer that in the past in our earlier camera shootouts but since then, there have been a couple of very interesting and important launches that have grabbed everyone's attention. We, of course, are talking about the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL, two flagships with bleeding edge technology but most importantly, with two very impressive cameras. We're also adding the Galaxy Note 8 to this comparison, since it's currently Samsung's flagship offering with an equally impressive camera system.
All three phones have 12-megapixel sensors with large apertures and optical image stabilisation. The iPhone X and the Note 8 also sport secondary telephoto sensors, which allow them to do optical zoom and tricks like portrait mode. The Pixel 2 XL lacks a second sensor, but you'll be amazed at what it can achieve thanks to Google's software prowess.
For this comparison, we tested the three smartphone cameras under varying conditions, which are all explained in detail in the video below.
With that out of the way, let's take a closer look at the performance of each of the cameras in different scenarios. Though we used multiple images for each scenario, in the interest of brevity, we've restricted ourselves to just one image that best captures the differences between the various phones. Let's take a closer look'
In our landscape tests, HDR was set to Auto for all phones. Here, we look for detail levels, light metering, and accuracy of colours.
The Pixel 2 XL takes the early lead thanks to better light metering and accurate colours. If you look at the first car, you'll notice the details on the bonnet and roof are clearly legible, compared to the overexposed look of the other two. While the iPhone X loses out in exposure, it's close behind the Pixel when it comes to sharpness. The Note 8 doesn't do too badly with the exposure but the details on the objects on the sides are a bit softer than the other two.
In our second landscape test, we shot this around noon, with the sun bearing down on the building in the front of us. Here, the iPhone X has the best representation of the scene as it balances the colours nicely. Details are also very good here but once again, the Pixel 2 XL has a slight edge in capturing detail. which is noticeable once you zoom in. The Note 8 has better hues for the sky and details are also quite good. The Pixel 2 XL's picture looks a bit cloudy compared to the other two.
With our macro tests, we get to test out the cameras depth of field capabilities, sharpness, and colour accuracy of the sensors when shooting close up subjects.
Relatively speaking, the iPhone X doesn't do a very good job in capturing our subject correctly, ending up with much darker colours overall. The Pixel 2 XL once again produces the best image quality, which most accurately represents the scene. The Galaxy Note 8 boosts the colours a bit here but fails to capture good detail in areas that aren't in main focus, like the leaf on the right with the petal on it.
In our second test, we get a chance to see how the phone's handle varied colours and textures. Here, the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL tie in for top spot as they both have a warmer colour tone with more natural looking colours. The Pixel 2 XL manages little better details on the fruits in the surrounding regions. The Note 8 sharpened this image a bit too much so the individual fruits look more striking but the colours are paler in comparison.
Portrait mode is a trendy new feature, which was popularised with the launch of the iPhone 7 Plus. What it does is calculates the depth between your subject and background and adds a software blur or a bokeh effect like you get with large aperture lenses on DSLRs. The Pixel 2 XL can do this too, despite it lacking a second camera thanks to Google's machine learning algorithms. With the Note 8, you can even adjust the level of blur before and after you take the shot.
In outdoor close-up shots under good lighting, the Galaxy Note 8 has the best white balance of the lot, which makes the blues on our subjects shirt really stand out. The Pixel 2 XL has better highlights but the colour tone isn't neutral. The iPhone X has a similar colour pallet as the Pixel but with slightly softer details on the face. Switching to portrait mode, all three phones have a similar level of bokeh but the Pixel 2 XL fails to apply the effect correctly in this scene. However, as a bonus, you get a much wider field of view since it doesn't have a telephoto sensor.
Indoors, under good lighting, the Pixel 2 XL continues to shine when it comes to detail which is most evident when you look at finer details like hair. The Galaxy Note 8 offers up a much softer image with little detail. The iPhone X once again, has warmer colours, which in a way bodes well for skin tones but lacks the level of detail that Google's offering delivers. In normal portraits, shot in Auto mode, the Galaxy Note 8 has a slight edge thanks to slightly sharper details, however, switch to Portrait mode, and it's the iPhone X that has the most natural colour tone. The Pixel 2 XL still has slightly sharper detail but the colour tone is on the cooler side. The Galaxy Note 8 doesn't fare too well under low light in Portrait mode. All three phones do a good enough job at edge detection on our subject below as even the gap left by our subject's right hand was accurately blurred out.
With inanimate objects, the iPhone X doesn't do a very good job in blurring out the right edges, at least in the tests that we did. As a result, details that need to be present are often left out which doesn't result in a very pleasing image, especially if you're shooting smaller objects. While the Galaxy Note 8 suffers in low light, it doesn't manage to get edge detection right for the objects we tested. The Pixel 2 XL had a bug in the Portrait mode, which would randomly fail to apply the effect. However, after the Android 8.1 update, we ran more tests and haven't encountered that bug since.
The iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8 boast of secondary sensors, which allow them to pull off tricks like optical zoom. When we say zoom, its more to do with the camera app switching to the second sensor, which has a longer focal length so you automatically get a zoomed in picture. Both phones have a little '2x' button in the viewfinder when you're shooting stills or video, thus allowing you to zoom into your subject at any point. The second sensor in both smartphones have the same focal length of 52mm (35mm equivalent) and a f/2.4 aperture. The iPhone's primary lens has a focal length of 28mm, which gives it a 1.85x level of zoom when you switch, while the Note 8 has a 26mm primary sensor, thus giving you an effective 2x zoom level when you switch.
Other sample - iPhone X
When zooming into landscapes during the day, both phones capture very good detail. The iPhone X once again has a warmer tone to the image which makes it aesthetically more appealing. Colours are also bolder and shadows have better definition when it comes to the iPhone X. For a more close-up shot, like the lotus, the Note 8 manages slightly better detail on the petals of the flower as compared to the iPhone X. In indoor shots, under good ambient lighting, both cameras have very good white balance and the details are excellent. However, in very low light, both smartphones ditch their telephoto sensors and simply do a digital zoom with the main sensor. This is done to avoid a noisy image. Here, the iPhone X has a slight edge over the Note 8 as it offers a slitty brighter image and details are more visible.
In video mode, both phones do a stellar job in capturing detail but the iPhone X pulls ahead here with better colour accuracy. We also noticed a bit of focus hunting in 2x video mode on the Note 8. At night, both smartphones perform admirably as noise is handled well and theres good dynamic range here.
Panorama mode is another commonly used feature by many. In the iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8, the process is fairly straight forward as you simply tap the shutter once and start moving in the desired direction till you're done or you've come fun circle. In the Pixel 2 XL though, the process isn't as seamless. Rather than shooting in one sweeping motion, you need to stop at the designated spot, wait a second for the app to take the picture and move on. Once you're done, you then wait for couple of seconds for the app to finish processing the final image.
During the day, all phones do a good job at stitching multiples frames together. Of course, moving objects will cause unwanted anomalies in the final image so that's always something to be careful off. Details are fairly good across all phones although the iPhone X did have slightly better colours during the day. In low light, the Pixel 2 XL does the best job of stitching together a panorama. The Note 8 doesn't quite get it right but it is the fastest at shooting and processing.
While we would normally refrain from using the flash on our smartphones, there are times when you can't really void using it. All phones have slightly different implementations of LED flash units. The iPhone X uses a quad-LED setup with different tones; the Pixel 2 XL uses a dual-LED flash system while the Note 8 has a high intensity LED flash unit.
The Note 8 has the brightest flash amongst the three but the light it casts its also a bit harsh and focused more towards the centre. The iPhone X doesn't have the most powerful flash here but the frame ends up being more evenly lit. The Pixel 2 XL has a decently bright flash and thanks to the sensor's relentless ability to brighten up even the dimmest areas, we end up with a lot more detail in the scene. When shooting people, the Pixel manages the best balance between lighting up the scene evenly, details, and skin tones. With the iPhone X, we ended up with a slightly darker image. The Galaxy Note 8 has the brightest image here but skin tones aren't too accurate as a result.
All smartphones have a screen flash too to help you brighten your face in low light. The Pixel 2 XL manages to best details here, not only on our subjects face but also in background objects. The iPhone X comes second here, delivering natural skin tones but the field of view is quite narrow. The Note 8 once again delivers the brightest screen flash but the resulting selfie lacks good definition and details are a bit soft.
For our low light tests, we shot multiple scenes under different lighting like indoors, at dusk and at night. This let us test the dynamic range of the sensors and how they adapt to artefacts like noise when the ISO is bumped up.
In our night shot, Pixel 2 XL has the best light metering among the three as it most accurately balances the detail and lighting. It's also the only one that manages to meter the clock correctly which makes it very legible even when zoomed in all the way. The iPhone X comes in at a close second place as it also captures very good detail and the balances the exposure nicely. The Galaxy Note 8 struggles in getting the metering right with so many varied light sources around and ends up overexposing most of brightly lit portions of the building.
At a much closer distance and under artificial lighting, the Galaxy Note 8 and Pixel 2 XL manage nearly identical shots. Light metering, colours and details are spot on. The iPhone X also does a good job here but among the three, the shots taken with the Pixel 2 XL and Note 8 certainly look the most appetising.
The original Pixel had an uncannily good selfie camera and Google hasn't messed around with that formula on the Pixel 2 XL.
During the day, the Pixel 2 XL shoots the most detailed selfies among the three and also has a very wide filed of view, so it's easy to cram in more people. Details on our subjects face and the background are superb. The iPhone X doesn't have a very good field of view for selfies but it does produce the best skin tone. The Note 8 captures a slightly softer and image overall, which doesn't look all too exciting.
The iPhone 7 Plus might not have been the best compared to Android flagships when it came to stills but there was no beating it in the video department. The iPhone X continues that tradition, delivering excellent 4K video recording during the day. What's more, it's the only one that can do 4K at 60fps. The Pixel 2 XL comes in second, delivering very good stabilisation at 4K 30fps. The Galaxy Note 8 captures the best quality audio among the three but at 4K 30fps, there's a visible jelly effect in the stabilisation when you move about. Autofocus speeds of the Note 8 and Pixel 2 XL are freakishly fast too and are slightly better than the iPhone X.
In low light, the iPhone X once again delivers very good stabilisation while keeping noise in control. The jelly effect on the Note 8 at 4K in low light doesn't really look all that good. The Pixel 2 XL offers a much brighter scene amongst the three but noise is also very apparent at 4K. Last but not least, we also tried out slow-motion video in which, the iPhone X wins as it's the only one that can do 240fps at 1080p resolution. The Galaxy Note 8 also captures good quality 240fps video, even if it is at 720p. The Pixel 2 XL comes third here, with slightly weaker dynamic range and sharpness.
Just like our previous flagship smartphone camera shootouts, there's no ‘jack of all trades' smartphone that excels at stills and video, well, not yet anyway. The camera on the iPhone X is a huge improvement over the iPhone 7 Plus for stills, but its real strength lies in video, where it delivers excellent image quality and stabilisation compared to its Android counterparts. It also manages 4K 60fps, which no other Android flagship can do this year. Apart from video, the iPhone X also has very good photography chops. It doesn't quite match up to Google's Pixel 2 XL in terms of finer detail but delivers very pleasing and accurate colours most of the time. The colour tone is also on the warmer side, which works well for skin tones.
If you're looking for precision detail, then it's hard to beat the Pixel 2 XL. Google's machine learning algorithms do wonders in packing in a tone of detail, in pretty much every single frame. It also has the best selfie camera, among the other two we tested. It's also great with video stabilisation but in low light, be prepared for slightly noisy footage. Despite the lack of a second camera, the Pixel 2 XL is still very competent at portrait shots, both for the front and rear camera.
The Galaxy Note 8 is not to be forgotten here. Portrait shots taken under natural lighting are really hard to beat and it does an impressive job with close-ups when using the 2x zoom function, but once again under good natural light. It has the brightest flash amongst the three and is only second to the Pixel when it comes to capturing good detail in landscapes. Video recording isn't as impressive though compared to the other two, especially if you're banking on the phone's stabilisation.
It's hard to pick a singular winner in this case. All three phones have excellent cameras that deserve your attention and ultimately what you pick really depends on what you'll be using the camera for the most. If it's video you're after, then the iPhone X will keep you very happy as it's already ahead of the curb in this respect. You'll also be happier with it's warmer colour tones if the subjects you plan on shooting are mostly people. If you're someone who loves cropping your pictures to perfection, then the added refinement in detail from the Pixel 2 XL will serve you better. It doesn't always balance the colour temperature of the scene very accurately, at least in the tests we performed, so that's something you'll have to adjust in post. Finally, if you want advanced shooting options and manual controls for adjusting the bokeh effect for your portrait shots, then you can't go wrong with the Galaxy Note 8.