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Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL camera review: Best smartphone snapper of 2017?

The new Pixel phones boast what DxO Labs has called the best smartphone camera yet, capturing gorgeous photos and up to 4K resolution video in almost any conditions. We’ve spent a week with Google’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, and here’s the results of our camera tests.

Although most mobile manufacturers have leaped onto the dual lens camera bandwagon, Google has stuck firmly with its single lens snappers for the second round of Pixel smartphones. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL both sport the same camera: a 12.2-megapixel shooter with f/1.8 aperture lens. If that techy speak means nothing to you, worry not. We’ll keep things light and show you what these Google phones can do with our photo and video samples.

French optics experts DxO Labs reckon the new Pixel mobiles sport the best cameras of any smartphones to date, after awarding them a mighty 98 DxOMark Mobile score. So are these snappers really that smart?

Check out our full Pixel 2 review and Pixel 2 XL review for our in-depth thoughts on Google's new handsets.

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Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL camera review: UI and features

Not much has changed compared with last year’s Pixel phones when it comes to Google’s camera app.

You once again get quite a stripped-down UI that nevertheless offers quite a lot of toggles and features to play around with. The majority of users can simply ignore these and stick with the brilliant auto mode of course. Just point and tap the on-screen shutter button and chances are you’ll get a good-looking photo. You can also hold your finger on the button to enter burst mode, which takes shots at a stunning rate, or use the volume keys if you prefer a ‘proper’ shutter button.

Switching to video mode is simply a case of flicking your finger down the screen, or else tapping the on-screen icon. You can also switch to the front-facing camera with a quick tap, or view any photos you just snapped.

Over on the opposite edge of the camera app, you have a whole bunch of toggles to mess with. Alongside the usual LED flash and timer functions, you now have the following:

  • Colour temperature filters - tapping this can switch from auto mode to specific filters, to compensate for some tricky lighting conditions. These include overcast scenes and artificial lighting.
  • Grids - if you want to capture a perfect straight shot or otherwise need some help lining everything up, you can slap a virtual grid onto your view.
  • HDR+ mode - Google’s HDR+ feature is on automatic by default. This judges the scene and if contrast levels are a little tricky, the Pixel 2 will take several shots with different exposure levels and knit them together for a well-balanced result. You can go into the Pixel’s camera settings and bring back manual control for the HDR+ mode, if so desired.
  • Motion mode - one of the new camera features in the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL is the motion photo mode, which is like Apple’s Live Photo. A snippet of video will be captured along with your photo if the camera detects motion. This is on auto by default, but can also be toggled on or off. The results are pretty much the same as Live Photo, although the way it automatically activates when motion is detected means you don’t waste storage space capturing clips of static objects.

You don’t get proper manual controls with the Pixel 2, sadly. The best you’ll manage, besides those colour temperature filters, is exposure control. You can change the exposure levels by tapping on the screen and then dragging your finger up or down the display.

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL camera review: Photo quality

So, do the new Pixel phones really boast the best cameras right now? Well, they’re certainly at the very least on a par with their biggest rivals.

That fast shutter speed means that capturing active subjects isn't a chore. You'll only notice any blur effects when your pet/kid/whatever is up close to the lens.

Everyday shots are certainly good looking and packed with plenty of detail, as well as natural colours. The Pixel 2 is particularly good at dealing with troublesome white balance issues, caused by the likes of artificial lighting.

As a result, interior shots often look more crisp and pleasing to the eye, with clean whites rather than pale yellows, compared with photos taken on rivals such as the iPhone 8 Plus. The same goes for any night shots involving strong lighting.

Likewise, Google’s phones are champions when it comes to tricky contrast, thanks to that excellent HDR+ mode. Photos taken in strong daylight, or a mixture of light and dark areas, are often well balanced and attractive. Plus, even with the HDR+ mode activated, there’s no shutter lag to speak of, which is good news if you’re taking lots of action shots.

As for low light snaps, the Pixel 2 once again performs. You can still capture quite a bit of detail when things get dim, complete with realistic hues and minimal grain.

The Pixel 2 comes packing a Portrait mode, which adds a bokeh-style effect to your shots and helps your subject to stand out. This mimics the same feature found on dual-lens cameras, and in truth it works really well. Although the background blurring effect is stronger on the likes of the iPhone 8 Plus, Google’s phone does a better job of keeping the subject sharp; no detail is lost around the edges, which is often an issue.

Check out some more of our Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL photo samples in the gallery below.

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL camera review: Video quality

The Pixel 2 smartphones aren’t quite as flexible as a lot of the competition when it comes to video recording. You can shoot Full HD 1080p video or bump up to 4K Ultra HD, although there’s no option for 60 frames-per-second shooting at either resolution, for ultra realistic results.

Still, video quality on the whole is solid. Once again you get plenty of detail packed inside of every frame, while the combination of optical and digital image stabilisation really does impress. Try shooting a movie while walking around, even on quite rough terrain, and the results will be silky smooth.

Colour reproduction is accurate and the lens deals with sudden changes in focal distance and lighting as admirably as any of its rivals. We did see some artifacting at times however, which will hopefully be sorted in a software update.

The only issue we had was a strange electronic-style distortion when shooting outside, in any kind of wind. This makes it sound as if your home movie has passed through some strange audio filter, presumably to dampen the sound of air blowing past the mics.

Check out our Full HD and 4K video samples below to see what we mean.

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