Camera Shootout: iPhone 7 Plus vs Google Pixel XL – Optics versus Software


iPhone 7 Plus and Pixel XL

I’ve already shared a ‘blind’ shootout between these two phablets/super-phones, from which the result was a resoundingly inconclusive “more detail needed”. Unsurprisingly. It’s hard to tell any difference between camera phone snaps at web/social resolution. Which is why I’m revisiting the iPhone 7 Plus and Google Pixel XL, arguably the top two smartphones/phablets, here but this time looking at sheer image quality, looking at colours, at noise, at details and at artefacts. Which one will triumph?

Disregarding small differences in sensor size, the core differences between the two phone cameras are in the phsyics-vs-software approach. The iPhone 7 Plus opts for natural single-image photos on the whole, with OIS on its main camera and a physical 2x zoom lens to handle any zooming, while the Google Pixel goes for a (usually) multi-shot approach, taking 3 or more quick photographs and then using software to auto-align them (think algorithmic OIS – or is that an oxymoron?), average out pixel values in order to reduce noise, take pixel value spreads to increase dynamic range, and so on. Both approaches have their advantages – I usually say that ‘physics always wins’ but the Pixel is looking to challenge that statement.

As usual, I keep most tests challenging, looking at how the phone cameras behave when faced with low or awkward light, and including zooming in. For each test shot, I show the full scene to give you some context for the 1:1 crops from the photos taken by each phone. This is especially important for the two tests where zooming is involved, to show the degree of (2x) zoom. In case you want to check other aspects of each photo or to do your own ‘pixel-peeping’, I’ve also linked to full resolution JPGs (totalling 48MB), just click the links for the phone names above the crops.

To keep track, objectively, of how each phone camera does overall, I’m going to score the photos out of 10, and then add up at the end. Any differences in framing are due to the slight difference in the ‘angle’ of the optics and the sensor resolutions (12.3MP 4:3, or just over 9MP when cropped to 16:9, vs 8.3MP 16:9)…

Test 1: Sunny detail

In a rare moment of semi-sun(!), I snapped this shopping plaza, with oodles of detail and texture….

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A nice easy shot for both phone cameras, of course. Here’s central detail from the two, first the iPhone 7 Plus and then the Google Pixel XL:

1:1 detail from the iPhone 7 Plus

High-Resolution version

1:1 detail from the Pixel XL

High-Resolution version

Pretty similar results, though the Pixel XL’s shot is obviously more ‘processed’ and shows signs of significant over-sharpening (e.g. look at the bricks on the left of the crop). Mind you, the initial impact to the eye is of greater detail, so it very much depends on what the user prefers. Personally, I’d always go with the less processed, natural look (here on the iPhone), since you can always enhance and sharpen later if needed.

iPhone 7 Plus: 9 pts; Pixel XL: 8 pts

Test 2: Gloomy landscape, zoomed

It’s bleak, it’s dim, it’s the UK heading into winter. But hey, there’s an interesting aircraft in view!

herald-a

The plane’s a bit too far away, so let’s experiment with a little zoom – an iPhone 7 Plus speciality, of course, but I was curious as to how much Google could pull off in software. Here’s central detail from the two (approximately 2x zoomed) shots, first the iPhone 7 Plus and then the Google Pixel XL:

1:1 detail from the iPhone 7 Plus

High-Resolution version

1:1 detail from the Pixel XL

High-resolution version

As expected, the iPhone 7 Plus’s 2x zoom lens triumphs here, despite the low light (and lack of OIS for this camera), but the Pixel XL’s digital zoom isn’t terrible – I’ve seen much worse examples of the dangers of lossy digital zoom. Certainly edges are smooth and zoom artefacts well under control. Still, detail and noise levels are both superior on the 7 Plus photo, despite a few ragged sharp edges here and there, signs that even the iPhone is using some image processing and edge enhancement.

iPhone 7 Plus: 9 pts; Pixel XL: 7 pts

Test 3: Striking architecture

OK, it’s our local Asda, I’ve always loved this apex, with all the glass and signage, against the setting sun. Except that there’s little sun this week in the UK, so again it’s rather bleaker than usual.

asda-a

Plenty of finely edged texture to examine though. Here’s central detail from the two, first the iPhone 7 Plus and then the Google Pixel XL:

1:1 detail from the iPhone 7 Plus

High-resolution version

1:1 detail from the Pixel XL

High-resolution version

Google’s HDR+ algorithms (on, by default, all the time) are certainly spectacularly effective, look at the way they picked up and enhanced the fine reinforcing mesh on the glass. Too artificial? Perhaps – even my eyes had trouble picking up the mesh, but I have to give this one to the Pixel overall.

iPhone 7 Plus: 8 pts; Pixel XL: 9 pts

Test 4: Lights, zoomed

Some arty lights against a dark and dusky sky:

Overall scene

A real test of light handling and also zoom, again by 2x (or so). Here’s central detail from the two, first the iPhone 7 Plus and then the Google Pixel XL:

1:1 detail from the iPhone 7 Plus

High-resolution version

1:1 detail from the Pixel XL

High-resolution version

Again the 2x zoom lens in the iPhone 7 Plus is used to good effect, though again the Pixel XL’s digital zoom isn’t that far behind. Trying to focus on and capture a relatively small light cluster with challenging illumination is tough and both phone cameras did a good enough job. Overall, there’s less noise and more detail from the iPhone shot though.

iPhone 7 Plus: 8 pts; Pixel XL: 7 pts

Test 5: Christmas come early

You’ve got to love the rich colours in a Christmas display:

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The low but warm lighting and abundance of reds make for a sumptuous photo. Here’s central detail from the two, first the iPhone 7 Plus and then the Google Pixel XL:

1:1 detail from the iPhone 7 Plus

High-resolution version

1:1 detail from the Pixel XL

High-resolution version

Despite the lack of OIS, I have to give this by a head to the Pixel XL again – the sharpening is subjective, but the colours are also slightly brighter and clearer. Both do a great job, mind you – it’s just that Google has put a lot of effort into its HDR+ system and it shows.

iPhone 7 Plus: 9 pts; Pixel XL: 10 pts

Test 6: Fluorescent Flowers

Brightly lit, but artificially, I still thought these would make a great subject:

Overall scene

The colour and the detail are both desirable and tricky to capture at the same time. Here’s central detail from the two, first the iPhone 7 Plus and then the Google Pixel XL:

1:1 detail from the iPhone 7 Plus

High-resolution version

1:1 detail from the Pixel XL

High-resolution version

This one’s tough to call. I’m going to give it to the iPhone 7 Plus by a whisper, since the detail looks more natural. The Pixel XL’s photo, by comparison, is so sharpened and processed that at 1:1 here it looks artificial. But, overall, both phone cameras did a stunning job here.

iPhone 7 Plus: 10 pts; Pixel XL: 9 pts

Test 7: Estate matters

Shooting backlit detail in an estate agent’s window and through glass, this was a something of an ultimate challenge in terms of lighting:

Overall scene

This is a great example of a tricky subject you might capture in the real world, for example when snapping details like this for later recall (obviously, if the estate agents was open then you’d pop in and ask for a paper version!) Here’s central detail from the two, first the iPhone 7 Plus and then the Google Pixel XL:

1:1 detail from the iPhone 7 Plus

High-resolution version

1:1 detail from the Pixel XL

High-resolution version

Understandably, shooting under difficult circumstances through glass, neither image is perfect in terms of artefacts, plus I should mention that the photos themselves are printed and thus contain (printing) artefacts. I’m going to call this one a tie – the Pixel XL’s photo has more contrast, but equally more digital noise and looks ‘processed’.

iPhone 7 Plus: 8 pts; Pixel XL: 8 pts

Test 8: Dark of night, at the pictures

Shooting across my local multiplex car park, a great test of light handling with everything from darkest night to retina-scorching neon…

showcase-a

These were shot handheld, by the way, so a good test of OIS or, in the Pixel’s case, alignment algorithms. Here’s central detail from the two, first the iPhone 7 Plus and then the Google Pixel XL:

1:1 detail from the iPhone 7 Plus

High-resolution version

1:1 detail from the Pixel XL

High-resolution version

The Pixel’s HDR+ system performs astonishly well here, perhaps with the mass of linear detail to help the auto-align algorithms. Even inside the cinema’s foyer you can see lit detail. The iPhone 7’s OIS does really well, but falls a little short here. I could have used its 2x zoom lens, but then I’d have been without OIS to help steady the shot…

iPhone 7 Plus: 7 pts; Pixel XL: 9 pts

Verdict

Although the points scores throughout are somewhat subjective, it’s instructive to add them up anyway:

  1. Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 68 pts (/80)
  2. Google Pixel XL: 67 pts

So not a lot in it overall then, and certainly within the margin of error. But my ‘physics wins’ prediction still holds… just. The iPhone 7 Plus’s extra 2x zoom lens makes a big difference – if the iPhone 8 Plus (in 2017) manages to squeeze OIS in as well then we’d have something really special. Here I used zoom in 2 of the 8 test shots, a typical fraction, I estimated. If you use zoom more than this (and it’s tempting on the 7 Plus) then the iPhone would pull ahead – if you simply never plan to use zoom then the Pixel, without the 2x lens, would probably get the nod overall. So… it depends on your use case for a camera phone. If there’s a takeaway here it’s that both phone cameras do a really good job and will delight their owners – I can’t imagine any user complaining.

If you need the zoom facility then the iPhone 7 Plus becomes the obvious choice, though for general photos the two contenders are on level pegging. No win for a phone, then, but a win for us, the consumers.

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