Pixel 7 Pro: Google losing “best camera phone” title to iPhone and Samsung once and forever?

Pixel 7 Pro: Google losing “best camera phone” title to iPhone and Samsung once and forever?
If you're as enthusiastic about phones and phone cameras as me, you probably remember the days of the Nexus 6P, the original Google Pixel, Google Pixel 2, and Google Pixel 3… In my humble opinion, which happens to be shared by a ton of tech people, 2015-2018 were Google's golden years when it came to smartphone photography.

  • It's when HDR+ (Google's algorithm for producing balanced photos in difficult lighting) really came into its own and turned Google's flagship into the industry standard device of that time.
  • It was also when Google came up with that uncanny electronic image stabilization (EIS) that made Pixel video the most stable we had ever seen.
  • It was when Google's single-camera Portrait Mode wowed everyone with its ability to take excellent portraits of humans and objects with a complicated outline
  • And it was when Night Sight challenged Huawei's Night Mode and turned Pixel into the best phone for low-light photography

But it was also after the year 2018 when the title for the best smartphone camera started slowly but steadily slipping away from Google. Now, in 2022 it looks more likely than ever that the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro will finally and totally hand the "best camera phone title" to another device. Which one would it be?

Pixel isn't the camera king anymore due to stiff competition and Google’s slow reaction to the market trends

Before we continue, I'd like to go back to the reason why Google's Pixel started looking less impressive when it came to cameras post that 2018 era. Actually, this happened for two main reasons:

  1. Back in 2019, the competition was getting heated - the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi, and even Samsung and Apple delivered phones with groundbreaking camera hardware and software processing that could now match Google's
  2. Google refused to move with the times and insisted on the formula of "OK hardware + exceptional software = win", providing as few camera upgrades as possible (if any)

If the smartphone camera race in 2018 was already proving to be challenging for Google, today, the level of competition is as aggressive as it's ever been, and Google's once amazing software magic simply isn't enough to stand up to advanced hardware upgrades...

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Xiaomi 12S Ultra and Vivo X80 Pro can take better photos than my Pixel 6 Pro

To put it plainly, phones from competing Chinese brands already take better Night Mode photos, better HDR photos, photos with finer detail, and better portrait mode photos than the Google Pixel 6 Pro, which also happens to be my Android flagship of choice. If I had to namedrop, I'd say that the two Android flagships can easily compete with and beat Google's Pixel 6 when it comes to the camera department:

  • Xiaomi 12S Ultra, thanks to an excellent array of cameras, led by a 1-inch primary camera sensor, which takes smartphone photography to a whole new level)
  • Vivo X80 Pro, thanks to its uncanny HDR capabilities, which are probably the best on the market right now (the Vivo X80 Pro+ is coming out soon)

iPhone 13 Pro Max takes better videos than Pixel, and the Galaxy S22 Ultra has a more versatile camera system

Then, even if we accept the Xiaomi 12S Ultra and Vivo X80 Pro are  phones "from China and for China", meaning they don't enjoy a global release and reputation, the likes of Apple and Samsung can also easily challenge Google when it comes to cameras...

The iPhone's always been the best phone for taking videos, but apart from that, Apple's iPhone 13 Pro now takes some of the best Portrait Mode photos we've ever seen and shines in low-light with probably the most practical and seamless implementation of Night Mode on the market.

On the other hand, Samsung's Galaxy S22 Ultra is the most versatile phone camera we've ever seen, thanks to that 10x periscope zoom lens which can output clear pictures even at 30x zoom. Samsung's software processing has also come a very long way and can now produce as good or better HDR photos than Google's phones. Portrait Mode is another strength of Samsung's flagships, thanks to their 3x zoom lenses, which, similarly to Apple's, are perfect for portraits.

Google Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro: Is Google's love affair with Samsung about to kill the Pixel's chances of reclaiming its camera crown?

In case it hasn't become clear, the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are no longer the industry standard as far as cameras are concerned. I can say that because I've been using the Pixel 6 Pro for almost a year now, and despite the fact that I've taken some of my favorite photos with it, I can see where the Pixel falls short compared to other flagships.

Speaking of my favorite photos taken on Pixel 6 Pro, 90% of them were taken with the 4x periscope zoom lens - I've written several love letter-type stories about it, and you can check them out.

Anyway, what's quite shocking to me (if the leaks and rumors are to be believed) is that Google's plan for Pixel 7 Pro involves replacing the Sony IMX586 4x zoom camera sensor with Samsung's GM1 sensor.

Reports from different outlets speculate that the two sensors should offer similar performance and that Google's idea is to ensure photos look more consistent across the different lenses since the primary (GN1) camera sensor on the Pixel 6 Pro is also made by Samsung. However, that's where I beg to differ…

Is Google trying to save money by equipping Pixel 7 Pro with an inferior zoom camera, made by Samsung instead of Sony?

For starters, it's evident that Google and Samsung have established a close relationship with tons of mutual benefits. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's also clear that Google might be and is more willing to choose Samsung over another manufacturer for components now.

The truth is that the Samsung GM1 sensor is significantly cheaper than Sony's IMX586, and that's because it's also the comparatively weaker camera, despite appearing to be similar on paper. Sure, both sensor measure 1/2-inches in size, but if you dig a little deeper, you'll find out that the Sony IMX586 has a true 48MP resolution, which, even when binned to 12MP, provides great details and excellent sharpness on the Pixel 6 Pro.

On the other hand, Samsung's GM1 sensor uses something called pixel interpolation to convert a 12MP picture into 48MP. The thing is that the software stitching and trickery can only go as far. In the sample photos shown above and provided by Mr. Phone, you can see how an Android phone that uses the GM1 sensor loses badly to another Android phone with the IMX586 when it comes to detail, dynamic range, and even color accuracy.

Now, is it surefire that Google will completely ruin the amazing 4x zoom camera by switching to the GM1 sensor? Of course not. But generally speaking, a hardware downgrade never seems like a good idea for a flagship phone, especially if that piece of hardware performs as amazingly as the 4x Sony sensor on the Pixel 6 Pro does.

The cherry on top? Rumors say that Google is planning to stick to the same 12MP ultra-wide-angle cameras for Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, as well as the same 11MP front-facing camera from the Pixel 6 Pro.

In my book, that's the wrong decision since the selfie shooter on my Pixel 6 Pro is just OK compared to a phone like the Galaxy S22 Ultra, and the ultra-wide-angle camera is one of the weakest amongst all Android flagships and even compared to the iPhone 13...

Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro: Is 2022 the year for fixing Google's camera issues or for creating more problems?

All that being said, it's somewhat understandable that the Pixel 7 series won't be equipped with the best camera hardware out there...

For one, historically, flashy hardware isn't in Google's style, but also, the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are noticeably more affordable compared to other flagship phones, and it's very likely that the Pixel 7 series will be too. If prices aren't going up, the Pixel 7 is expected to start at only $600, while the more premium Pixel 7 Pro should go for $900 - much more affordable than the upcoming iPhone 14 Pro or Galaxy S23 Ultra.

But despite all of that, as mentioned above, a decision to switch from the more technically impressive Sony camera to a more affordable Samsung sensor for your new flagship phone is… bizarre.

What also doesn't help Google's quest to get back on top of the phone camera food chain is the fact that my personal Pixel 6 Pro has some camera issues that must be addressed, and as of now, it's not clear if Google will do something to fix them on the Pixel 7...

  • Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have what's likely the worst lens-flaring issue out of any phone on the market right now
  • A ton of noise videos and photos taken with the ultra-wide-angle camera, which, according to rumors, likely won't be replaced
  • Poor Portrait Mode implementation with bad texture rendering and edge detection even on the Pixel 6 Pro, which has a zoom camera but can't use it for portraits
  • Slow Night Mode compared to other flagship phones
  • Overheating issues when using the camera for extended periods of time
  • Poor battery life and battery management, which isn't directly related to a bad camera experience but can limit your photo and video-taking time

In the end, as I said, I'm ready to cut Google some slack for the fact that the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro are expected to start at only $600-900. In a world of $1,100-1,200 iPhone 14 Pro models and a $1,800 Galaxy Z Fold 4, half the price of other modern flagships should certainly give Google some room for error.

But wouldn't you be happier to pay an extra $100 and get the latest and greatest camera experience on Pixel? In the end, that's supposed to be the Pixel's main selling point, unless I'm missing something? I mean, the phone's literally called Pixel.

What about you? Would you pay $100 more for a better camera experience on the Pixel 7 series, and what are your thoughts on Google's camera fallout?

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