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Google Pixel phone and Pixel XL camera review: Best mobile snapper of 2016?

We review the 12-megapixel camera packed into Google’s new Pixel and Pixel XL mobiles, as well as the 8-megapixel selfie camera. Here’s our run-down of the Pixel and Pixel XL’s camera modes along with photo and video samples.

Google has made some pretty grandiose claims when it comes to the Pixel phones’ main camera. That 12-megapixel shooter is supposed to be one of the best mobile cameras of 2016, as backed up by the super-high DxOMark Mobile score of 89. But is the Pixel and the Pixel XL’s camera really all that?

Here’s our full Pixel and Pixel XL camera review, and check out our Pixel XL vs Galaxy S7 vs Huawei P9 vs Xperia XZ camera comparison to see which Android snapper of 2016 is best.

Pixel phone camera review: Is there any difference in the Pixel phone and Pixel XL’s cameras?

No, there’s no difference at all. In both cases you get a 12-megapixel rear camera which can shoot up to 4K video, with all of the same features and identical image quality. Likewise, you get the same 8-megapixel selfie snapper on the Pixel and the Pixel XL.

Pixel phone camera review: What is a DxOMark Mobile score and what does it mean?

DxO Labs in France is an independent company which tests and ranks smartphone cameras (as well as ‘proper’ camera hardware), assigning each one a value out of 100. The bigger the number, the better the camera, as far as DxO is concerned.

The Pixel and Pixel XL got a DxOMark Mobile score of 89, which beats every other cameraphone they’ve tested. That includes the iPhone 7, the HTC 10 and the Galaxy S7 Edge.

Check out our DxOMark Mobile feature to see how other cameras stack up to the Pixels and for more info on the testing process.

Pixel phone camera review: Camera app and features

The Google Pixel offers a slick and intuitive camera experience, similar to the iPhone 7. You don’t get much in the way of manual controls, beyond an ability to tweak the brightness levels and colour warmth. But thankfully the auto mode is excellent in pretty much all conditions, so it’s not a problem.

You can quickly switch between the front and rear cameras in two different ways. First, there’s a button beneath the shutter button which swaps from one lens to the next. Or you can also give a quick double-twist of the wrist, which does the same. Of course, that wrist twist isn’t any quicker and doesn’t work a hundred percent of the time, so you’re best off using the button method.

You can pull out the Pixel’s camera modes menu with a tap of the lower left icon, which gives you access to the Slow Motion video mode, Panorama, Photo Sphere and Lens Blur modes. Slow-mo and Panorama are exactly what you’d expect and work just fine, although the Panorama mode is slow as hell and there’s the usual stitching issues. Photo Sphere is like a 360-degree Panorama while Lens Blur adds a bokeh effect to the background of your photos. Sometimes it works, sometimes you just get an oversaturated mess.

From this menu you can also jump into the Pixel’s in-depth camera settings. This allows you to change photo and video resolution, fiddle with burst photo settings (capturing lots of photos by holding down the shutter button) and location settings, and activate video stabilisation. That’s about your lot, though.

Pixel phone camera review: Photo quality

Shots take pretty much the instant you hit the Pixel or Pixel XL’s shutter button, and with no processing lag you’re ready to take another photo instantly. You can either rapidly tap the button or hold it down to take dozens of photos in just a few seconds, so the Pixel is definitely well suited to impromptu snaps of kids and pets.

Photo quality on the whole is very strong. Detail levels are on par with other flagship phones, while contrast is well handled with the HDR+ mode set to auto. This prevents oversaturation when shooting against bright skies and harsh lighting, a problems which tends to ruin photos.

Image reproduction is as close to natural as you could hope for, although colours are still quite punchy to make photos easy on the eye. That focus rarely lets you down, ensuring your subject is nice and sharp no matter the framing.

Low light shots also come out well, with that high aperture lens hoovering up loads of light. Shots taken in dim conditions aren’t as sharp or as detailed as those on the S7, but they’re not too grainy and definitely fine for sharing on social media.

Here’s some photo samples shot with the Pixel phone.

Pixel phone camera review: Video quality

Video shot with the Google Pixel and Pixel XL can be either 30 or 60 frames-per-second (FPS) at Full HD or 720p resolution, or 30 FPS at 4K UHD resolution.

Video samples shot with the Pixel contain plenty of detail, while the lens handles sudden changes in lighting or focus without strain. There’s no optical image stabilisation, but you do get digital image stabilisation to cut down on hand shakes and judder. This works fine, but if you’re actually walking and shooting at the same time, you can expect some rapid vibrations in the video with every step that you take.

Check out our Pixel camera video samples below.

Pixel phone camera review: Selfie camera

Flip to the 8-megapixel front-facing camera and you can snap your gorgeous mug, with perfectly respectable results. The lens captures a wide-angle image, so you can cram in a fair few heads when needed. And you once again have Google’s HDR+ mode, which can deal with any tricky contrast when shooting against bright lights.

Sadly there’s no kind of ‘flash’ feature, which other phones such as the Galaxy S7 boast. You’re therefore lumbered with quite grainy snaps when the lights go down.

Read our full Google Pixel phone review for more info on Google’s 2016 flagship mobile.