When we think of top-shelf smartphone cameras, we think of offerings from Apple and Samsung. Now it’s time to add Google to that list. With its new Pixel and the larger Pixel XL, the tech giant has produced a portable, powerful adventure cam. We've been testing the XL version for the past few days: here are our first impressions.
Both Pixels come with a 28-millimeter f2.0 lens that’s fast and sharp. That's not quite as fast as the iPhone 7’s 28-millimeter f1.8 lens, but it still produced crisp photos in variable lighting. Amateur photographers will be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. The color was a little too vibrant at times—partly because the camera defaults to HDR, where it combines three different exposures into one—but the photos (both in HDR and in regular mode) still took very little toning.
The 12.3-megapixel sensor isn’t huge, but each pixel is larger than what you normally get on a cell-phone chip and they gathered a decent amount of highlight and shadow detail that we then pulled out in post-processing. We could darken blown-out clouds, for example, and overall it felt very similar to what's in the iPhone 7. To be clear, the sensor is nowhere near as powerful as what you’d find in a new DSLR like the Canon 5D Mark IV or a mirrorless camera like the Sony A7R II. But you’ll be plenty happy with the shots if they’re going to live on the web or if you want to make small prints, such as an 8-by-10.
As with the iPhone 7, the Pixel lets you control exposure by swiping up or down on the screen. Unlike the iPhone, you also have the option to manually set white balance. In auto, the white balance is usually spot on, but it’s nice to have manual control for when you’re trying to nail the color under indoor lights.
Press down on the shutter, on the screen, and the Pixel will take a burst of photos, like an iPhone. What's new here is that the Pixel can turn that burst of photos into a sharable GIF. The Pixel can also blur out the background, creating a shallow depth of field—which is particularly useful for portraits.
There’s nothing particularly impressive about the video capabilities, but the phone hits all the most important benchmarks. You can shoot stabilized 4K at 30 frames per second or 1080 at up to a slow-mo 120 frames per second. You can also shoot super slow-mo 240 frames per second at 720p.
Sharing and Storage
The phones aren’t as big as what you can get from Apple—they come in 32- or 128-gigabyte versions—but that’s intentional. Since Google makes the phone, it gives users unlimited cloud storage for all your full-resolution photos and videos on Google Photo. This means your photos are always backed up on the cloud and easy to share.
Neither Pixel phone gets a second, longer lens like the iPhone 7 Plus. That means zooming in is pretty much out of the question, as digital zoom is terrible: it just crops in and ruins the resolution.
The build quality is excellent—it seems ready to put up with plenty of abuse—but the Pixels aren't waterproof like the iPhone 7s.
As mentioned before, the camera wants you to shoot in HDR, where the camera reads the scene and brackets three shots into a single image in order to capture shadow and highlights. We’re fans of HDR in some very specific situations, and Google does a good job blending the photos, but the process often makes the photos look overly toned, and we didn’t like having to manually switch back to the regular shooting mode.
Finally, Android doesn’t have quite as many photo apps as Apple’s iOS. We’ll see if the Pixel spurs more development.
Android users will be very happy with this camera. It stacks up well against the other top competitors, plus it comes with some important features unique to Google. As a bonus, the phone works with the Google Project Fi service, which uses a WiFi network whenever possible to make calls—and piggybacks on various cell providers the rest of the time. It's great for international travel. It costs $20 a month for unlimited talk and text, and $10 per gigabyte as a flat fee, anywhere in the world. That’s about ten times cheaper than what you’d pay if you stayed on your regular provider and opted for the international package.