After 11 pages of exposition, here’s how the smartphone cameras fared in each test:
|User-friendliness||Apple iPhone X|
|Colors||Apple iPhone X, Google Pixel 2 XL, Samsung Note8|
|Flash||Google Pixel 2 XL|
|HDR||Google Pixel 2 XL|
|Portrait Modes||Apple iPhone X|
|Selfies||Apple iPhone X|
|Videos||Apple iPhone X|
And the score tally is five points for the Apple iPhone X, three for the Google Pixel 2 XL, and five for the Samsung Note8.
What these results mean is that if I could, I’d carry the Google Pixel 2 XL for its excellent stills, the Apple iPhone X for shooting video, and the Samsung Note8 for shooting when it gets dark.
Unfortunately, most of us can’t carry around multiple cameras to take advantage of their unique strengths. We have to choose a single smartphone, with its strengths and its weaknesses.
There’s no one perfect smartphone camera in this shootout, and therein lies the conundrum. For example, if this shootout was about taking the best pictures only, then the Google Pixel 2 XL would win hands down. Its photographs are truly outstanding, and like nothing I’ve ever seen from a smartphone. Even though it may not have the best details and low noise performance, the expanded dynamic range in its always-HDR photos make them look more lifelike than the other smartphones. The Pixel 2 XL even manages to make on-camera flash look alright, using its HDR sorcery.
But then again, the Pixel 2 XL’s Camera UI is half-baked. The focal point is always in the middle until you manually change it, and the autofocus (AF) doesn’t even ship with face detection. Even though the image stabilization in video mode is out of this world, video quality itself is not great. It appears that even though Google made great strides in one area of its camera, it let the rest of the app go to slack.
So while the Pixel 2 XL has one extraordinary quality, it can’t be the smartphone camera for most people, who do shoot videos and need functional AF.
As an aside; the Pixel 2 XL’s accelerated ascendance on the strength of its software really underscores how software is eating the camera world. While the Pixel 2 XL can’t beat, say, a Nikon D850’s 45MP images, neither can a Nikon D850 do what the Pixel 2 XL is doing computationally.
The other smartphone manufacturers may be masters of hardware, but hardware has physical limitations. Software has fewer constraints, and it’ll be interesting to see how far one of the best software companies in the world will change photography in the Pixels to come. If you’re curious about just what’s going on inside the Pixel 2 camera, Googler Nat has a great inside video on how Google built it.
It then comes down to the two highlights of this shootout, the Apple iPhone X and the Samsung Note8, both of which are tied for points. So, really, this could go either way.
Contrary to the comments on my previous comparison between the Apple iPhone 8 Plus and the Note8, I don’t particularly want to give Apple’s iPhones the crown all the time. The iPhones do almost everything very well, but the photos lack detail, especially when it comes to low light.
This is a weakness I’ve been highlighting for years, and Apple shouldn’t keep getting a free pass, especially since the Note8 shows you can get detailed images while keeping image noise down, even in low light.
On the other hand, Samsung still hasn’t fixed the jelly effect that haunts its videos. It’s gotten better, there’s less rolling shutter than there used to be, but the Note8’s videos aren’t as good as the iPhone X’s. To be fair though, if you don’t move the camera around much, you won’t get the jello effect, and the iPhone X’s video OIS can also produce some odd jerking motions, though not as obviously as the Note8’s.
When it comes to auxiliary features, neither one consistently outperforms the other. The iPhone X has the better UI, but the Note8 has the better AF — only in Pro mode, however. The iPhone X takes the better HDR images, but the Note8 shoots the better panoramas. The iPhone X takes the more acceptable fake-bokeh portraits and the better selfies, but the Note8 has the better optical zoom.
On the software front, the iOS 11 has one advantage. It saves in new file formats, HEIF for images and HEVC for movies, which cut file sizes by as much as half. With photos and videos increasingly taking up the bulk of storage on our smartphones, that’s a big help. It’s likely that more smartphones will adopt the new formats in 2018, but that’s not where they are today.
If you’ve already read through this entire page, you know we’re faced with a real conundrum this year.
The Google Pixel 2 XL takes stunningly good photographs, but falters in everything else. The Samsung Note8 is excellent in most things, but its videos aren’t as good as the Apple iPhone X. The iPhone X provides the most balanced performance for most people, but there’s no denying that the quality of its still photos don’t match up to the Note8’s.
After much debate within our editorial team, we’ve decided to do something unusual this year, and deliver three awards instead of declaring a single winner. In fact, the iPhone X and the Galaxy Note 8 are tied for The Best Smartphone Camera of the Year. Here is our awards summary:-
While the iPhone X's images aren’t as detailed as the Note8’s nor as rich as the Pixel 2 XL’s, its better video performance, user-friendly UI and new file-saving formats make it the best overall smartphone camera for most people.
Let's not forget that the Note8 has really good cameras. While Samsung’s video performance still lags slightly behind the iPhone’s, there’s no denying just how good the still images are, and it fully deserves our recommendation to commend this achievement.
The Pixel 2 XL’s still images have awed us so much that we’re giving it an Innovation Award. There’s a lot of sophisticated technology that Google is applying to the Pixel 2 XL’s camera, and it’s breathed new life into smartphone photography. Just round out the rest of the app, Google, please.