How Google's secret Pixel camera test lab ensures you get the best picture and video

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Google reveals how its secret Pixel camera test lab ensures you get the best picture and video
Smartphone cameras aren't just technical marvels, but also tools for capturing life's important moments. Google understands this, and to ensure their Pixel devices meet that challenge, the company operates a unique testing facility that CNET recently got to visit. In their exclusive coverage, we get a good look at Google's Real World Testing Lab and learn some of the intricacies of how the Pixel camera works, plus the challenges the Pixel team has to overcome in order to get everything dialed in just right.

This lab isn't the sterile environment you might imagine, but a collection of rooms full of sets like cozy coffee shops and comfy living rooms. Google's camera engineers could test their work in traditional ways, but everyday people don't take photos and videos under perfect lighting with precisely arranged subjects. Thus, why the Real World Testing Lab exists. It lets these engineers simulate these situations with complete control, ensuring that the Pixel devices tested capture not just accurate images, but also evoke the feeling that you were going for.

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An example used is that of filming a friend in a candlelit coffee shop. The Pixel has to choose the correct brightness, balance different light sources, and track your friend's movements, all while keeping the candle flame from overexposing parts of the video.

It's not just about the pictures

Google has long been known for its Pixel photo quality, but video has been a tougher nut to crack for the Pixel camera team. One major hurdle is computational photography, like Night Sight mode. Taking a well-lit photo in low-light involves combining multiple images, which is a process that's far more demanding for video. As Isaac Reynolds, Google's group product manager for Pixel Camera, says: "it's the difference between processing 12-megapixel pictures and over 200 megapixels per second of video."

That's why Google unveiled Video Boost on the Pixel 8 Pro. It uploads a copy of your video to Google Photos for intensive, cloud-based processing using their photo algorithms, improving exposure, brightness, and detail. It makes a huge difference, especially in low light, but you need to wait for the results, which is not ideal. Fortunately, future Pixel phones may see this process move onto the device itself for instant results.

It's not all computational

We also learned that the Pixel team spends countless hours testing, tweaking, and retesting the camera in the lab. It's a blend of hard data and subjective judgment. Autofocus has to be quick and smooth, handling movement without making the video feel jumpy. In that same dimly lit coffee shop, the camera even has to account for the subtle flicker of candles and its effect on the scene.

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Even technical aspects like the grease used to lubricate the camera lens are part of the testing routine. Google knows phones get laid on tables with the lens facing down, which affects how those internal elements move when you pick up your phone for a quick photo. As far as Google is concerned, the Pixel experience should be the same, no matter where the device has been resting.

Learning all of these details on how the Pixel camera works and how it's tested has given me a new appreciation for my own Pixel. Next time I pick it up to take a photo or a video, I'll definitely be reminded of all the hard work that was put into making sure I don't have to do much to capture the best image.

Header image credit: CNET

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