Sorry Samsung, But the Pixel 2 XL Wins This One

Posted on March 19, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 23 Comments

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.

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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