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Google Pixel XL and Apple iPhone 7 Plus camera comparison: is the Pixel really better?

|October 18, 2016 |Mobiles, Apple iPhone, Google, Apple, Cameras, Camera Phones, Comparisons, Camera Review

"Google claims the Pixel XL's smartphone is the best one yet, but is it really? We find out"

When Google launched its new Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones earlier this month, it made a big deal about the 12MP camera inside its new phones. On stage, Google highlighted the fact that the Pixel is the highest rated smartphone with 89 points on DxOMark - an industry-wide standard benchmark for mobile cameras. Therefore, when Google sent over a review unit of the Pixel XL we wanted to find out if the camera is really that good. And, since the Pixel is Google’s torchbearer for Android, we decided to pit it directly against Apple’s best - the iPhone 7 Plus (first impressions). We compared the camera samples from both these phones shot in a variety of light sources. Which one came out on top? Well, read till the end to find out. 


Specifications and camera app

The Google Pixel XL’s primary 12MP camera uses a 1/2.3-inch sensor and the lens has an aperture of f/2.0. It also has a pixel size of 1.55µm, which is rather large. On the front, you have an 8MP shooter with a 1/3.2-inch sensor size, an aperture of f/2.4, and a 1.4µm pixel size. The rear camera can shoot 4K videos at 30fps and 720p slow-motion video at 240fps. You can also shoot full HD (1080p) videos using the front camera.

The iPhone 7 Plus, on the other hand, has a dual camera setup. There are two 12MP cameras: one has a 1/3-inch sensor and the other one rocks a 1/3.6-inch sensor. On paper, this indicates the Pixel XL has a better camera but we will save that judgement for our real-world tests. The iPhone 7 Plus also comes with a 7MP front-facing camera. Just like the Pixel XL, the iPhone 7 Plus can also shoot 4K videos at 30fps and 720p slow-motion video at 240fps, and 1080p videos using the front camera.

Both the camera apps have quite a similar interface in that they come with a massive shutter button at the bottom flanked on the either side by the photo library and a button to switch to the front camera. The iPhone 7 Plus’ different modes - Slo-mo, Video, Portrait, Time-lapse and the likes - can be invoked by sliding between the screens. On the Pixel you have a dedicated list toggle on the top edge for modes like Slow Motion, Lens Blur, and Panorama. Other settings like HDR, and temperature are also set up nicely along the top edge. Both the apps do not provide any granular controls for manual shooting, which is a bit of a letdown considering the pedigree of the sensors used in them. In any case, there are a plethora of third-party apps you can use to quench the pro photography thirst in you. For the sake of this comparison, we will stick to the default app only considering most users will stick to the Auto mode anyway.

Important points to note:

  • The Google Pixel shoots in HDR+ by default and for the purpose of this shoot out we have decided to shut it off.
  • If you are viewing this on a desktop browser, the images on the left are the ones shot by the Google Pixel XL and the one on the right has been shot using the iPhone 7 Plus. On mobile, the images on top are shot using the Pixel XL whereas the ones on the bottom are from the iPhone 7 Plus. 
  • To look at the minute details in our camera samples we’d advice you to click on the photo to view the full resolution ones.
  • While we have used the Pixel XL in our review, the results are applicable to the Pixel as well because both use the exact same cameras.

Long shot

google_pixel_xl_long iphone_7_plus_long

In our first test we took a long shot of a busy road in the city of Gurgaon, India. There are multiple elements like parked motorbikes and cars, a metro station under construction, and the early evening sky. On first glance, you will notice that the iPhone 7 Plus has a warmer tone overall but the sky’s colour is more accurate. There is also a bit of lens distortion - which is barely visible - in both the camera samples. The overall exposure is, however, better on the Google Pixel XL’s image. Moreover, it is clearly evident that the Pixel offers better fidelity in the details compared to the iPhone 7 Plus.

google_pixel_xl_long_2 iphone_7_plus_long_2

This fact becomes more evident in our second long shot of the buildings. If you notice closely, the Paras Twin Towers building on the left has these vents that are clearly defined in the Pixel XL’s shot. Furthermore, even the colour saturation is more accurate in the Pixel XL sample if you look at the Nearbuy logo; it is meant to be closer to the red that we see in the Pixel XL and not the maroonish shade that you get in the iPhone 7 sample. So, it starts off with a victory in round one for the Google Pixel XL.

Google Pixel XL - 1, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 0

Close up

google_pixel_closeup_white_flower iphone_7_plus_white_flower_closeup

For the close up, we chose this white flower as the subject. When the focus is on a white object, we can clearly identify the colour tone that the camera’s software veers towards. In this scenario, the iPhone 7 Plus produced a warmer image and the Google Pixel produced a cooler one. We prefer the warmer colour tone because it is easier on the eye but it is quite understandable that someone might like the colour tone of the Pixel. Moreover, very surprisingly, the reproduction of details on both the cameras are almost identical. So, which one is better? We’ll call this round a tie.

Google Pixel XL - 1, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 1


google_pixel_xl_hdr iphone_7_plus_hdr

The HDR mode is where the Pixel XL’s camera eats the iPhone 7 Plus’ for dinner, chews it, and spits it out. The Pixel XL’s camera has an HDR+ mode, which essentially makes use of the immense power offered by the Snapdragon 821 processor to shoot HDR images much faster than other smartphones. In fact, Google is so confident of this mode that it has made it default on the phone. However, note that the Pixel XL only captures the HDR image whereas the iPhone 7 Plus captures an HDR sample and a non-HDR one too. Coming to the quality, you will notice that in our sample shot - apart from shooting the image faster - it also derives more information from the highlights and shadows to offer a better dynamic range. If you look closely at the iPhone 7 Plus sample, you will see that the bird right next to the sun has ghosting which indicates that the iPhone’s software took a little more time to shoot the three images necessary to stitch an HDR shot. In this round, the Pixel XL wins by a knockout.

Google Pixel XL - 1, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 0


google_pixel_xl_dof iphone_7_plus_dof

Now, the Portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus uses the power of the dual cameras to shoot a good booked effect and since the Pixel XL also offers a Lens Blur mode we decided to add it to the shootout. In our testing, we found out that the iPhone 7 Plus’ camera software has a better algorithm to make the cutout look more natural and close to a DSLR’s performance. Having said that, the Pixel XL’s image is not too bad either. Also, the Pixel software is a little iffy to use and to actually get a usable image you have to struggle a little.

Google Pixel XL - 0, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 1

Low light

google_pixel_low_light iphone_7_plus_low_light

Low light situations really test the mettle of a smartphone camera. We shot this pot of artificial flowers in a semi-dark room to test the two cameras. What we noticed is the Pixel XL has a tendency of cracking up the ISO - in this case the iPhone 7 Plus resorts to an ISO speed of 1,250 whereas the Pixel XL cranks it all the way up to 4,800. As a result, quite evidently, the noise levels are higher in the Pixel XL shot. Since there is no way to adjust the ISO in the Pixel XL’s default camera, we think that the iPhone 7 Plus trumps it in this round.

Google Pixel XL - 0, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 1

Low light (with flash)

google_pixel_flash iphone_7_plus_with_flash

In this round we shot the same flower pot using the flash on both the smartphones. The iPhone 7 Plus has a quad-LED flash and it lights up the subject evenly when compared to the Pixel XL, which has a dual-LED flash. Quite evidently, the final image is better on the iPhone 7 Plus.

Google Pixel XL - 0, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 1


google_pixel_xl_night iphone_7_plus_night

Once again, in a darker scenario, the Pixel XL tends to use a much higher ISO speed of ISO2900 compared to the ISO125 speed used by the iPhone 7 Plus. The resulting image on the iPhone 7 Plus has better contrast and more control over the exposure making it look better than the Pixel’s shot. We think that the iPhone 7 Plus wins here once again.

Google Pixel XL - 0, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 1


google_pixel_xl_indoor_low_light iphone_7_plus_indoor_low_light

We believe that most people will shoot a lot of images indoors in dimly-lit situations. In this sample test, we have three subjects in the frame. The sample shot of the Google Pixel XL is more saturated than that of the iPhone 7 Plus. However, on closer inspection you will notice that there is more noise in Pixel XL’s shot. That said, the Pixel XL offers a better dynamic range when you look at the light emanating from the phone screen of the person looking into it. We think this one goes to the Pixel XL.

Google Pixel XL - 1, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 0


google_pixel_xl_selfie iphone_7_plus_selfie

Now, if you are a fan of selfies then you should definitely choose the Pixel XL over the iPhone 7 Plus. Apart from offering a higher resolution 8MP image, the Pixel XL also offers better details, a wider area of view, and more accurate colours than the iPhone 7 Plus’ 7MP camera. Take a look at our selfies for a better idea.

Google Pixel XL - 1, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 0

Video (4K)

We shot a 4K video using both the phones. Despite the lack of OIS on the Pixel XL, it still does a very good job of stabilising the video well; in fact, it does as good a job as the iPhone 7 Plus. Interestingly, the footages shot by both the phone showcase a similar amount of details and even the exposures are quite similar too. Both the phones record AAC audio in mono but the Pixel XL offers a higher bit rate and sounds much better overall.  This is definitely a major advantage and the one point that gives it an edge over the iPhone 7 Plus. Pixel XL wins this one. 

Google Pixel XL - 1, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 0

Video (slow motion)

Up until now, the iPhone 7 Plus has been the benchmark for slow motion videos shot at 720p resolution and 240fps. This fact changes with the Pixel XL because in our test we found out that it is quite a bit better than the iPhone 7 Plus. The slow motion video of this water fountain captured by the Pixel XL offered more fidelity in the motion images and even the sound recording was better. If you are surprised by this conclusion, we are too quite honestly.

Google Pixel XL - 1, Apple iPhone 7 Plus - 0


If you’ve been reading this camera comparison from the start (and if we have managed to keep you hooked), then we are pretty sure that you must have tallied the points. Well, the Pixel XL’s camera wins our camera shootout; it scored 7 points in all our parameters whereas the iPhone 7 Plus scored 5.

(Also read: 
Apple iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S7 camera comparison: the best shooter around?)

Does this indicate clearly that the Pixel XL camera is better than the iPhone 7 Plus’? Well, no. We say this because the Pixel XL might offer a better performance in daylight situations but its tendency to resort to higher ISO speeds to shoot low light images works against it. In comparison, the iPhone 7 Plus offers a better low light shot each time we fired its shutter button. Although, the video  footage shot on the Pixel XL sort of gives it an edge over the iPhone 7 Plus and that could be enough to sway your buying decision. In any case, Google has a winner in the Pixel’s camera, but is it the best? Maybe not.

P.S. Stay tuned for our in-depth comparison of the Pixel XL with the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge (review).

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