Pixel 2 vs. iPhone 8 Plus: Which camera is better? – CNET

Google says the camera on its Pixel 2 can beat the iPhone 8 Plus. Yet again. Last year’s comparison proved the single lens on the Pixel was capable of producing better shots than the two lenses on the iPhone 7 Plus in most categories.

Camera Specs

Pixel 2 iPhone 8 Plus
Resolution 12.2 megapixels 2×12 megapixels (wide-angle and telephoto)
Aperture f/1.8 f1.8 (wide-angle); f/2.8 (telephoto)
Stablization Fused Stabilization (optical and electronic) Optical Image Stabilization (wide-angle only)
Front camera resolution 8 megapixels 7 megapixels
Front camera aperture f/2.4 f/2.2

To find out which 2017 phone’s camera is better, we put them to the test at Pier 39 in San Francisco. The phones were mounted on a rig that lined up the lenses at almost the same angle. Most shots were taken on the default camera settings with auto HDR unless we say otherwise.

Portraits

As impressed as we were last year with the overall results on the Pixel, portraits were terrible. Like portrait mode on the iPhone, the Pixel’s Lens Blur mode attempted to create a background-blur bokeh effect around the subject similar to what you would get on a DSLR. The actual result was a mess of blurred limbs and hair, at least on most shots.

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This year Google overhauled its background blur effect on the Pixel 2 and renamed it portrait mode. It combines 3D-sensing data from the sensor, image processing and face-detection AI technology to isolate a photo subject then blur what’s behind. The iPhone 8 Plus still uses information from the wide and telephoto lenses and software to achieve the same effect.

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Portrait mode setup

To activate portrait mode on the iPhone you just swipe left on the main camera interface. Because the iPhone uses the telephoto lens for portraits, subjects appear closer than on regular shots so you have to step back to activate the effect. You know portrait mode is on when you see a yellow box around the subject that says “depth effect”.

On the Pixel 2, it’s not as simple. Activating portrait mode on the Pixel 2 takes two taps: first tap the menu icon on the bottom left and then tap and select the mode. The Pixel doesn’t require the telephoto lens like the iPhone 8 Plus does, so you can get closer to your subject. You should see an X in place of the menu icon on the button left of the viewfinder, but it’s so subtle that I had a hard time figuring out when I was taking a shot in portrait mode and kept leaving it on by mistake on some of my landscape shots. The iPhone applies the portrait mode as you’re composing shots, so you’re unlikely to forget it’s active.

Results

When the Pixel 2 gets it right, it can produce even better portraits than the iPhone 8 Plus. The colors in this shot of Frisco Fred are more accurate, there’s more detail in his face, and I liked having a wider angle to chose from. But getting it right on the Pixel was a challenge.

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The Pixel 2 has been programed to detect faces of people in Portrait Mode which means that for now it doesn’t recognize much else as the subject. Apparently dogs fall in the “face” category because it seemed to do well with the two pooches we photographed, but objects where either out of focus entirely as you can see with the playing cards in the shot bellow, or not in the portrait mode at all.  

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The iPhone nailed the effect almost every time even when dealing with inanimate objects like food or plants. It’s not perfect, but I would chose it over the Pixel for portraits because it’s consistent and easy to use.

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Selfies

But the iPhone can’t do portrait mode on the front camera. The Pixel can add that blurred background effect to your selfies, but it’s not as reliable. It blurred me out in this shot of Lexy and I when I was slightly behind her.

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Even without portrait mode, photos on the front camera look better on the Pixel. The colors are brighter and our faces look clearer than on the iPhone’s shot.

selfie-comparison

Landscapes

The iPhone 8 Plus and the Pixel 2 use high dynamic range (HDR) image processing, combining multiple frames taken in quick succession into a single image. Ideally, HDR means a photo has shadow details without awful glare in bright areas. Both Apple‘s HDR and Google’s competing technology, called HDR+ on the Pixel, are active by default.

alcatraz-comparison

In ideal conditions, landscapes seem to be neck and neck on the two phones. The colors on the iPhone 8 Plus seem extra saturated with more contrast, but landscapes on the Pixel 2 look sharper up close. The “better” shot really comes down to personal preference.

Zoom

But the downside of having one lens is that the Pixel 2 only has a digital zoom. The iPhone uses the telephoto lens to zoom in on a shot without sacrificing image quality at 2x — at least as long as it’s relatively bright. The telephoto lens doesn’t let in as much light, and it’s not stabilized, so you have to have a steadier grip on regular shots.

The shot of Alcatraz on the Pixel at 2x looks washed out and grainy. The one on the iPhone looks sharper and more vibrant. Google is constantly refining its digital zoom technology, but if you’re looking for great zoom, the iPhone is the clear winner.

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Close-up

Close-ups also look better on the iPhone. The greater contrast and saturation makes the grains of salt look clearer. The shot of the Pixel makes the grains of salt blend together at the top of the pile.

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Low light

The original Pixel produced impressive low-light shots last year, so it comes as no surprise that the Pixel 2 does it even better. This year Google added a faster f1.8 lens, which lets in more light than last year’s f2 model, and it added built-in optical image stabilization (OIS) for holding the camera steady to counteract shaky hands that often spoil shots in dim conditions. The wide-angle lens on the iPhone 8 Plus also has OIS so the shot of the Mirror Maze looks well lit, but it’s not quite as sharp as the Pixel’s. But to be fair, they were taken within a millisecond of each other and the shot is slightly different because of the flashing lights.

lowlight-comparison

Flash

But once you add a subject, the roles are reversed. I turned on the flash on both phones to take a portrait of Lexy in the maze.

The Pixel 2 uses a dual LED flash, while the iPhone uses a quad LED True Tone flash for these shots. This year the iPhone 8 Plus also uses Slow Sync, a feature that allows for a slower shutter speed and a short burst of light from the flash, together producing a more even exposure throughout the photo.

The light seems more natural on the shot of Lexy taken on the iPhone, and both the background and foreground are well lit. Lexy’s face looks a bit sharper on the Pixel, but the flash is more intrusive. It gave her a slight red-eye and washed out her skin.

flash-comparison

The camera king is….

I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no real winner this time. It’s a pretty even playing field and honestly, it doesn’t get much better than the cameras on these two phones. What’s clear is that this year the Pixel 2 is able to keep up and sometimes even outperform the iPhone 8 Plus with just one lens.

If you want more detail in your shot, go with the Pixel. But if you prefer more color saturation and contrast, the iPhone will be your best bet.

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iPhone 8 Plus on the left and Pixel 2 on the right. 

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Pixel 2 stands out in low light, but if there’re people in your shot, you may prefer the iPhone 8 Plus because of the natural-looking flash. Portrait mode is no longer a deal breaker on the Pixel 2, but if you’re planning on taking shots of anything other than people you’ll probably use it more on the iPhone 8 Plus. Then some shots were so similar I could barely tell the two phones apart.

At least as far as stills are concerned. To find out which is better at video, you’ll have to watch our next shootout, which is coming very soon. 

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