Mobile photography is one of the cornerstones of the smartphone experience. I recall that my very first all-touch smartphone was the Samsung Omnia, a phone that touted its mobile photography skills with a then unheard of 5MP sensor. The technology continued to improve, leading to Apple pushing it forward with iPhones and Nokia basically putting a point and shoot camera in one phone. Also, does anyone recall the Samsung Galaxy Camera? Lately, though, it feels as if smartphone cameras have moved from one of many cornerstones to the cornerstone. I have passed over devices I really liked simply because their camera was not competitive enough, and I am not alone in that regard.
Google turned a leaf with its Pixel and software-based ZSL image stacking technology two years ago, and blazed far ahead of the competition in objective camera reviews, a trend that continued with the Google Pixel 2. Samsung took the other route this year, hanging their successes on hardware with an industry-first variable aperture, something that helps in low light but also provides more sharpness due to its f/2.4 default aperture. They had a slight change of heart in the second half of the year with the all-new scene optimization technology on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
Coming in for hundreds less, OnePlus has yet again shown up with its budget-focused alternative to the flagship, touting the best camera ever on a OnePlus device. So here we are, and this is the premise of our comparison. With our four main devices locked down, we also brought along the iPhone X, Sony Xperia XZ2, and BlackBerry Key 2, making our field consist of what all these manufacturers sell as their flagship devices ranging from $579 to a whopping $999. Does Samsung’s new image sensing technology stand up to the might of Google’s software? Does OnePlus really offer a flagship-tier camera? AI vs non-AI, which Samsung is better? Today we are going to look at a massive comparison where I will lend my thoughts, but ultimately I want you to decide which camera do you feel is the best and which one surprised you. Welcome to part 1 of the XDA Smartphone Camera Comparison.
First, though, some remarks about the comparison. This was a massive undertaking and not all the devices I would have liked to have present could be obtained. Sony did not opt to send an Xperia XZ2 Premium or Xperia XZ3. I was not able to get my hands on an LG G7 ThinQ, and the HTC U12+… well, who owns that anyways? I also would have loved to get a Huawei P20 Pro, but was not able to do so in time. We are also focusing strictly on photography, and without any tricks like bokeh modes and so forth. I also set all the cameras to their 4:3 ratios and kept all other default settings. However, for some reason, the BlackBerry Key2 decided to be dumb and reset itself after I set all the devices, and I did not notice it both turned off HDR and went to its default 3:2 ratio for the outdoor portion of the comparison. As you will see in the indoor section, HDR doesn’t help a whole lot. Spoilers: a bad camera is a bad camera.
Outdoor – 001
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO40 1/125: Overall, this is one of the few times the BlackBerry KEY2 did a respectable job. The colors are composed well and while the top is blown out, there is color in the top row of windows, something other phones weren’t able to accomplish. However, the moment you zoom in you can see there is very little detail compared to the Sony Xperia XZ2 and Google Pixel 2 and this is especially bad around the edges of the shot.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO55 1/540: I am not a fan of this shot from the Google Pixel 2. It does do the best job of retaining the sky behind the trees—the dynamic range is something Pixels are known for—and it also is a well-balanced shot to the eye. That balancing, though, comes at the low end of the range and once you look at this image on a histogram, you can see it is generally underexposed and that causes the warmer balancing of the image to feel murky compared to the other shots. The level of detail is second only to the Sony Xperia XZ2 but these two are so close in this regard. The Sony Xperia XZ2 shows its sharpening flaws, the Google Pixel 2 smooths them over: they trade blows.
Apple iPhone X – ISO20 1/90: I want to like this shot, I really do, but it is far too cool. The level of detail is slightly behind that of the Sony Xperia XZ2 and Google Pixel 2, but it is good overall. If this shot was on its own a slight tweak to the color temp would fix it right up and it would probably be the best of the bunch aside from that sky over-exposition, but again I am fine with that since it is at the edge of the frame and allows for proper exposure of the main subject, something the Pixel did not accomplish. It is also important to note the absurdly-low ISO and slow shutter speed compared to the rest of the pack.
OnePlus 6 – ISO100 1/100: There are three things you will notice about the OnePlus 6 shots in this competition. The first is that the ISO cannot drop below 100. OnePlus has to fix this, a higher ISO can cause more noise which then needs to be removed via softening. The second is that the OnePlus 6 has a very competitive camera, very competitive, especially with the iPhone X. The third is that either the lens on the OnePlus 6 is poor, or their software is poor causing extreme detail falloff towards the outer edges of the frame. That being said, this is one of the OnePlus 6’s less impressive shots. The color balance is very weird but the exposure is excellent. There is also a lot of detail in the center of the shot, but as you go out from the center it falls off quickly marred by smoothing likely in an attempt to fix whatever is going on with the edges of the frame.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO64 1/120: This is the first time we get to see how small of a change the AI mode can make. The overall color of the image is warmer than the Samsung Galaxy S9 which is better, and it feels as though the exposure is a little lower too even though the shot settings were identical. A histogram on this shot shows the same result. The Note does pull more detail out of the building, but on the edges of the frame, we still see a lot of noise reduction causing smoothing and softness. I also do not like the colors of the tree leaves, I feel the AI mode made them a sickly looking brown/green color.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO64 1/120: This is a rare miss for the Samsung Galaxy S9. At the expense of dynamic range, Samsung boosted the brightness up but also over sharpened the top of the shot with the tree leaves at the top. It also has a lack of fine detail in the bark and brick.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO180 1/250: I think this is a shot where the Sony edges out the others. Sure, the top behind the trees is blown out, but that is at the expense of the overall composure of the shot. It is no secret that I like the Sony Xperia XZ2 for its camera and this shot is a great reason why. There is a lot of detail, in the bricks, the tree, and the bushes. The color balance might slightly be on the cool side, but the Google Pixel 2 took it the other way with an overly warm shot. Sony does not like noise reduction in bright settings and that shows through here.
Conclusion – Overall, I think the Sony Xperia XZ2 did the best job with this shot. It has a high level of detail excellent color balance, and is a pleasing shot as it sits and while zoomed in. Exposure and dynamic range suffer, something that the Sony Xperia XZ2 displays later on but in this shot, it is more important for the subject to be properly exposed.
OUTDOOR – 002
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO151 1/420: I could write a lot on this, but it is just overall a bad image with both color and brightness clipping and detail issues, it is one of the only images where the sign in the back is not readable.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO52 1/1050: This is another shot where I feel the Google Pixel 2 just did not deliver an exceptional photo. Credit where it is due though, it does an exceptional job at detail, exposure, and dynamic range, but the whole shot just ends up being underexposed and unappealing.
Apple iPhone X – ISO20 1/220: Both the iPhone X and OnePlus 6 did a great job here. The colors are well-balanced, well-exposed, and is one of the few that shows color in the sky in the very back of the shot. Detail levels are also excellent, the iPhone X balanced the detail and noise reduction/smoothing perfectly.
OnePlus 6 – ISO100 1/590: The OnePlus 6 went toe-to-toe with the iPhone X for the best shot here. It actually has more detail than the iPhone X does on the extreme cases, like the signs in the very back. The iPhone X and OnePlus 6 are tuned very similarly, and this shot really shows that.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO50 1/160: This is just a very poor shot. The overexposure starts before the end of the overhang. This isn’t really an AI problem because the normal Galaxy S9 looks identical.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO50 1/220: See the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 notes.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO40 1/200: This is another one of the Xperia XZ2’s strong showings. There is a lot of detail on the floor pavers and throughout the shot. The colors are also very well-balanced and muted, although it is a touch on the warm side. As I mentioned earlier, the Xperia XZ2 does not handle dynamic range well leading to the blown out sky, but again that is not a major factor in this image.
Conclusion – This is a difficult one. Yet again, the Samsung phones missed this shot entirely. The Google Pixel 2 brings a lot of detail but feels overly moody and unappealing. The iPhone X and OnePlus 6 did an excellent job and I pull a draw between them. The Apple iPhone X shows a little better detail and the OnePlus 6 shows better colors.
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO263 1/6000: Again, the BlackBerry KEY2 with its HDR being off had a difficult time here, but it is not just the HDR that is the issue it also clips at both ranges, has terrible color reproduction, and whatever smoothing they are doing wipes every bit of texture off the building on the left. A bad shot is a bad shot, and this is a bad shot.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO75 1/23000: Like the iPhone X and OnePlus 6, this is a solid shot. Like the Google Pixel 2 seems to do all the time, it is underexposed a little bit but does a good job at fine details and overall shot composure. I prefer the iPhone X’s shot due to it being brighter, but neither is bad it ultimately comes down to your personal leanings.
Apple iPhone X – ISO20 1/3000: The iPhone X is a very neutrally-balanced shot with no clipping at either end of the range in both color and brightness. It also does a good job with color reproduction and retains a good amount of detail.
OnePlus 6 – ISO125 1/10000: Much like the last shot, the iPhone X and OnePlus 6 are tuned similarly with the OnePlus 6 leaning more towards a warmer shot. Detail level is good except at the edges of the frame, but it went for a more moody shot overall.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO50 1/4000: I think this shot came out cool but is not a great shot overall. The colors are too saturated on the sides of the building resulting in some lost detail. It also feels generally underexposed which is odd since Samsung typically loves to overexpose its shots.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO50 1/4300: The Galaxy S9 is just a better version of the Galaxy Note 9’s AI “enhanced” shot. The colors are well-balanced and fairly accurate. There is also a good bit of detail retained, a little more than the Google Pixel retains.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO40 1/1600: I know I will be one of the few, but I like what the Sony did here. Where all the other shots were going for a more moody and dynamic shot, the Xperia XZ2 went bright and popping. It is overexposed, and some of the colors are washed out as a result, but it is a good shot overall.
Conclusion – If you want moody and dynamic the Google Pixel 2 does great here. If you want something with the exposure turned up a few notches the iPhone X wins out with more detail to boot.
OUTDOOR – 004
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO103 1/3700: Like I said earlier with the Google Pixel 2, if the BlackBerry was not here it would be the worst shot, but it is here, and it is the worst shot.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO53 1/5800: If the BlackBerry Key2 was not a part of this comparison, the Google Pixel 2 would hands down have the worst shot. It is far too dynamic for the scene which is supposed to be bright and pop, the Google Pixel 2 has none of that. This is especially true of the big tree in the center of the frame. Most of its leaves and foliage are just crushed out of existence. A rare miss for the Pixel.
Apple iPhone X – ISO20 1/4000: This one is not really a fair comparison. It was taken 30 seconds after the Sony Xperia XZ2 and 30 seconds before the Galaxy S9, in that time a cloud must have moved and then another took its place. As I feel the iPhone X and OnePlus 6 were playing with a different deck, I will compare them against each other. The iPhone X does a fabulous job with exposure and balancing here. The histogram is fantastic and goes right to the edge of clipping brightness without the bulk of it being clipped. There is a loss of detail at range like on the brick of the building, but overall it is excellent.
OnePlus 6 – ISO100 1/3200: Much like the iPhone X this had an edge with the sunlight, but unlike the iPhone X, it did not do a good job of it. The tree in the center looks like the Google Pixel 2, crushed and terrible. There is more detail in the building on the left than the Apple iPhone X though.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO50 1/2400: Much like the Galaxy S9, the Galaxy Note 9 did a good job here. The AI mode bumped the exposure a little, adjusted the color saturation, and sharpened it a little.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO50 1/2200: I think the Galaxy S9 did a good job here, but I cannot help but feel like it has a grey film over the shot making it feel murky. The colors are also a little too much, but the AI mode on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 pushes that to the extreme. The Samsung Galaxy S9 also does a good job with the details.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO40 1/1600: I like what the Sony accomplished with this shot on first glance. It is bright and balances the colors well, but for some reason it is very soft and loses a lot of the details especially in the grass. This is not normal for the Sony Xperia XZ2 so I will chock this one up to a rare miss.
Conclusion – The Apple iPhone X clearly wins, but it had the best scenario. Otherwise, I’d have to say the Samsung Galaxy S9 did the best job overall. The Sony Xperia XZ2 and Google Pixel 2 were huge letdowns.
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO101 1/3800: The BlackBerry KEY2 could have done worse here, but only slightly. Again it is very dark and this is a scenario where HDR shouldn’t have been needed if the camera was good, but Blackberry’s post processing is poor and this shot reflects that.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO53 1/5800: I am not a huge fan of this shot from the Google Pixel 2, but it is very well balanced if just a little too dynamic with the trees on the right side. There is a lot of fine detail retained though which is excellent. If you are a fan of the Google Pixel traits of underexposed dynamic shots, you will like this.
Apple iPhone X – ISO25 1/4000: The iPhone X shot is a lot like the Sony Xperia XZ2, but with a step or two of exposure added. Overall it is a good shot that is bright and colorful, but not really representative of the original shot which the Xperia XZ2 captured perfectly. There is also a loss of fine detail and the colors are a little too warm making it feel dingy.
OnePlus 6 – ISO100 1/3500: The OnePlus 6 struggled with this shot. It is underexposing the shadows on the palm trees, but not clipping them which is important. There is also a loss of detail on the grass and on the wall. It is not a terrible shot, but not a great one either.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO50 1/2200: This is one of the few shots where I preferred the AI mode. I think it did a good job with the colors, exposure, and fine details. Compared to the Galaxy S9 it has a little more shadows in it and does a better job with the water in the back.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO50 1/2500: Like the Galaxy Note 9, the Galaxy S9 did a good job. There is a lot of detail in the concrete wall and the grass in the foreground and the shot is overall a pleasing one. Like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, the colors are a little overcooked, but it does not distract from the image.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO40 1/2000: I really like the Sony Xperia XZ2’s shot here. I think it did a good job balancing the brighter Samsung and Apple shots with the dynamic and underexposed Pixel 2. There is a high level of detail marred only by Sony’s lack of smoothing, making noise and artifacts stand out a little more while zoomed but also lends a DSLR feel to the shot.
Conclusion – I think the Sony Xperia XZ2 pulls ahead in this one with an excellent reproduction of the shot. Colors, exposure, and balance are all great but it does clip in some of the clouds.
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO100 1/2700: This is probably one of the BlackBerry KEY2’s best shots. It is not comparable to the rest of the pack, but it isn’t the worst either. There is a really weird color shift in the middle of the building on the right that cannot exactly pinpoint the cause of.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO53 1/4700: The Google Pixel 2 here offered a well-balanced, underexposed, but not-entirely-eye-pleasing shot. There is a good amount of detail but ends up just blending in with the others.
Apple iPhone X – ISO20 1/2800: The iPhone X did an excellent job overall here. I am not quite sure how it did it, but it brightened the entire shot with little-to-no downsides. There is no major clipping, except on the red of the stop lights, but it keeps a high saturation level. It also retained a lot more detail in the trees down the road compared to the others.
OnePlus 6 – ISO100 1/2100: I think the OnePlus 6 did a good job on this. It is generally underexposing like the Pixel 2 and losing that extra detail in the back.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO50 1/1700: This is one where I love what the Galaxy Note 9 did. It is bright, colorful, full of detail and avoids being over-saturated or clipping the brightness. Overall it is a great shot.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO50 1/1700: See the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 notes.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO40 1/2000: Much like the Samsung phones, I like what the Xperia XZ2 did overall. However, it is over-sharpened which leads to some texture edges that just don’t feel right. The color balance is also a little warm and the exposure low, but good shot overall.
Conclusion – Overall, they all did a great job (KEY2 aside) but the iPhone X gets the nod here for being the most appealing shot with no downsides.
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO143 1/2300: So the KEY2 here is not all that bad, it crushes shadows and is poorly exposed but it is still a decent photo.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO20 1/2000: You can almost always pick a Pixel 2 photo out of a lineup, and this is no exception. There is a very high level of detail retained, but the shot is also underexposed and does not pop. The colors are also muted due to this.
Apple iPhone X – ISO20 1/2000: The iPhone X did a marvelous job with this scene. It properly balanced the colors of the plants as well as the muted feel of the sky. There is a lot of detail in the grass up front and water feature really pops. If I could fault the iPhone X in any way, it would be the color temp being a little on the cool side.
OnePlus 6 – ISO100 1/5000: Much like the iPhone X, the OnePlus 6 did a great job here. It isn’t quite as perfect though. There is a lot of softening going on and it does clip some of the yellows on the left side of the shot. The white balance was nearly spot on though.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO50 1/2000: For comparison, the iPhone X most accurately represented this shooting scenario. Take a look at that, and then come back. This is why you should probably leave AI mode off. On first glance, the colors look appealing, but they are totally unrealistic and a very poor representation of the garden. I can see what Samsung’s scene optimization was attempting to do, but they need to tone it down, it is almost comical. One note though is the level of detail is off the charts.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO50 1/1000: The Galaxy S9 did a good job here balancing the entire scene. It is well-exposed, retains a lot of details, and shows none of the terrible traits of the AI mode enabled Galaxy Note 9.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO40 1/1250: The Sony Xperia XZ2 did a decent job representing the whole of the scene, but much like that earlier shot, really messes up the shot with post-processing muddying things up.
Conclusion – The Apple iPhone X walks away with this one with a high level of accuracy in the colors and details. The AI mode on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 was comically bad.
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO101 1/2500: As long as you do not zoom, you are okay with the BlackBerry KEY2 photo. It does have poor color reproduction and clips in the sky, but it is a passable shot, just not at this price.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO55 1/4700: Compared to the others, the Google Pixel 2 photo is one of the least visually appealing ones. It has excellent colors and detail, but the exposure is too low causing details to be lost and the whole photo to have less pop. It is a very good photo, just not one that appeals to me.
Apple iPhone X – ISO20 1/2400: The iPhone X did another really great job here. There is high detail throughout, color reproduction is good but a little too yellow, especially on the building. The overall warm feel of the photo makes the building really pop and there is no clipping on either end.
OnePlus 6 – ISO100 1/2000: I think the OnePlus 6 under-performed here. The photo has a mix of traits from other devices. The exposure is similar to that of the Google Pixel 2, but the colors are a little off, especially in the blue sky. The OnePlus 6 does do a good job bringing out highlights on the trees though.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO50 1/1500: The Galaxy Note 9 is very similar to the Galaxy S9, but pushed the colors a little bit up as well as the overall exposure.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO50 1/1800: The Galaxy S9 is very similar to the Xperia XZ2 but pulls back on the saturation just a little bit. There is a lot of detail, even in the bricks on the building leading to a great shot.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO40 1/1600: There is a very high level of detail in this shot and the Sony Xperia XZ2 absolutely nailed the colors. The overall shot is extremely well balanced and the lack of post-processing by Sony is clear here.
Conclusion – None of the main phones did a bad job here, they all have their own tendencies and traits. The Apple iPhone X pulls ahead for me overall with the Sony Xperia XZ2 and Samsung phones right behind it.
BlackBerry KEY2 – ISO119 1/2300: Here is another instance where the BlackBerry KEY2 does not do a terrible job. The photo has good exposure, but it does crush some blacks. The issue with this photo is the detail or lack thereof. The building on the left has many of the bricks simply smoothed away and again is a fault of its post-processing.
Google Pixel 2 – ISO53 1/4700: The Google Pixel 2 does a fine job, colors are probably closest to accurate but a little too cool. There are excellent shadows and details in the trees. Something weird though is lens distortion. I haven’t noticed it before, but if you switch between the Galaxy Note 9 and the Pixel 2 you can actually see that the Pixel 2 is not flat. There is clear curvature going on with a line across the middle bottom (near the people on the right sidewalk) is the widest point and the glass curves at the bottom inward. Weird.
Apple iPhone X – ISO20 1/2000: Much like the Galaxy S9, this is a fine photo on its own but in this comparison, it was outclassed. Some of the things I notice here is the smoothing on the building on the right and colors that aren’t exactly accurate. The building is a little too pink/orange, but the trees look great. There is still a lot of detail here despite the smoothing and it is a very nice shot.
OnePlus 6 – ISO100 1/2000: I think the OnePlus 6 missed here again. The colors are too overdone in particular with the sky, and there is black clipping. I feel they could have bumped up the exposure a little to reduce that and get a better photo overall.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (AI) – ISO50 1/1400: The Galaxy Note 9 has a lot of the same great aspects of the Galaxy S9 photo. Excellent details, exposure, balancing. It does clip the blacks a little, which is weird as the Galaxy Note 9 does not usually do that. The colors are also a little more pleasing here compared to the Galaxy S9.
Samsung Galaxy S9 – ISO50 1/1300: I like the job the Galaxy S9 did here. It did not over-saturate the colors or over-sharpen, but the exposure is a little too high, especially compared to the Galaxy Note 9 with its AI mode enabled. On its own, this is a fine shot, but in this comparison, it is outclassed by some others.
Sony Xperia XZ2 – ISO40 1/1250: I like the exposure that the Sony got with this shot, and as usual there is a lot of detail, especially in the trees. It does miss the white balance though leading to a pink hue over the whole shot that detracts from the end result.
Conclusion – This one was difficult, but I would probably say the Samsung Galaxy S9 pulls ahead here. It is well-balanced and avoids the black clipping most of the other phones demonstrated at the expense of some brightness issues.
SIn part 2 of this comparison we will see more outdoor shots along with a number of indoor shots where the Google Pixel 2 shows its true power. Some of you might be a little miffed about how harshly I judged the Google Pixel 2’s camera and that is because largely I feel the Pixel 2 produces objectively better-balanced photos, but subjectively they leave a lot to be desired. The camera has strong tendencies of underexposing shots, which causes details to be lost in tree leaves, bricks, or background objects. Some do prefer this approach, but personally, I do not. The best photo is not always the one that is balanced across color and exposure and I think this comparison highlights that. Underexposing a subject to allow some random highlight behind a tree branch is rarely the preferred approach to take.
Stay tuned for part 2 coming up shortly on XDA-Developers!