This is the best smartphone camera of 2017

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Smartphone cameras get better every year, but this year more than ever truly felt like a leap. For once, we can talk about more than just Apple and Samsung (and Google) when referring to the “top tier” of smartphones with good cameras. And what’s fascinating is that, after the race to cram megapixels and ultra-wide apertures into these phones made them all kind of the same for a year or two, now there are loads of differences. Multiple companies have armed their phones with dual cameras; Google released a followup to the excellent, software-driven Pixel; and names like HTC are back in the mix after years of building subpar shooters.

So, of course, we wanted to see how the best stack up. For our comparison we picked the iPhone X, the Google Pixel 2 XL, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, the HTC U11, and the LG V30. These are the best of the best, the phones that have the most cutting edge cameras you can buy. Keep in mind everything said about the Pixel 2 XL will also apply to the Pixel 2, as they have the same camera. And the Note 8 has the same main wide camera as the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, meaning you can translate those findings to those phones, too. The iPhone X, however, has a slightly wider aperture on the telephoto camera than on the 8 Plus, so bear that in mind.

Our methodology was pretty simple. I had all five phones with me and tried to recreate the same framing of each shot with each phone. I let the phones do their work — no tapping to focus or expose, everything on full auto using the stock camera apps. This comparison is more of an attempt to gauge how these phones are reading and adjusting for a scene than a scientific analysis of what their sensors and hardware capture. (There are plenty of great technical tests worth pixel-peeping, like at GSMArena.)

I’m also more interested in the choices these phones (and the engineers who designed the software) make with regards to how they take that information from what is largely similar hardware and turn it into a final JPEG image you can view, print, or share. The information captured by the sensor is whittled and shaped to something more manageable in size, but in that whittling and shaping is a ton of room for what amounts to editorial choices by the designers of the camera systems. By the end of this piece, we’ll hopefully have a better understanding of what those choices are.

Low light

Let’s start with one of the most difficult comparisons: low light situations. Not only is this a very common and challenging lighting situation to shoot in, it’s also where the differences in these smartphone cameras are most noticeable.

This first set of photos reveals something that surprised me (and our creative director James Bareham, who helped me shoot and sort through some of these photos) during this whole process: the HTC U11’s camera is good. We knew our own Vlad Savov had fallen pretty hard for the U11’s camera this year, but we really had to see it to believe it for ourselves.

The HTC U11 is reliably great in low light because it doesn’t do as much noise reduction as the other smartphones. Yes, that means the images can look a little noisier from time to time. But that also means the phone captures and maintains lots of detail. Look at the metalwork at the bottom of this photo and you’ll see that none of the other smartphones produced an image with as much preserved detail as the HTC did. Even better, look at the stone underneath the bright window in the middle of the photo — there’s detail there, too, that didn’t make it into the other photos.

The Pixel 2 XL captured a decent amount of detail for such a low light scene, but I think Google’s HDR+ over-cranks a bit here, which I really don’t like. Google’s HDR+ is like a computationally-enhanced version of the typical HDR process. It takes many photos when you press the shutter button and quickly merges them together, and it’s usually fantastic, as you’re about to see in further comparisons. But this is an example where it’s doing too much.

This comparison sets up a few other trends we saw in testing out these phones. The LG V30 produces very muddy photos in low light situations, and worse is that the viewfinder in the app is also really dark, no matter your screen’s brightness. It’s like you’re shooting blind sometimes.

And while I think the HTC’s photo is the best of the bunch here, it achieved that by doing something I noticed in other photos, too: overexposing really dark photos. In one sense, that’s fine, since the camera obviously captured an image that isn’t abhorrently noisy. But it did lose detail in the highlights in the process, something the other smartphones didn’t sacrifice. Choices!

This is a slightly less challenging scene, in that there’s at least a lot more light. But it’s still a dark setting, and I expected the light bulbs to skew at least one of the exposures. I expected wrong! Almost all of the smartphones handled themselves nicely, with the LG V30 turning in another muddy, overly-smoothed result.

To spot the differences, you really have to dig deep into the full-resolution file here. I think a closer examination shows the Pixel 2 XL produced the best photo. It captured more details in the shadows than the other phones, save for maybe the HTC U11, and it did this without blowing out the brightest parts of the photo, such as the lights, or the tent in the back.

The iPhone X’s photo is a close runner-up, or third, depending on your preference versus the one from the HTC U11. There’s good detail in the trees and in the wood to the right side, but it still lost some of the highest highlights. Look at the sidewalk and you’ll notice another trend we discovered while testing out these smartphones, which is that the way the iPhone processes its JPEGs often gives things a sort of painterly look.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, especially when you’re not pixel-peeping, but it means the iPhone sometimes has trouble with straight lines (check out the power lines connecting the lights in this photo). And in later examples, you’ll see that the iPhone’s photos often come away with less fine detail than the HTC U11 or the Pixel 2 XL.

Here’s what I think is an absolute home run for the Pixel 2 XL, even though it might not look that way stacked next to the slightly brighter and more orange HTC photo. The Pixel 2 XL’s photo is somehow neutral and crisp, even though this photo was taken in a dark bar with, obviously, a candle burning in the background. The HTC U11’s photo is maybe more pleasing at the outset thanks to its overall brighter appearance, but it doesn’t have the same level of detail in the orange peel, or in the wood grain in the bar.

Funny how much we’re not talking about the iPhone X yet, huh? In low light situations, I found that at best it could keep up with the Pixel or the U11, but often times it was clearly second or third. At least with the Pixel phones there’s the excuse that Google has HDR+, which was a clear advantage in challenging lighting last year and has only gotten better with the Pixel 2. It’s harder to explain how the U11 keeps matching or beating the iPhone in low light, though.

In the previous set of photos, I think the iPhone X’s and the HTC U11’s results are close. Bump the brightness a touch on the iPhone’s image and they would more or less be the same. But this comparison above shows a world of difference between the iPhone X and the Pixel 2 XL and HTC U11 in very low light.

Not only does the iPhone put a reddish cast on the image (something it tends to do in low and in good light), but it loses tons of fine detail in the trees at the top of the image. Look at the difference between that part of the image and the ones captured by the Pixel 2 XL and the HTC U11. On the iPhone X’s photo, the smallest branches smudge together. With the Pixel 2 XL, there’s still some separation. With the HTC U11, they’re almost all still visible. I still think the Pixel 2 XL nabbed a more pleasant and accurate image, but the HTC’s straightforward, minimal processing again helped preserve more fine detail. (A stray car headlight seems to have wound up in the U11’s image, though this didn’t impact the branches way up top.)

As for the Note 8, which is the other phone that I haven’t mentioned much, I found it usually fell at or behind the quality of the iPhone X. In this set of photos, for example, look at the leaves behind the yellow turn sign. It absolutely butchered them. The Note 8’s image processing tends to smudge things, which means it’s not as reliable for recreating fine detail.


Here’s an example where all the smartphones handled themselves pretty well. This is a challenging scene not only because there’s not a ton of light, but there’s a lot of competing light as well. One place where you really see the differences is in the concrete columns in the middle of the train tracks. The Pixel 2 XL was able to hold onto the detail of the grime underneath the red-and-white striped line, where the iPhone X and others tended to lose that in the post-processing. James and I talked about this one in the video comparison above, so be sure to check out the full breakdown there.

Daylight

Okay, let’s finally move out of the dark and take a look at some brighter scenes. And here’s an extremely muted one to start:

The Pixel 2 XL captured the finest details, but the iPhone X walked away with the best exposure and color. Snow scenes are hard — cameras tend to underexpose them and turn whites into a neutral grey — and this one fooled most of the phones. The Note 8 skewed very blue, which is something we’ve noticed it tends to do when there are lots of cool tones in a photo. And once again the LG V30 lagged behind the rest, with rough detail reproduction and grimy colors. The V30 comes from a line of LG phones that’s all about creation (especially video, which we’ll get to), but while it has different lenses and some manual controls, it was consistently disappointing.

Now for something a little less gray, here’s the night scene we saw before on an overcast and snowy day. Funny enough, the HTC U11 struggled more than it did in that first comparison at this location, and the iPhone stepped up with a better exposure, better detail reproduction (check the snow on the trees and the branches below).

The Pixel 2 XL image is a bit dark this time around, and here’s why I think that is. Like in the previous comparison, these are very muted scenes. Without lots of different light in a scene (real dark darks or very bright brights), Google’s HDR+ has less to work with. And so the result is that the Pixel’s “magic” gets kneecapped. It’s still a sharp photo that’s a great starting point if you want to edit things like color or contrast, but I’m happier with the iPhone X’s image here.

In broad daylight, things are also close. The iPhone X and the Pixel 2 XL capture about the same amount of fine detail, with the U11 at their heels, while the Note 8 and the V30 are a bit behind again.

The differences here are more about color reproduction. The HTC U11 spat out the most vibrant image with a beautiful blue sky. The Note 8 and the iPhone X processed more muted blues, with the former skewing a little blue overall and the latter featuring a reddish cast, as both tend to do. The Pixel’s is the most muted, having kept the most detail in that bright white church tower without losing any in the shadows of the buildings.

This is one of those examples where it really comes down to taste. You may prefer the U11 photo because it’s the most visually pleasing at first glance. Or you may prefer the Pixel 2 XL’s photo, which has enough detail and dynamic range information that it could be easily edited to look like the U11’s photo, maybe even without losing as much detail in that bright white church tower. Only the V30 and its washed out, greenish color seem to be in a lower class of performance here.

Another daylight shot, but this time with some challenging light considering the sky in the background is much brighter than the light on this car. The Pixel 2 XL reproduced the best blue sky of the bunch, but the iPhone X and the HTC U11 got the color of the car and the snow on it more accurately. The iPhone’s photo is a little warm, again, but has more detail in the sky and clouds than the U11’s photo, where that part is a bit blown out.

The Note 8’s photo is honestly a bit closer to what I would probably edit this photo to on Instagram, but that doesn’t mean I like it as a starting point. The more choices the camera (or camera app) is making for me, the less leeway I have when making my own edits. All told though, every phone except for the LG V30 produced a photo that a two or three year old smartphone might have struggled mightily with.

Here’s another comparison we looked at in the video above, so be sure to check it out for the full breakdown. In short, though, the LG V30 gets credit for getting the color pretty accurate for once, though the Pixel 2 XL (surprise!) handled it the best. The iPhone X skewed the photo a bit warm, as it does from time to time, but it and the U11 captured good detail in the wooden beams and of the Statue of Liberty in the background.

And it wouldn’t be a camera comparison without a photo of flowers, right? Here’s the set James and I pored over in the video. The Note 8 and the LG V30 overexposed the image a touch, with the Pixel 2 XL and the HTC U11 offering more muted versions. The iPhone X’s image has far more contrast — though to be fair, it might have caught a touch of sunlight through the clouds.

Portrait mode

Only three of these smartphones have a feature that is commonly referred to as “Portrait Mode” (Samsung calls it “Live Focus”): the iPhone X, the Pixel 2 XL, and the Galaxy Note 8.

With portrait mode, these companies are trying to simulate the shallow depth of field effect that happens when you have a long lens with a big aperture on a more traditional camera. There are two approaches: Apple and Samsung use their dual lenses (and the space between them) to calculate depth information, and then simulate the effect based on that data. And the iPhone X repeatedly beat out the Note 8 in this mode thanks to better detail and color reproduction. The Note 8 tends to overly smooth out the detail on people’s faces, giving everything an unpleasant, waxy look.

Google, however, says it uses the depth information from adjacent pixels on the image sensor to figure out where and how much to blur the image. This makes the Pixel 2 XL’s portrait mode photos (of people, at least) look more like cardboard cutouts than the iPhone X’s. With a portrait taken by a big camera and lens, the blur usually steadily increases from the person’s face to the back of their head. Google just hasn’t found a way to recreate that same effect using the method it chose.

The iPhone, on the other hand, theoretically has better depth information because it’s calculating it from the two cameras, which are farther apart than literal pixels. (Think about how your eyes resolve the three dimensional information of the world around you, and how that goes away if you cover one eye.) This means it typically reproduces that smooth transitional blur better than the Pixel. It also has the advantage of using the telephoto lens’for portraits, which helps separate a subject from the backgrou.d But! I’ve found that the Pixel is better at detecting the edges around someone’s face and hair than the iPhone, which tends to have more obvious errors.

All this said, the Pixel 2 XL still captures the best detail and color out of the three phones, with the iPhone X coming in second and the Note 8 behind both. One thing the Note 8 has that I wish the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL had is the ability to adjust the amount of blur, both while you’re composing the shot and after you’ve taken it. The Pixel and the iPhone let you toggle the blur on or off after you’ve taken a portrait mode photo, and the iPhone lets you change the different “portrait lighting” effects, but they don’t let you adjust the severity of the effect.

Of course, these modes have been optimized for people, and things sometimes get wonky when you try to use portrait mode to shoot things that aren’t human faces. But other times, the results are pretty great:

Selfies


Click to see the high-res version.


Click to see the high-res version.

Now for maybe the most important camera on these phones (seriously!), the front-facing camera.

I’ll start with the top image, a selfie shot in somewhat strong daylight, which once again features examples that speak to the tendencies of these phones. The Pixel 2 XL repeatedly produced the most crisp, most well-balanced photos from the selfie camera, with impressive dynamic range and accurate color reproduction.

The iPhone X’s front-facing camera, like the ones on the rear, can skew warm, but it’s very good in more muted light, and especially accurate in challenging light, like you see in the second comparison. In that series of photos, my face was lit by daylight, while the background was warm interior lighting. The Pixel 2 XL kept the background from looking overexposed, but the iPhone X produced slightly more detail and a better color palette of my face.

The HTC U11’s front-facing camera is admirable in daylight, though it doesn’t handle strong light so well, and in low light you can see it struggles with colors. The Note 8 does about the same, though it also has face-smoothing beauty features built into the app if that’s your thing. Our own Ashley Carman spent some more time with the selfie cameras of these smartphones, so here are a few of her thoughts:

Dual cameras


Taken with the LG V30’s super wide camera.


Taken with the LG V30’s super wide camera.

I’ve ragged pretty hard on the V30 throughout this piece because it consistently turned in the worst result. But for stills, at least, the V30’s secondary super-wide angle camera can be really fun in a pinch.

The V30’s second camera is so wide that it’s not always going to look great, and there is something about the quality of it that feels a little gross sometime — as if a GoPro had gotten knocked around a little too much and the lens was just so slightly misaligned.

But that super-wide camera can capture some really wild and sometimes impressive photos that none of these other smartphones can. The question is whether you would want to suffer the tradeoff of having an inferior main camera just to snap the occasional jaw-dropper. The answer is probably no.

On the other hand, the secondary telephoto cameras on the iPhone X and the Note 8 are genuinely useful. I find myself using the iPhone X’s telephoto camera way more than I thought I would, so I really appreciate the added versatility. And just to make sure I wasn’t fooling myself that the iPhone X’s (or the Note 8’s) telephoto camera is that much better than just zooming in on, say, a Pixel 2 XL photo, we recently tested this on the Circuit Breaker Live show. The result? The iPhone X and Note 8 produced nearly identical detail, with slightly different colors, but both were better than the Pixel’s.


Video

Of course, cameras don’t just shoot still photos. All of these smartphones are capable of shooting 4K video, slow-motion video, and crisp, steady 1080p video, too.

I could write a whole other post about comparing the video that comes off these smartphones, but for the sake of everyone’s sanity, I’m just going to refer you to this video we made about it and throw down some bullet points below.

  • The Note 8 is not my favorite smartphone for still photography, but I think it’s the most versatile for video. It has the two lenses on the back, and the ability to shoot quad HD (2K) footage on the front-facing camera, which none of the other phones can do. It does 4K well, it does slow-mo well enough, and it captures decent sound.
  • The Pixel 2 XL’s combination of optical and digital stabilization gives it the smoothest footage of all five phones, but the poor sound recording quality is a real problem.
  • All the smartphones except the Pixel 2 XL and U11 will let you shoot 240 frames per second slow motion footage at 1080p (Google and HTC cap it at 120 frames per second at 1080p). But! The iPhone will let you shoot 240 at 1080 with the telephoto camera, too, which the Note 8 won’t let you do.
  • The LG V30 is a straight up disappointment when it comes to video. With stills, there are times where it hangs with the competition. But the video quality on this phone is frankly embarrassing, especially when you consider that was basically the main selling point of it.

Everything else

Samsung’s camera app is still the fastest overall. It is the fastest to autofocus, and it’s the fastest to launch. You can double tap the power button to launch the camera app on the Note 8, the Pixel 2 XL, and the HTC U11, but I found Samsung’s quick launch feature is still just a hair quicker. And while Apple made it possible to 3D Touch the camera icon on the lock screen to launch the camera with this latest round of phones, I still find myself missing the ability to press a physical button to do so.

The iPhone X, Pixel 2 XL, and Note 8 all have a version of what Apple calls “Live Photos,” which means they capture a few seconds of video footage around the moment that you take a picture. These make for fun GIFs, though it can sometimes be tricky to convert them.

Regardless, I think Apple is getting the most use out of them. With iOS 11, you can not only use Live Photos to reselect the main picture, meaning you’re less likely to catch someone blinking or moving, but you can also simulate long exposure photos. It’s become one of my favorite things to shoot — just look at these examples:

Conclusion

Alright, that was a lot. So what does it all mean?

Based on our tests the Pixel 2 XL has the best camera of these five smartphones. It repeatedly and consistently captures the most accurate colors, the most detail, and tackles challenging lighting scenarios that make the other smartphone cameras weep. Google’s computational photography approach pushed it into the lead last year, and I think it’s gained even more ground this year. I couldn’t be more excited to see where it goes over the next few.

As for the runner-up, I’m torn. The HTC U11 has an amazing rear camera, one that sometimes rivals (or even beats) the Pixel 2 XL. But when you’re talking about the whole package, I think the iPhone X still edges it out. The iPhone X has a second telephoto lens, which offers more versatility. It has portrait mode, live photos, and a better selfie camera. It also blows the U11’s video out of the water. I think you could probably even make the case that the iPhone X is a better buy than the Pixel 2 XL if you want the best of all these worlds. Either way, HTC deserves a ton of credit for finally getting back in the ring with the U11’s main camera, but it still has a lot of work to do with the rest of the experience.

The Note 8 is the most versatile when it comes to video, but its still photos (front and back) are just too much of a step behind the iPhone X and the Pixel 2 XL to push it ahead of either of those phones. Samsung was the first to match and beat Apple a few years ago, but not only has it lost that lead, it’s let Google swoop in and knock both companies off the image quality pedestal.

And then there’s LG. You might have spent this entire article screaming the name of the smartphone you think we should have tested instead of the V30. And you might be right! But LG bills itself as a company that makes smartphones with great cameras, and it’s had success living up to those claims in the past. That the V30 is obviously in a lower class than the other four we tested is illuminating as it is disappointing. As they say in sports, there’s always next year.

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