Google Pixel camera: How it stacks in a shoot-out vs. iPhone, Samsung

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Google Pixel camera: How it stacks in a shoot-out vs. iPhone, Samsung

The camera on Google's new smartphone is great but not revolutionary.

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Google Pixel camera: How it stacks in a shoot-out vs. iPhone, Samsung

Jefferson Graham , USA TODAY 9:04 a.m. EDT October 18, 2016
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Photographing a Fender Telecaster with the Google Pixel smartphone camera(Photo: Jefferson Graham)

VENICE BEACH, Calif. — Google says its new Pixel smartphone camera is the highest rated smartphone camera ever.

Ever?

Naturally, we set out to find if that was true.

But before we jump into our analysis, some quick housekeeping. Google bases its ad claim on an early review on the mobile smartphone site DxOMark, the lens and camera testing research arm of the DxoLabs camera company.

DxO, which says on its Facebook page that no money exchanged hands for the early review heavily touted in Google’s advertising, gives Pixel all-time high ranking of 89. And that compares to 88 for the Samsung Galaxy S7 and 86 for the iPhone 7.

But take the rankings have to be taken with a grain of salt, because DxoMark hasn’t reviewed the iPhone 7 Plus yet, which has the stronger two-lens package that the iPhone 7 doesn’t have and has been considered the best of show since its September release.

Google is touting a survey from DxOMark Mobile in its

Google is touting a survey from DxOMark Mobile in its ads for Pixel (Photo: Google)

The Pixel has been available in pre-sales, and will be in Verizon and Best Buy stores Thursday, starting at $649 for the 5 inch model, or $769 for the already-sold out 5.5 inch XL.

USA TODAY took out the XL for a shoot-out, along with the iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, attached to a tripod so we could get similar, back to back results. We shot in great light (mid-day) so-so (dusk) and terrible (pre-dawn.) We shot video while walking and bike riding to test the image stabilization for video, and shot panoramas, slow-mo video, quasi-360 “photo spheres” and “lens blur” portraits that uses software to produce a “bokeh” effect that puts the background out of focus.

Photographing Austrian tourists on iPhone 7 Plus, Samsung

Photographing Austrian tourists on iPhone 7 Plus, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and Google Pixel phones (Photo: Robert Hanashiro)

The victor? Well, the results from all 3 are so stellar, they’re a testament to just how good little lenses and software have come to produce 2016 state of the art photography. All three make the $200 point and shoot camera with limited zoom now irrelevant. They’re that good.

That said, I would indeed give the nod to the Pixel by a small hair--9.8 out of 10, to the iPhone 7+’s 9.77 and the Galaxy’s 9.76. It’s that close.

The "bokeh" lens blur effect, on Mr. Jinx the cat.

The "bokeh" lens blur effect, on Mr. Jinx the cat. Look at the top left of the photo to see the blur on his coat. (Photo: Jefferson Graham)

Mr. Jinx without the Bokeh Lens Blur effect

Mr. Jinx without the Bokeh Lens Blur effect (Photo: Jefferson Graham)

It comes down to software and usability.

So let’s dive in:

--The Pixel has a 28mm equivalent back wide angle lens with a f2.0 lens opening. That compares to 28mm f1.9 for the iPhone 7 Plus to 26mm f1.7 for Galaxy. The camera has a 4x digital zoom (software speak for cropping the picture instead of truly zooming in) compared to the 10x digital zoom of the iPhone 7 Plus and 8x for S7. (Like with other digital zooms, the Pixel digital zoom quality is lackluster.)

--The camera icon is front and center on the Pixel home screen, and there’s no need to search for the Camera Roll, or Gallery app to find your stored photos, as they automatically go to Google Photos, the popular Android and iPhone app for archiving photos.

The app offers free unlimited storage for non-Pixel users at a lowered resolution, but on the Pixel, they’re stored at full resolution.

(If you take photos when the phone is offline, they still go to Google Photos, and get uploaded to the cloud when you’re back online.)

Stopping the action on the Google Pixel smartphone

Stopping the action on the Google Pixel smartphone camera in Venice Beach (Photo: Jefferson Graham)

--HDR+. Like the iPhone and Galaxy, Pixel also offers HDR--the ability to take three shots in a row, one at normal exposure, and the other two under and over, and then combined for one perfect shot. The + stands for “low light,” supremacy, Google says.

--Software tricks: They’re found by swiping right to go to video mode, where slow motion (for video) panorama, photo sphere (quasi 360) and lens blur settings are found. Lens blur again puts the center in focus, and you achieve by shooting vertically, and tilting the camera upwards while shooting. This is hard to pull off in a horizontal shot. Burst mode (like the iPhone) lets you hold your finger down on the shutter and get multiple (I picked up to 50) shots at one time--great for action. An added bonus--Google automatically produces an animated GIF from the files, which you can share easily. See the example below.

--Selfies: A switch next to the shutter button lets you flip to the front facing camera for selfie shots.

--Manual overrides: White balance adjustments are at the top of the screen, along with a tab to turn the flash on and off. On screen you can adjust focus and exposure pretty effectively.

The goods:

I’ve posted 30 back to back shots on my http://jeffersongraham.net website. I invite you to go in and check out the complete results.

--Under the Manhattan Beach Pier: At roughly 6:11 a.m., before the sun came up, I went under the Pier to shoot these shots in basically no light, just moonlight reflection on the water. The results are all bad--but the Pixel has slightly more detail. Advantage: Pixel.

--Ice cream cones: A mock multi-colored cone hangs from the Cowboy Cairo restaurant in Venice beach. We shot it three times, with the Pixel just slightly, slightly under-exposed and the Galaxy and iPhone closer--with the iPhone closest to the desired results. Advantage: iPhone.

--Venice skate park: We met a skater named Dudley at the park in Venice beach. Look at the three images, and the Galaxy has the brightest blue sky, the iPhone is a little muted, and the Pixel just about right on. Advantage: Pixel

--Manhattan Beach lifeguard stand. Again, around 6 a.m, before the sun came up, in near total darkness. All three shots are poor--what would you expect from a smartphone camera in the middle of the night?--but the Pixel outperformed the competition here substantially, with the Galaxy the runner-up. Advantage: Pixel.

--Ourselves: We photographed USA TODAY photographer Robert Hanashiro photographing us in bright, amazing sun. The results are all great, with the iPhone color a little washed out, the Pixel about right and the Galaxy a little richer. Advantage: Galaxy.

Despite the hype, the Pixel isn’t a revolutionary camera that will change the way you look at photography and make pros want to ditch their DSLRs. It is another slight step forward in what can be done with a tiny point and shoot lens and software. But most of you won’t be shooting in the middle of the night. For average, daytime snapshots, group photos at restaurants and homes and the like, you can’t go wrong with any of the choices here. And the iPhone 7 Plus adds the secondary portrait lens, which you don't get with the Pixel or the Galaxy.

The results for are all three are so close, but has to go to Pixel by a hair for the low-light software tricks that Google has brought to the party.

Have questions about smartphone photography and the review? Let's chat about it on Twitter, where I'm @jeffersongraham. I also invite you to follow me on Facebook, and listen to the daily #TalkingTech podcast on Stitcher and iTunes.

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