Apple iPhone X vs Google Pixel 2 XL: camera comparison

Posted: , posted by Viktor Hristov

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Comparing two of the best camera phones out there is no easy task: the iPhone X and the Pixel 2 XL are both excellent, but just as much as they are excellent, they are also different.

The differences start in the very camera setup: the iPhone X has a dual rear camera, one a wide-angle 28mm f/1.8 lens and the other, a slightly longer, "tele" lens at 52mm and f/2.4, both optically stabilized while the Pixel 2 XL only has one camera on its back, a 27mm, f/1.8 shooter that also has optical image stabilization.

What is more interesting in both phones is that there is more to the actual photograph than before. Call it computational photography, call it smart/auto HDR, it all boils down to photos from both these phones having better dynamics than you would think one can squeeze out of a tiny phone camera sensor. On both phones, you have an auto HDR option enabled by default, which means that the phones are actually taking multiple photos when you press the camera shutter button just once, and then smartly combining them into one final photograph.

What matters, though, is the final result. So let's compare photos from the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL. We will include some general comments to each of the chapters in this comparison and then we will have per image comments, so let's take a look...

Exposure, White Balance and Color

iPhone has a brighter exposure, more accurate colors in daylight, while Pixel has darker exposure, warm whites and a big problem with the sky

There is a really easy way to know whether a photo was taken on the iPhone X: just look at the exposure. The iPhone consistently overexposes photos by a very slight margin. Pictures on the iPhone thus look a bit more cheerful, brighter. This results in two things: first, there is a slight bit of loss in the highlights that are sometimes slightly clipped (it is indeed very slight), but a lot of detail is recovered from the shadows. Most of the times, this looks nice, but sometimes it goes overboard and images get a bit of a "ghostly" overexposed look, for a lack of a better term.

The Google Pixel 2 XL, on the other hand, has a noticeably darker exposure. It errs towards the underexposed, with much darker, deeper shadows where you cannot see that much, but ensures that you very rarely if ever will see highlights clipped on the Pixel. Which one is better? None, quite honestly, but if you had to look at unedited images, the brighter ones do tend to look better, so we give them a slight preference.

There is one exception to this rule: night time photos. Curiously enough, at night the Pixel 2 XL is usually able to capture a much better exposed picture, while the iPhone tends to shoot much darker exposures.

Here are a few examples:

In terms of white balance, the iPhone gets a white color that looks "right" most of the time. What do we mean? Simple, the whites are not bluish or yellow-ish, but are instead a pure, balanced white.

We have not measured white balance with a gray card, but it's obvious to even the naked eye that the Pixel 2 XL consistently shoots pictures with whites that look skewed: usually a bit yellowish or sometimes greenish. This really is more of the norm with the Pixel rather than an exception. Here are a few examples:

The human perception of color and brightness is closely interlinked, and that's why a brighter image would easily fool you into also thinking that it has more lively colors. And since the iPhone usually has the brighter photo, it appears that it has the more lively color. If we look at color separately, though, we can see that the two are very comparable. The Pixel actually tends to have a bigger boost in saturation and a general tendency towards painting color with a slight yellow hue.

Apart from the general rendition of color, we noticed one extremely weird thing about the Pixel. It consistently cannot get the blue color of the sky right. In lots of Pixel photos shot in broad daylight, the sky look all sorts of gray. It's very weird and unnatural, and it's definitely got something to do with HDR+ processing gone wrong.

Dynamic Range

The Pixel is in a league of its own with its amazing dynamic reach

When it comes to dynamic range, smartphone camera sensors are pretty limited because of pure limitations related to their small physical size. Apple and Google have both found ways to overcome these limitation using one key technology: HDR, which stands for high-dynamic range. Both phones have HDR modes always enabled by default. This means that they take a few pictures with different exposures and combine them together to have one picture that has better dynamics. All of this happens behind the scenes, so that the average user can never even notice it.

Yet still, the iPhone is a bit faster with HDR photos, while on the Pixel 2 XL you often see the loading bar for a few short seconds before the picture is processed.

HDR+ on the Google Pixel is also more aggressive and photos have higher dynamics. The iPhone X has a great dynamic range for a phone, but even it tends to clip the highlights in a picture ever so slightly, while the Pixel 2 XL keeps both highlights and shadows for a more fuller dynamics. You can take a look at this yourself in one example image that we pulled that shows this trend:

Sharpness and Detail

No one winner, both are similarly sharp and well-detailed

Both phones shoot 12-megapixel photos with a default 4:3 aspect ratio and detail is comparable on both, but there are some slight differences.

One common issue on many modern smartphones (we are looking at you, Samsung and LG) is artificial oversharpening. It is usually easily seen when you zoom into a picture and see a sort of a halo around the edges of objects. It's easily noticeable with fine details in a picture, such as when you photograph tree branches for instance. Luckily, there are no major issues with oversharpening on either of these two phones (the iPhone maybe has a very, very slight bit of oversharpening).

Sharpness and detail are really very, very comparable on both phones during the day. Sharpness is also a function of exposure: if you have more light and brighter exposure, you have less noise, more detail and a sharper picture. So that's why when one of the phones shoots a slightly darker exposure, it also usually appears as less sharp. But those cases are really evenly split and as hard as we looked, we could not find one or other has the upper hand with sharpness and detail. We have selected a few examples to show this parity off:

Psst! This article continues on the next page!

Click here to learn about Portrait Mode and see our conclusion!


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