Google Pixel 3 camera shootout

Smartphone cameras have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. The Google Pixel 3 hasn’t improved too much on the Pixel 2’s impressive performance, but it does a few key things differently. To see just how well the Pixel 3 stacks up against the rest of the premium smartphone crop, we put it up against the Pixel 2, iPhone Xs Max, LG V40, Samsung Galaxy Note 9, and Huawei P20 Pro (I unfortunately did not have access to a Mate 20 Pro at the time).

In this shootout, you’ll be able to clearly see where each device leads the pack, where things are too close to call, and where things go terribly wrong. Night Sight was not officially available on my Pixel 3 at the time these shots were taken, so we’ll have to come back to that. Let’s dive right in. To truly see the differences, you can see all of the hi-res original photo samples for each device at the links below:

Exterior building

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

Both Pixels have high contrast and saturate the red in the vehicle nicely. The iPhone handles the red similarly but is a little flatter throughout. Both Pixels look slightly underexposed compared to the rest of the phones, with the shaded areas of ivy under the scaffolding particularly losing detail where the dynamic range of other phones pick up more detail.

The V40 and Note 9 struggle to clearly define the smaller text on the signs and the P20 Pro’s heavy processing doesn’t do it any favors. Huawei’s device does manage to get as much detail as the top contenders, though. Especially if you zoom into the brick wall. You can clearly see more sharpening in the newer Pixel compared to last year’s model and less noise overall.

The V40 is the worst performer here, followed by the Note 9 and P20 Pro, with the iPhone Xs Max and two Pixels at the top — which you prefer will depend on whether you like the higher contrast and darker result of the Pixels or the flatter and more evenly exposed iPhone shot.

Manhattan skyline – wide

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

On a gloomy day in NYC, the iPhone Xs Max managed to add the most texture to the flat gray sky. The Note 9 and P20 Pro had the best white balance despite the tricky lighting, while the Pixel 3 and iPhone Xs Max tried too hard to turn the sky blue (which it most definitely was not).

Zoom in on the Empire State Building and you can see the Pixels and iPhone produced very similar detail and clarity. The Note 9 and P20 Pro exhibit the same degree of sharpening which looks great at a distance but a little fake up close. The V40 is far too muddy and noisy to be a contender here.

Related: Google Pixel 3 vs Huawei P20 Pro camera comparison

Manhattan skyline – zoomed

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

The P20 Pro has a 3x optical zoom while the iPhone Xs Max, LG V40 and Note 9 all have 2x optical. The Pixels use digital zoom only. As you might expect, the 3x optical zoom on the P20 Pro reveals far more detail on the Empire State Building’s spire and it is the only camera to clearly recreate the horizontal lines on the building at the base of the Empire State. Looking at the 2x optical devices, the Note 9 and iPhone Xs Max are the best up close, producing very similar results. The Note 9 manages slightly better detail and better contrast than the iPhone.

When zooming, the Pixels struggle due to the lack of a secondary lens – but are still comparable to the LG V40 which has a 2x lens.

The Pixels struggle without a secondary lens, but their images are still comparable to the LG V40 (which has one). The Pixel 3 has significantly less noise than the Pixel 2 and resolves more detail, as seen in the glass building at the base of the Empire State. The Pixel 3’s processing starts to wade into P20 Pro territory with artificial sharpness replacing the noisy realism of the Pixel 2. I prefer this approach — less noise and sharper detail — but it likely won’t please fans of previous Pixels. The V40 is again quite muddy with plenty of artifacts surrounding the buildings.

Mural

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

This colorful mural of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat reveals a lot about how each camera saturates color. Looking at the yellow triangle in the center, the iPhone and Pixels saturate it a lot, while the P20 Pro (with Master AI enabled) sits at the other end of the spectrum. The iPhone and Pixels saturate to the same degree but the Pixel 3 plucks out slightly greater texture on the wall. In terms of realism, I’d say it’s a close race between these three phones. The Note 9 exhibits a metric ton of detail — it’s actually too much — by unrealistically enhancing the edges of every single part of the wall.

Diner interior

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

There are three parts worth noting in this dark interior: the wine glasses on the table, the window to the left of frame, and the dark area behind the bench closer to the camera.

All phones handle the glasses similarly. The Note 9’s effort is a little noisy, but maintains fine detail the best. The Pixels are noisier and demonstrate less sharpness, but the Pixel 3 slightly outperforms its predecessor. The iPhone really struggles to define the edges of the glasses or napkins with the image breaking down noticeably. The P20 Pro shot is the worst of the bunch. Given the gloomy interior, all phones performed pretty admirably.

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

The window is where things get interesting. The Pixel 3 is by far the best here, capturing the most realistic and detailed scene. The Pixel 2 is more blown out and demonstrates far less dynamic range. The P20 Pro is less detailed, but still quite realistic. The iPhone has better clarity but the flat coloring generates a bizarre otherworldly scene. Once again, the V40’s aggressive processing produces a comically bizarre-looking result. The Note 9 is just plain fuzzy.

As for the third factor (the back of the bench), this is a clear way to distinguish dynamic range capabilities. The more detail and better exposed this shaded area is, the more a phone can do to level out exposure in a scene with multiple light levels. The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 2 are the obvious winners here, with a wider well-exposed area and more texture in the details. The Huawei P20 Pro follows with fair quality, but the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, LG V40, and iPhone Xs Max fail miserably. Balancing out the glasses against the window and the bench, the Pixel 3 is the clear winner here.

Evening exterior

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

At first glance, the street scene at dusk shows just how far low light performance and noise reduction has come. There’s still plenty of light in this scene though and it proves tricky for more than a few of these phones. The P20 Pro does the best job of not blowing out the shop’s interior, though it leans heavily on processing to define features around the neon open sign to the right of the open door. The V40 and Note 9 follow not too far behind. While the Pixel 2, Pixel 3 and iPhone Xs Max all blow out the interior highlights, all three show much greater detail on the shelves inside. The three results are almost indistinguishable up close.

The Note 9 resolves the least detail on the white window ledges at the top of the building and is much darker than the other shots. The V40 doesn’t capture much more detail on the ledges but does lighten up the left side of the building noticeably. The P20 Pro provides marginally better detail, but only the Pixels and the iPhone offered realistic-looking detail, where we can clearly make out the brickwork. The iPhone exhibits less noise in this area, however, and overall comes out on top.

The P20 Pro provides marginally better detail but it isn’t until you get to the Pixels and iPhone that realistic-looking detail is visible.

One more subject I would like to touch on is motion blur. Because these shots are taken in the dark, the shutter speed usually needs to slow down, which might affect the image if there are moving objects or you just happen to have shaky hands. The LG V40 and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 can’t manage freezing the moving cars, for example. This would look cool if done on purpose and the shutter speed was even slower, but it just looks like a mishap here. For these specific photos, much of the detail is lost. This could be simple over-softening, though.

Portrait mode

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

First up, faces. The first thing to notice here is the iPhone Xs Max’s exposure is darker than the Android phones. It also over-saturates the skin, making it far pinker than the rest. The Note 9 and P20 Pro show evidence of a residual beauty mode, even though I had all settings turned off, with the pores on my nose noticeably less visible on the Note 9. Both the P20 Pro and Note 9 are also softer on detail. Sharpness is better on the Pixel 3 than the Pixel 2, most easily seen in the whiskers of my beard while the iPhone sits somewhere in the middle. The Pixel 3 wins this part.

Now, on to portrait mode background blurring.

Before we move onto edge detection around my hair, let’s look at the earbud cables in these portrait mode selfies. Only the Pixel 3 manages to keep them entirely in the foreground, but that was also the only shot where they lay close to my face. The Note 9 does a decent job keeping the earbud cables in focus. The iPhone Xs Max and P20 Pro do a comically bad job of blurring them out. The V40 gets the wires wrong, but does a better job of obfuscating them than most.

My unruly hair is the ultimate test for portrait mode edge detection and I’m yet to see any phone do a really good job of it.

My unruly hair is the ultimate test for portrait mode edge detection and I’ve yet to see any phone do a really good job with it. Surprisingly the LG V40 managed the best here, with only a little weird blurring going on where the skyline in the back meets my hair. Notably, the wild strands at the top of my head remain in focus, something no other phone got right.

The Note 9 did perhaps the best job at gradually blurring out my hair realistically (rather than having the hard edge between foreground and background hair most phones demonstrate), but I think the overall image is just too soft. The iPhone attempts a similar graduated effect but fails at it. Both the Pixels do a decent job at cutting my head out, but the effect is unrealistic. The P20 Pro does a decent job until you get to my right cheek when everything goes to crap fast.

While no phone did an exceptional job, it’s still interesting to see the approach each camera takes: whether it tries to differentiate between hair at the front of my head and hair at the back, or if it takes all of my hair as foreground and only tries to separate the actual background.

All phones did a nice job on the actual background, but I prefer the added detail in the water closer to the bottom of the frame in the shots by the iPhone, Pixel 3 and Note 9 to the generic background blur of the V40. Given the iPhone’s issues with skin and horrendous earbud treatment, it’s out of the running for me. The Note 9 managed the background and earbud wires well but the super soft skin is wrong. That leaves me with the Pixel 3, which handled the earbuds well (perhaps through unfair advantage), did a pretty good job on my hair, and handled the background nicely with plenty of good detail in the face.

Old building

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

In the high contrast shot of the corner of the old brick building, none of the cameras manage to get much out of the cloudy sky. The iPhone Xs Max fails the most miserably, completely blowing out the right-hand side of the shot while turning the left hand side unnaturally blue. The P20 Pro gets the best texture across the sky, followed by the Note 9. Note: In all of these shots, the focal point was on the front-most corner of the building.

Looking at the rest of the shot, the P20 Pro turned the sky too gray, messed with the white balance and made the building a little too orange. I suspect this was the work of Master AI, but I can’t recall if it kicked in or not when I took the shot. The other phones handled colors much better, barring the iPhone which overexposed the shot.

If we zoom into the set of windows at the corner above the white wall, we can see only the iPhone managed to properly outline the columns inside and does a good job at creating realistic detail on the building’s exterior. Both Pixels are very close to the iPhone and look almost identical to one another. The Note 9 and P20 Pro exhibit similar sharpening around the brickwork and windows, with just a bit more contrast in the P20 Pro. Neither looks terribly good up close. The V40 is muddy and lacks detail once again. This one definitely goes to the iPhone and the Pixels.

Fruit and vegetable stand

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

All six phones did a great job with the produce stand at night, mainly differing in saturation and white balance. Looking at the pickles and tomatoes on the corner, the Pixel 3 does a much better job than the Pixel 2, handling both the highlights on the tomatoes and detail on the pickles better. There’s also a bit less noise. The iPhone handles the highlights well too, but doesn’t get as much detail as the Pixel 3. The V40 is a little soft and washed out, but not terribly so. The Note 9 produces a slightly more lively palette, but lacks details on the pickles. The P20 Pro processes too hard as usual, with too much contrast and no real detail.

Dynamic range is important in night time photography (especially when artificial light is present). With darkness and harsh lights, shadows are tough to deal with. To see performance in this matter just look at that shadow under the shelf above the pickles, right below the watermelon in the center. How much can you see down there?

All six phones did a great job of the fruit and veg stand at night, but I’m giving this one to the Pixel 3.

The Huawei P20 Pro’s aggressive approach to crushing blacks performs the worst in this area. The contrast is too high, so the shaded area is almost totally blacked out. The iPhone Xs seems to do pretty well at this, and the Pixel 3 is probably the next best contender. The other phones provide varying degrees of OK.

Looking at the top left corner of the shot, the P20 Pro again crushes the blacks in the hanging flowers and is altogether too contrasty. The Note 9 and Pixel 2 get a little noisy on the white underside of the roof but both offer similar levels of detail. The iPhone displays less noise than the Note 9 or Pixel 2. The V40 does a surprisingly good job in this section, with little noise and good detail, but the contrasty processing lets it down a bit, producing an unrealistic effect under scrutiny. The Pixel 3 produces less noise and more detail than the Pixel 2 in this section and is altogether a more balanced and pleasing result overall. I’m giving this one to the Pixel 3.

Low light bar interior

Google Pixel 3 camera
Google Pixel 2 camera
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera
iPhone Xs Max camera
Huawei P20 Pro camera
LG V40 camera

The bar interior shows just how far smartphone cameras have come in low light situations. The Pixels handled the lamp very well, again with less noise and better detail in the Pixel 3. The V40 brings out the shadows just as well, but over-processes too much, highlighting edges at the cost of realism. The Note 9 seems a little soft and the P20 Pro completely blows out the lamplight. Both phones get the white balance wrong. The iPhone balances out the extremes very well but captures the least lively lamp shade.

White balance isn’t just about being warmer or cooler, it’s also about the tint — the balance between green and purple. See how the V40 image looks really purple? It is way off. You can tell the difference in things like the skin and the paper by the lamp.

The bar interior shows just how far smartphone cameras have come in low light situations.

The iPhone struggles to bring out the alcohol bottles on the bottom shelf but is arguably more authentic looking than some. The Pixel 2 lightens things up a bit but is again quite noisy. The Pixel 3 reduces that visible grain and adds a little sharpening for better definition without going overboard. The Note 9 has a natural look in this area, even with the yellowish white balance. However, it can’t produce as much detail as the P20 Pro, which for a change doesn’t overdo the processing. As expected, the V40 does, and ends up looking a little cartoonish. All in all, every phone did great in this very tricky situation but I’m giving this one to the Pixel 3 as well.

Conclusion

The story the images above tell is pretty consistent. For starters, each phone performed very well across a variety of different scenarios, barring perhaps the LG V40. These days you need to really nitpick a flagship phone’s camera to claim it’s significantly better than the rest — they’re all just that good.

I would happily trade in a perfect shot every now and then for an almost-perfect shot every single time – that is what the Pixel 3 provides.

Some conclusions are clear, as you likely noticed with the recurring observations I made about phones in different sections. These results are not one-off accidents, but because of how each company has tuned its image processing and the capabilities of the hardware. While each camera performed exceedingly well in several specific areas or lighting conditions, I can confidently say the Google Pixel 3 performed the most reliably the most often. I, like most people, would happily trade in a perfect shot every now and then for an almost-perfect shot every single time — that’s what the Pixel 3 offers. For that fact alone it is my choice here.

Note: We’ll be comparing the Pixel 3 to the Huawei Mate 20 Pro soon enough, and as soon as Night Sight is officially available we’ll be revisiting the Pixel 3 camera.

Next: Here’s what the Pixel 3’s Night Sight can do

There are a lot of big phones out there, but which is right for you?

Let’s face it: big phones are here to stay. Samsung first made people want them with the original Galaxy Note, and we have not looked back since. Even companies like Apple, which stuck to smaller smartphones for years, eventually followed the trend with the iPhone 6 Plus in 2014.

There are now more options than ever when looking for a smartphone with a big displays — it’s easy to get overwhelmed. This is especially true right now, as the fall has brought a ton of new phones, many packing large screens.

Whether you are undecided or simply want a second opinion, here is our list of the best big phones available right now. 


Best all-around: Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is one of the best big phones you can buy

Want a big 6.3-inch AMOLED display and equally-large 4,000mAh battery? They’re here. Looking for at least 6GB of RAM and at least 128GB of expandable storage? Look no further. Hate notches? There isn’t one in sight. The Note 9 even comes with the series’ characteristic S Pen, which now adds tons of extra functionality via Bluetooth. The phone has no peer when it comes to its sheer number of features.

Why you should buy

  • The bright and large display is the best on the market,
  • If you can think of a software feature, it probably has it.
  • The S Pen brings features that no other phone has.

Why you might want to pass

  • The phone starts at $1,000.
  • Bixby continues to not be particularly good and its button cannot be officially remapped.
  • Based on precedent, software updates will be slow to arrive.

Learn more about the Galaxy Note 9


Best Galaxy Note 9 alternative: LG V40 ThinQ

LG V40 ThinQ in hand showing home screen

The story of the LG V40 ThinQ starts and ends with its five cameras — three around back and two up front — something no other phone’s done. Even though we were not very kind to the V40 ThinQ, the phone has potential options not seen in other phones.

Why you should buy

  • The phone can take regular, wide-angle, and telephoto shots.
  • The 32-bit Quad DAC pumps out great audio through the headphone jack.
  • The Google Assistant button is actually useful.

Why you might want to pass

  • The images do not live up to the hype.
  • The features do not justify its almost-$1,000 price tag.
  • Based on precedent, software updates will be extremely slow.

Learn more about the LG V40 ThinQ


Best big phone with stock Android: Google Pixel 3 XL

Pixel 3 XL - best big phone for stock fans

It might not have the bells and whistles of the Galaxy Note 9 and V40 ThinQ, but the Pixel 3 XL focuses on speed, ease of use, and being helpful. We didn’t call the Pixel 3 XL the Android iPhone for “the clicks” or lulz, but because it is the Android phone designed to appeal to everyone else. Its value is more than just specs on paper.

Why you should buy

  • The software is extremely fluid and gets updates directly from Google.
  • The single rear camera delivers an excellent and consistent photo-taking experience.
  • The learning curve is one of the smallest we have seen from an Android phone.

Why you might want to pass

  • You do not want to spend $899 on a smartphone.
  • Most of its headlining software features will trickle down to existing Pixels.
  • There is a lack of widespread availability.

Learn more about the Google Pixel 3 XL


Best big phone on the cheap: Honor 8X

It’s not as flashy as the Galaxy Note 9 or as fluid as the Pixel 3 XL, but the Honor 8X one of the best mid-tier smartphones and one of the best affordable big phones you can buy. This is a supersized phablet that comes in at under 300 euros (~$345), yet it delivers snappy performance and a stunning design. Look no further than the Honor 8X if you want a smartphone to make your wallet happy.

Why should you buy

  • The 3,750mAh battery has no problem surviving two days of use.
  • The premium design, performance, and storage options are a cut above your typical mid-tier smartphone.
  • You can buy four Honor 8Xs for the price of one Galaxy Note 9.

Why you might want to pass

  • The camera performance is hit or miss.
  • Dated hardware choices, such as a Micro-USB port and single bottom-firing speaker.
  • There is no IP rating.

Learn more about the Honor 8X


Best non-Android: iPhone XS Max

In any discussion of big phones, the iPhone XS Max is the elephant in the room. Notch haters will gravitate to the top, but everyone else will focus on the smooth performance, fantastic display, and great cameras. It may be cliche, but the iPhone XS Max is what happens when hardware and software meet in the middle as equals. Also, you really don’t have many other options for non-Android these days, with Windows Mobile pretty much dead.

Why you should buy

  • The A12 Bionic and iOS 12 optimizations deliver excellent performance.
  • The display rivals the Galaxy Note 9.
  • The phone slots in nicely with the rest of Apple’s ecosystem.

Why you might want to pass

  • The phone starts at $1,099.
  • The software does not make proper use of the large display.
  • Reports of phones not charging and antenna problems.

Learn more about the iPhone XS Max


We will continually update this list as manufacturers release more phones. You should also look out for the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and Mate 20 X, though we haven’t had enough time to fully review them. Perhaps one or both will make the list soon!

If you feel like we left something out or believe we nailed it, let us know in the comments below!

We asked, you told us: The Note 9 is for power users, but the Mate 20 Pro is a close second

Huawei Mate 20 fingerprint reader

With the release of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, there’s finally an Android smartphone made for power users that competes against the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. With that said, we decided to ask all of you if you would rather buy the Mate 20 Pro or the Galaxy Note 9.

Spec-for-spec, the two handsets are almost identical. Both feature QHD+ displays that are over six-inches in size, high-quality CPUs, and 6GB of RAM — although the 512GB Note 9 model comes with 8GB. Other than the software experience that either manufacturer installs on its phones, the only significant differences is the inclusion of the headphones jack and S Pen found with the Galaxy Note 9.

Which is the better power user phone: Huawei Mate 20 Pro or Galaxy Note 9?

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Results

As you can see from the four polls that we ran, the Galaxy Note 9 barely beat out the Mate 20 Pro. Coming in with an average of 55 percent of the votes, Samsung’s flagship keeps it power user Android smartphone crown.

Unsurprisingly, it appears that the deciding factor for a majority of the voters came down to the standout features found in each device. For Galaxy Note 9 voters, they stated that they preferred the Samsung Experience, S Pen, the high-quality display, and the headphone jack. Mate 20 Pro voters overwhelmingly commented most about the larger 4,200mAh battery and how power users required the longer battery life.

Noteworthy comments

Here are some of the comments from across the polls – many stern in their vote for the Galaxy Note 9 or Mate 20 Pro:

  • Huawei mate 20 Pro is better for power user because of its new Kirin 980 processor based on 7nm manufacturing process.
  • the note 9 at least it’s doesn’t have that god dammed fugly notch!
  • How can you possibly consider the Note 9 a power user’s phone? Samsung Experience is awful, and is way too locked down to actually do anything.
  • though the mate 20 pro is a beast,it still can’t match the smartness of a bluetooth s pen ;that’s why we call it note
  • Mate by far. Samsung devices have terrible battery life and they always lag. Hell I’d put my Mate 10 Pro up against the Note 9 in the battery department.
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 9 for me, personally. Mainly due to the fact that it and every future Samsung Note device most likely will be available here in the USA on my current carrier, Verizon Wireless.

And then there’s those that voted based on the fact that they never used a Huawei phone before:

  • My vote is kind of flawed because I own a Note 9, currently using it, and I’ve never used a Huawei; any Huawei.

That’s it for this week, everyone. As always, thanks for voting, thanks for the comments, and don’t forget to let us know what you thought of the results below.