Sorry Samsung, But the Pixel 2 XL Wins This One

Sorry Samsung, But the Pixel 2 XL Wins This One

Since receiving the Samsung Galaxy S9+ last week, I’ve taken hundreds of photos with the device in various conditions. And while the handset does have a truly excellent camera, it falls short of the picture quality provided by the Google Pixel 2 XL.

I published some early photo comparisons between the two flagships in my Samsung Galaxy S9+: First Impressions article last week. Since then, I’ve duplicated this process in a variety of lighting conditions, inside and out. And if there is one near-constant, it’s that the Pixel 2 XL takes better pictures.

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By “better,” I mean a number of things. More color-accurate, for starters: As I noted in that first impressions article, the Samsung’s variable aperture technology is specifically designed to fill low-light conditions with, well, more light. And, in doing so, it creates photos that many will appreciate. It acts like a non-flash flash, if you will.

But I prefer the Pixel 2 XL’s photo quality, both in low-light conditions and overall. And while there are a few exceptions in which the Galaxy S9+ did out-perform the Pixel in individual shots, the conclusion is obvious: The Pixel 2 XL is superior overall.

This conclusion isn’t anecdotal, either: I subjected my wife to my need to take side-by-side shots of everything all weekend long—photos out in the world, food photos, inanimate objects—and my kids got involved too as both photo subjects and judges. We all universally found that while the Samsung shots were usually of very high quality, that the Pixel 2 XL’s shots were more color accurate and sharper. The Galaxy S9+ also has a weird tendency to produce a blurry shot where the Pixel 2 XL does not.

Here’s what’s most interesting about this comparison, at least to me. As I had suspected when I first heard about the automatic aperture changing in the S9+, the way this system works is both simple and, for most desirable: It senses low-light conditions and switches the camera lens to the wider aperture. This lets in more light and results in a photo in which you can more clearly see the subject.

Though this system works much like a flash without needing to blind everyone around you, it has two downsides. First, the resulting photos are artificial looking and overly white. And worse, this effect seems to happen in well-lit conditions too. Virtually all of the photos I’ve taken with this camera are too bright and/or white and are thus not color accurate.

Obviously, you expect examples. Here are a few.

This is a perfect example of the wider aperture misfiring in a well-lit environment: This is a sunflower and a few other flowers sitting in a vase. Look at the off-white background in the top left of the Pixel version, shown here. As my wife agreed at the time of the photo being taken, this image is color accurate. That wall was not white, it was off-white.

But the Samsung version, which many might feel is better, having not been in the room, shows a clear, very white wall. That is not what it looked like. Yes, it’s a great shot. And yes, I think many would be happy with it.

How about some food? The four of us had brunch Sunday morning, and the S9+ captured my son’s duck poutine reasonably well.

But the Pixel version is crisper, clearer, and more color-accurate.

And this shot of some beignets shows the Samsung’s propensity to over-light images in low-light conditions.

The Pixel, by comparison, gets it right. This image has nice contrasts and sharper definition with none of the over-lighting effect.

Here’s a more subtle example in which the. This was taken outside in bright daylight, conditions in which virtually any modern smartphone camera should shine. And sure enough, both acquitted themselves well.

First, the Google version. Look at the reflections in the glass holding the white wine and the crispness of the glass tops.

The Samsung version is great too. I happen to prefer the reflections in the Pixel version more but it’s close.

I have other pictures I took of people like my wife and kids that I won’t be publishing here, but the net effect was always the same.

And that blurriness issue was troubling. I try to take multiple shots with each camera in order to choose the best-possible image for comparison purposes. But that’s not what people really do. They take one picture. And a surprising number of first shots were blurry with the Samsung. That’s going to bite users.

As some pointed out in response to my photo comparisons in that first impressions article, the Galaxy S9+’s camera does include dedicated modes for things like food, and pro controls too. Either of these could improve picture quality, and could close the gap with the Pixel 2 XL. But … I’m sorry. Normal people don’t think about modes or pro controls. They take photos. And this is one area where the Pixel 2 XL just excels.

The other related issue I’d like to raise here is one of bias: I’ve been down on the Pixel 2 XL and have been actively seeking to replace it. So, if anything, I was willing to cut the Galaxy S9+ a bit of slack when it came to photography, and I figured that it would be close enough to call it a wash.

It’s close, but it’s not a wash. And while I do believe that many, especially those who never do side-by-side comparisons like this, will be very, very happy with the S9+’s camera, it’s not for me. I just have too much experience with truly stellar smartphone cameras, across various high-end Lumias, iPhones, Nexus phones, and most recently, Pixels to believe otherwise.

I will continue to examine the photo-taking features in this handset for my coming review. And Samsung has done a great job with the camera in the Galaxy S9+. But it’s no Pixel killer, sorry. And that makes my personal decision about keeping this handset a lot more complicated than would otherwise be the case.

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Conversation 23 comments

  • obarthelemy

    19 March, 2018 - 3:44 pm

    <p>That's funny because based on the same pictures, I'd tend to prefer the Samsung (I have neither, I'm buying low/mid-rangers theses days):</p><ul><li>in the first picture, your comments about the background color might be right, but the flower in the foreground looks much better in the Samsung shot. And foreground is way more important than background. Ditto for the flowers in the background.</li><li>Samsung's poutine does indeed look blurry and has no saving grace.</li><li>Again the dessert looks blurry for Samsung, but the colors, on my monitor (cheap and uncalibrated), look warmer, more pleasant, and probably more realistic.</li><li>in the wine glass picture, anything that isn't the reflections in the wine looks better on Samsung's version: the table and glass feet, the background car, the rocks next to the sidewalk… Even for the top of the glasses and reflections, I tend to prefer the Samsung.</li></ul><p>I trust your opinion and impartiality. But I also rather disagree on that one.</p>

  • lilmoe

    19 March, 2018 - 4:09 pm

    <p>I honestly don't like the way Google processes the photos in terms of color and sharpness (or even what's equivalent to the "clarity" slider in Lightroom). But the blurry shots <em>are </em>strange; Galaxies have always used faster shutter speeds in low light compared to the competition, but it seems like it's the other way around here.</p><p><br></p><p>But there's also this trend in all Samsung's S/Note series that persists with the GS9. The imaging processor inside their Exynos SoC has always been significantly superior to that found in the Snapdragon, for both photos and videos, and it seems that this time around the gap is even more significant. I had the impression that Qualcomm's was improving since I saw a lot of comparison shots form US based publications, but after I read your article, Paul, I checked again (The Verge's comparison, specifically, among other Youtube videos), and sure enough; all the publications that showed a superior picture from Samsung were using the international variant (SM-G965F). It really shows, and that's not just in night shots, even in daytime shots and video stabilization.</p><p><br></p><p>Samsung really needs to ditch Qualcomm ASAP and stick with their superior SoCs. They should do so before thinking about forking Android (which I actually believe is the right thing for them to do).</p>

    • Nicholas Kathrein

      19 March, 2018 - 4:30 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#254548"><em>In reply to lilmoe:</em></a></blockquote><blockquote><em>I couldn't say if Exynos SOC is better at photos and or videos but I can say their SOC is quite a bit slower. Benchmarks around the web show to be as fast as last years SnapDragon 835. That's not good as the new 845 is around 20% faster than last years.</em></blockquote><p><br></p>

      • lilmoe

        19 March, 2018 - 4:36 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#254555"><em>In reply to Nicholas_Kathrein:</em></a></blockquote><p><br></p><p>Huh? Are you sure you're browsing the same web? It's the other way around, and significantly so, for several generations. Actually, I don't remember a year where Snapdragons were faster since 2010…</p>

    • gartenspartan

      Premium Member
      20 March, 2018 - 7:05 am

      <blockquote><a href="#254548"><em>In reply to lilmoe:</em></a></blockquote><p>You probably won't see this for awhile. The reason Qualcomm is used in the US is because of CDMA compatibility and exynos just doesn't support it. They probably don't want to make 2 models in the US like Apple has been doing recently. </p>

  • RM

    19 March, 2018 - 4:10 pm

    <p>Two things from my perspective:</p><p><br></p><p>1) My Samsung Galaxy S8+ camera is by far worse than my old Lumia 950 XL!</p><p>2) The pictures of the sunflower is in my opinion much better with the S9+; while the color my not reflect the actual color, the detail of the center of the flower is by far superior. Meaning while the color is off, the detail in the picture is plan bad on the Pixel.</p>

  • BrickPrinter

    19 March, 2018 - 4:17 pm

    <p>Not sure I understand. You state the S9 has a mode for food and you did not use that mode but the standard one. It would seem to me if you know you are taking a picture of food, you would use that mode. Does either of them have "film simulation mode" like modern cameras have like standard, vivid, and soft? Perhaps it is that you like the standard color balance of the pixel more than you do that of the Samsung. For example I showed 5 people the pictures of the <span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0);">beignets&nbsp;, and all voted for the warmer Samsung image, as do I. The Pixel image to me is 1/2 stop underexposed and bit too cool for the subject. </span></p>

    • JerryH

      Premium Member
      19 March, 2018 - 4:44 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#254552"><em>In reply to BrickPrinter:</em></a></blockquote><p>I think Paul's point (correct me if I am wrong Paul) was that this is a point and shoot camera and that is how most people use it. They don't do the point, struggle to see the screen in bright light, fiddle through a barely visible menu, select "food mode" and then shoot. </p><p><br></p><p>So he was trying to take pictures like a "normal" and not like a photographer. (I do have to note that he has a hard time doing composition like a normal though – Paul's composition is usually excellent). Those of us here on the site probably trend more towards fiddling to get the best shot (well except in a live motion scenario). I know I do. But I know my wife and kids don't – and they need the best shot they can get with the default settings.</p>

      • BrickPrinter

        19 March, 2018 - 8:08 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#254563"><em>In reply to JerryH:</em></a></blockquote><p>I understand, And quite honestly one could use either with a bit of post processing and improve it. But out of the phone, both the shot of the <span style="background-color: rgb(245, 245, 245);">beignets and the flowers are to my eye better on the Samsung, the wine a toss up, and the duck goes to pixel. The detail in flowers is definitely better in the darker center of the flower because of the increased exposure. To my amazement, I have found that the built in "enhance" in the Windows Photos App is really good for a lot of examples. Manytimes better than the auto in PShop or Lightroom. And it is really easy and you can scale the enhancement with simple slider. For people who discount that program, they might want to give it a try for really quik and easy edits.</span></p>

  • scj123

    Premium Member
    19 March, 2018 - 4:54 pm

    <p>From everything I have read on your site, surely (excluding the pixel 2xl) the best phone for you at the moment would be the iPhone X. In your articles it seemed to tick more boxes for a daily driver (Good camera, you seem to prefer iOS to Android) and you could keep the Pixel 2XL for testing android. Shame about the Galaxy S9.</p>

  • Jeff.Bane

    19 March, 2018 - 5:51 pm

    <p>Great article, thanks. However the headline sounds like bgr clickbait. </p>

  • jboman32768

    Premium Member
    19 March, 2018 - 6:29 pm

    <p>Paul – from my perspective the detail in the center of the sunflower is much more easily discernible in the S9 shot – and the other examples show the Pixel having darker shadows, which gives the photos a look of more contrast, and sharpness – but actually less detail in the shadows especially if you understand the way JPEG format works. You are better off taking JPEGS from the S9 and increasing contrast rather than trying to boost brightness in the shadows of a Pixel shot. (Yes, you could just shoot in RAW, but most people don't do that). Perhaps you have been using the Pixel 2 XL for quite a while and become accustomed to its picture taking style. </p><p><br></p><p>You mentioned that the small difference in camera makes the decision to keep the phone a difficult one – but when turning your attention to the comparison in displays between the Pixel 2 XL and S9, surely the best display on the planet makes the decision to keep the S9 an easy one?</p>

  • Lars lalaa

    19 March, 2018 - 6:29 pm

    <p>A good comparison of these two phones did MiTechGuy yesterday on YT . imo Pixel 2 has the edge, actually I prefer S9+ overall performance only in the low light section of the video. Not on every picture though but I think you get better low light shots with the S9 more often. </p><p>&nbsp;Another comparison was made by C4ETech. It’s a blind test incl. pixel 2, iPhone X and Galaxy S9+. Without saying too much you can clearly see how the Samsung overexposes. iPhone X and Pixel 2 are very similar and overall on par…That being said, and with Paul's experiences&nbsp;as well, I have no idea how the S9 tops the DxOMark ranking. It's rubbish, doesn't matter if for Apple, Samsung or Google. Other comparisons are better. </p>

    • Winner

      20 March, 2018 - 11:54 am

      <blockquote><a href="#254590"><em>In reply to Nessie:</em></a></blockquote><p>DXO Mark gives the S9 extra points for the dual camera (2x zoom). When you remove those extra points the Pixel still comes out ahead for stills.</p>

  • Travis

    19 March, 2018 - 9:24 pm

    <p>I predict next Paul will be back to an iPhone. </p>

  • dcdevito

    19 March, 2018 - 10:16 pm

    <p>So if the S9 camera isn't the best (great but not lights out) then is the screen and build quality reasons to buy it over the Pixel 2XL? Hmmm</p>

    • gartenspartan

      Premium Member
      20 March, 2018 - 7:02 am

      <blockquote><a href="#254636"><em>In reply to dcdevito:</em></a></blockquote><p>Exaxtly, I'm surprised no other advantages of the s9 are considered , but this will definitely be a subjective call. Obviously Paul loves the photography aspect of phones above all else. But you'll see articles on here with Paul complaining about other aspects of the pixel 2 xl and you would think the overall package would be considered more. There's nothing to say that the gs9 couldn't improve with software updates either. The very first update when I powered on my phone was an update for the camera. </p>

  • marbo100

    20 March, 2018 - 12:28 am

    <p>I do not understand this widespread fascination with cameras and photography from tech writers. If I could have bought a top spec'd phone with a mediocre camera from a major manufacturer and saved a hundred or two, I would have done it. I just don't care about the camera and am getting tired of reviews going on and on about them. Sure, I skip over that part of the review but the conclusions are so biased by that criteria I can't escape it.</p><p><br></p><p>I'm more interested in phones that support bands that extend my carriers LTE coverage. So far I have 4 phones to chose from and the Pixel ain't one of 'em.</p>

    • maethorechannen

      Premium Member
      20 March, 2018 - 5:44 am

      <blockquote><a href="#254642"><em>In reply to marbo100:</em></a></blockquote><p><br></p><p>Not only do I <span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0); background-color: transparent;">not understand this widespread fascination with cameras and photography from tech writers, I'm actually getting kind of sick of it. The constant droning on about the ultimate camera quality with an almost total disregard for everything else.</span></p><p><br></p><p><span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0); background-color: transparent;">If photography is so GD important, why don't they just get a DSLR?</span></p>

    • obarthelemy

      20 March, 2018 - 11:17 am

      <blockquote><a href="#254642"><em>In reply to marbo100:</em></a></blockquote><p>I influence the purchases of about 15 phones around me. Of those, </p><ul><li>10 just don't care about pictures, they either take none at all or barely any (that includes me). To those I recommend Xiaomi Redmis.</li><li>1 says they care but don't. They have either training nor talent and barely take any pictures. They get an iPhone.</li><li>2 care but are rather incompetent photographers. This includes the guy who insists on a top camera and doesn't know what OIS or macro mode are. The issue here is not the camera, it's the photographer. I usually recommend y+1 or y+2 flagships.</li><li>2 care, are at least semi-competent, and do take lots of pictures. Both are mostly motivated by indoors pictures (one has kids, the other is a gym school teacher who shoots review videos / showcases in his gym). Those get current flagships.</li></ul><p>My sample is probably very unrepresentative, but I've never seen any study on how many pics users take, nor how competent they are. I've only see polls about "how important the camera is to you", to which the right answer is "a lot" (specially if someone else is paying, ie parents) so you can get a shiny flagship ^^</p><p><br></p><p>Edit: note it would be impractical for the 2 flagship buyers to carry a camera. The dad has to parent, the teacher has to teach (and got stuff stolen when he put it down). </p>

  • gartenspartan

    Premium Member
    20 March, 2018 - 6:58 am

    <p>Paul, I get photography is perhaps the most important decider here for you, but what about the other factors that are superior by Samsung here. The screen, very important to most, is not even a close call. The headphone jack vs the terrible glitchy dongle situation for music listening. I'm surprised those wouldn't factor in and close the gap with the slightly lower percieved camera quality. </p><p><br></p><p>Personally for me the pixel 2 xl had too many frustrating connection issues as well but many might not have had the same issues. Personally, total package considered, the Galaxy s9 is the better phone in my eyes. </p>

  • Daekar

    20 March, 2018 - 11:19 am

    <p>Leaving aside the weight placed in our personal evaluations on the quality of the camera as a piece of the overall phone experience, what I'm learning from Paul here is that, for photo-plebes like myself, we have officially reached the level of hairsplitting on high-end handsets. I can see the differences between each shot, and given the time that Paul has invested in this comparison I have faith that his evaluation of color accuracy is correct… however, from a functional perspective for my personal needs, there is no meaningful difference. They're both awesome. I would be willing to bet that they both take better pictures than my 10-year-old entry-level DLSR, even with the expensive lens on it. </p><p><br></p><p>I have been using an old Galaxy S5 while my S7 is getting the battery replaced, and the difference between the camera on those two handsets is like night and day, especially in low light. The new ones are just… well, they're so good, I'm tempted to ask "Where do we go from here? Have we hit the point of decreasing returns?"</p>

  • JohnPC

    05 April, 2018 - 1:43 pm

    <p>The real test would be if you could reliably pick out the Pixel pictures in a double-blind test. Have your wife or kids take a bunch. I'm willing to bet you couldn't…</p><p><br></p><p>FWIW, I prefer the S9 flower and beignets pictures. The other two are toss-ups.</p><p><br></p><p>Ultimately, though it is composition and technique that produce memorable pictures. If Ansel Adams could be reanimated, he would blow us all away with my old lowly Lumia 640…</p>

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