According to Google’s Brian Rakowski the company’s new Pixel XL boasts “the best smartphone camera anyone has ever made," so naturally we wanted to see how it handled itself against two other top-notch 5.5-inchers that also just happen to be the two most prominent rivals out there; the iPhone 7 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. Here’s our full camera comparison review.
Google Pixel XL vs iPhone 7 Plus vs Galaxy S7 Edge camera supertest: Camera apps
The Google Camera app that resides on stock Android has always adopted for a less is more approach and little has changed on the version which lives on the 7.1 Nougat-powered Pixel XL.
The phone’s 12.3-megapixel primary camera shoots still in 4:3 (4048x3036 pixels) by default, so the viewfinder only takes up about three-quarters of the screen. The rest plays host to the shutter button, camera switcher and gallery shortcut, whilst a few quick settings, like the timer and flash controls, live along the top.
Switching to video is as simple as swiping to left, but additional shooting modes, including Slow Motion video, Photo Sphere and Lens Blur, reside under a pull-out menu at the top left of the viewfinder. There’s then a third layer under the ‘settings’ option, which gives you fine-grain control over photo and video resolution, location settings and video stabilisation. For everyday shooting it’s a nice experience, but if you want to fiddle around, it can take a while to find the right place for the right setting, and what’s more, there’s no native manual control built into the app, save for exposure adjustment should you switch off Auto HDR (which is enabled by default).
iOS on the 7 Plus takes a similarly clean approach to user interface design, but again suffers from the same problems by trying to keep things simple whilst also offering a lot of functionality. In a way, it’s a little more convoluted than the experience offered up by the Pixel XL as you’re required to exit out of the camera app to change certain features like video resolution and HDR photo preferences. Aside from that hurdle, however, iOS is as ever very easy to use, letting you swipe between modes, toggle live photos and control focus and exposure all directly from the viewfinder.
Samsung’s camera app is arguably the most crowded affair, but also offers the greatest flexibility natively, with tons of unique shooting modes out the box (including the ability to download more), readily accessible settings for everything from resolution to location tagging, and unlike the other two, manual control.
Google Pixel XL vs iPhone 7 Plus vs Galaxy S7 Edge camera supertest: Photo comparison
In high contrast scenarios, all phones coped extremely well, with the Pixel XL producing the most evenly exposed and accurately coloured shot. The 7 Plus offered up slightly washed out colours and a narrower field of view, whilst the S7 Edge pushed a warmer colour palette and employed heavier image processing with data lost in the darker areas of the image.
HDR-mode unsurprisingly ironed out many of the issues when shooting in the same environment, with the Pixel XL’s dedicated mode (i.e. not its default setting) resulting in an evenly exposed, although clearly processed image with the best detail of the bunch. The 7 Plus managed to offer better exposure than its Google-based rival, whilst the S7 Edge offered good detail but produced an image that was slightly washed out by comparison.
Shooting macro subjects revealed that the XL has a little trouble focussing at the same distance from the subject as its rivals, but was still able to render part of the scene in great detail and with the most accurate colour reproduction, the iPhone produced the most evenly exposed and well-detailed shot, whilst S7 Edge produced a surprisingly softer image by comparison to its rivals.
Taking things indoors, the S7 Edge was able to preserve the greatest amount of fine detail in artificial lighting, followed by the XL and the iPhone respectively, however colour temperature was notably off, resulting in an overly warm image, distorting colour accuracy by an unwanted amount. As a result, the XL struck the best balance of colour, contrast and detail, whilst the iPhone produced good shots overall, that were susceptible to a little noise in darker areas, despite an abundance of light.
Turn the lights off and it’s a whole different story. The Pixel’s narrower aperture and lack of OIS (optical image stabilisation) are detrimental to its low light abilities, which produce blown out bright spots and very noisy (relative to the competition at least) dark elements, whilst the iPhone and S7 Edge (both of which do feature OIS) produce almost equally pleasing imagery. Most likely as a result of the fractionally wider aperture on the S7 (f/1.7 versus f/1.8), its low light photography chops can’t be beaten.
In low light situations where a flash can help, all of these phones are equipped with modules of varying arrangements. The Pixel XL features a dual-tone LED flash, whilst the iPhone 7 Plus is the first of its kind to leverage a dual-tone quad LED flash. Unconventionally amongst its flagship comrades, the S7 Edge uses a single LED element.
Apple’s offering seems purpose-built for faces, casting a focused spot of light in the centre of frame, whilst the dual LEDs of the Pixel XL create a more even fill, which might lend itself to capturing subjects other than people more readily than the iPhone. By comparison, the Edge’s single LED lacks the power to fill the frame with light resulting in a heavy vignette around photos and dimmer overall imagery.
Jumping around to the front and you’ll find three competent selfie-takers. Both Apple’s and Samsung’s offerings use screen-based flash technology to illuminate your mug in dingier conditions, but at 7 and 5-megapixels respectively, they fall short of the mark compared to the Pixel XL based solely on image size. Image quality meanwhile is a different matter, with the XL’s shots appearing comparatively washed out. The S7 Edge takes pleasing selfies with the option of a subtle beauty mode, but despite a narrower field of view, the 7 Plus comes top by offering the sharpest imagery and greatest colour depth.
Google Pixel XL vs iPhone 7 Plus vs Galaxy S7 Edge camera supertest: Video comparison
Many were quick to berate Google for omitting OIS as part of the Pixel and Pixel XL’s camera arrangement, but when shooting video, the EIS (electronic image stabilisation) system built into the phone, which uses gyroscope data to stabilise your footage, does an impressive job of ironing out camera shake. Footage generally looks crisp and well coloured, with snappy autofocus and contrast management on offer too. You have the option to shoot in Full HD at 30fps and 60fps, as well as 4K at 30fps and slow motion up to 240fps.
The 7 Plus is much the same, with the same gamut of video resolutions and frame rates to choose from (plus the addition of a time lapse option) however actual footage, although a little on the warm side, looks more natural, including how motion is captured.
The S7 Edge meanwhile offers a similar experience and similar image quality to the Pixel XL, albeit with better image stabilisation from its hybrid image stabilisation system (although this is disabled when shooting in 4K).
Google Pixel XL vs iPhone 7 Plus vs Galaxy S7 Edge camera supertest: Verdict
If you’re after a smartphone camera for everyday shooting, this is such a close run race that it may fall to personal preference with regards to how images and video are processed on each phone. Each device comes with some unique perks; like the Pixel XL’s unlimited, uncompressed cloud backup feature and Auto HDR capture, the 7 Plus’ Portrait mode and 2x lossless zoom, and the S7 Edge’s downloadable camera modes and manual control, but they all also come with their own distinct weaknesses.
Compared to the other two, the Pixel XL can’t compete in low light unless conditions are perfect, the iPhone lacks functionality compared to the other two experiences and the Samsung’s audio capture and colour temperature can occasionally go off-piste.
Full resolution camera samples are available on our Flickr and 4K video samples are available on our YouTube channel.