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Pixel 3 vs. iPhone XS: Which phone has the best camera and portrait mode?

It's a camera showdown between two of the hottest phones of 2018.

John Kim/CNET

How does the camera on Google's Pixel 3 compare to Apple's iPhone XS? Most importantly, the Pixel 3 has a single lens on the back. Google is betting big that it can beat out the dual camera on the iPhone XS and even the quad-camera setup on other phones. With camera quality as one of the most important decision factors in buying a new phone, it's time to compare the single-lens Pixel with the dual-lens iPhone XS.

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Remember the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL share the same camera (as do the iPhone XS and XS Max), so results should be the same regardless of which size you choose. And the Pixel 3 has two lenses around the front, while the iPhone has one.

I took these flagship phones to the wax works of Madame Tussauds, the spooky San Francisco Dungeon and the Aquarium of the Bay to capture everything from portraits to extreme low-light photos.

iPhone XS vs. Pixel 3 camera specs


iPhone XS Pixel 3
Rear camera Dual 12-megapixel Single 12-megapixel
Wide-angle lens 26mm f/1.8 28mm f/1.8
Telephoto lens 51mm f/2.4 N/A
Optical image stabilization Yes, both rear cameras Yes (rear) and electronic
Front camera type TrueDepth 27mm f/2.2 Dual 28mm f/1.8 and 19mm f/2.2
Front camera resolution 7-megapixel 8-megapixel
Autofocus (rear camera) Contrast, phase Dual-pixel phase detection
4K video Yes (24/30/60 fps) Yes (30 fps)
Audio Stereo recording Stereo recording
Video extended dynamic range Yes, up to 30fps No
Stabilization on front camera Yes (1080/720p) No

Read CNET's reviews of the Pixel 3 and iPhone XS here.

HDR and general photos on both are fantastic

It's called HDR+ or HDR+ Extended on the Pixel 3, while the iPhone XS has Smart HDR. Both work in similar ways, by combining multiple exposures to boost the dynamic range of your photos.

Images look great from both phones when you're shooting in bright, outdoor light. Expect true-to-life colors and pleasing saturation from both. Turning HDR on really helps save shadow and highlight detail in your shots, and I thought both phones did a great job here.

But I think the Pixel 3's photos look a touch more saturated than those from the iPhone XS's, particularly when reviewing on the phones. I'm not a huge fan of oversaturated photos, but you might be. When I look at images on a computer screen, colors from the Pixel 3 are a bit closer to the real scene, but I can still see a difference.

As always, your mileage will vary depending on what screen you view on.

Portrait mode

You'll be happy with portrait mode on either phone and be able to take stunning shots. Both let you adjust the bokeh (background blur) after the shot has been taken.

The iPhone XS lets you simulate changing the f-stop on a lens as you move the slider all the way from f1.4 to f16. The Pixel 3 just has a regular slider without f-stop increments, but adds the option of also being able to adjust foreground blur and focus point.

Portraits from the Pixel look pin-sharp and pop off the screen. But the blur effect can be confused by busy backgrounds or curly hair. I had a few instances where I could see a line between the subject and where the blur kicks in, like in the image below. Or where the Pixel just got the area to blur wrong altogether.

portrait-facepaint

On some Pixel 3 portraits, the blur effect isn't rendered naturally, like here on the left side of the hair.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The iPhone XS portraits can look more flattering on faces because Smart HDR evens out shadows and highlights. The XS also has a more natural-looking blur that simulates the falloff from a shallow depth-of-field effect from a DSLR lens, rather than the stark contrast between subject and blur like on the Pixel 3.

The iPhone XS also has the option of adding different lighting effects to photos shot in portrait mode.

Overall, this category is really hard to separate and results aren't always consistent: for some subjects I prefer the Pixel 3, but others, the iPhone XS looks much better.

Super Res Zoom on the Pixel 3 is almost as good as optical zoom

With just one rear camera, you might think the Pixel 3 is at an immediate disadvantage compared to the optical 2x zoom on the iPhone. I did too, until I tried zooming in on the Pixel.

A feature called Super Res Zoom takes a burst of images and combines them using super resolution techniques. It kicks in after 1.2x zoom, and it's impressive. As you can see in the photo below, the Pixel 3 definitely keeps up with the optical zoom on the iPhone, whether you're shooting in bright, outdoor conditions or a low-light cavern. It retains detail and doesn't have the same "crunchy" look that digital zoom usually does.

lowlightcrop-xs-3

A comparison between the 2x Super Res Zoom on the Pixel 3 and the 2x optical zoom on the iPhone XS, with 100 percent crops inset.

Lexy

But it's not perfect and if you look at images at full resolution, you will see there's slightly less detail captured on the Pixel 3's shot compared to the iPhone XS's. Also, Super Res Zoom does tend to fall apart at the most extreme end of the scale, so if you need to get really close don't expect to capture every single detail. Still, it's nice to have the option.

Selfies on the Pixel 3: Like having a permanent selfie-stick

There are more options for selfie-fans on the Pixel 3. Google's phone has two front-facing cameras; one lens has a 75-degree regular field of view while the other has a 97-degree wide field of view. This means you can get a lot more in the shot just by "zooming out," whether that's more people in a group or a wider view of the background. It's like a virtual selfie stick for people like me who don't do real selfie sticks.

That said, you will experience some slight distortion when you use the wider lens. Faces on the side of the frame can look a little warped (this is typical of many wide-angle lenses), and the arm you use to hold the phone can look comically long in the shot.

pixel3selfie

A selfie taken on the front-face camera with the normal and wide-angle lenses.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Like the rear camera, I prefer the portrait mode from the iPhone XS front-facing camera just because the blur looks a bit more natural. Selfies also have a warmer white balance than the Pixel, which you may find more flattering. Some users have said that iPhone XS selfies look different from previous iPhones and apply a smoothing effect -- see this breakdown for an explanation. 

The Pixel 3 actually has a facial retouching option (it's set to a normal level by default, but you can also choose the softest level) that smooths skin and blemishes. Without any facial retouching, I thought selfies look over-sharpened and a little unflattering. But if you want every single detail captured in your selfies, the Pixel 3 is for you.

Low-light photos

The Pixel 3 has an edge in low light, producing photos with less noise than the iPhone XS in most conditions. Images look really sharp and retain lots of detail.

lowlight-xs-3-compare

A comparison between the Pixel 3 and iPhone XS shots in low light.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Pixel 3 does, however, saturate colors (particularly the red channel) more than the iPhone XS in low light. As a result, photos look a bit more vivid and the extra contrast adds to that perception of sharpness.

When the flash fires on the rear camera, to my eyes the Pixel 3 produces a slightly more natural-looking shot. But really, there isn't that much difference between the two. The iPhone XS produces less dramatic shadows, which you might prefer.

Google also has a forthcoming feature called Night Sight that is said to produce better-looking photos on the Pixel 3 without flash. It's expected to launch later this year.

Video quality is all iPhone XS

Both phones record in 4K, but only the iPhone XS gets to 60fps at this resolution.

You won't be disappointed with video from either of these two phones in good light. The iPhone XS video looks just a bit sharper overall and the exposure shifts more smoothly than the Pixel when lighting conditions change. Plus, the Pixel 3 crops in more on the image than the iPhone does on its wide-angle lens.

In low light, I found the Pixel 3 really struggled to lock and maintain focus on subjects. The image is messy and noisy, with blown out highlights and muddy shadows. See the video on this page for samples.

The iPhone XS looks much better in low light, with far less noise on the image and an even exposure. A setting called auto low light FPS (you can find it in Settings > Camera) automatically drops the frame rate from 30 to 24fps to help improve low-light video. The difference between the two phones in low light is night and day.

Here's what else you need to know about video:

  • Video stabilization: Both are good. I think the iPhone XS looks a bit more natural than the Pixel 3, which still has evidence of that "jello" effect (a by-product of Google's OIS and EIS combination, called fused stabilization, that can make videos look hyper-real).
  • Pixel 3 has subject tracking (called motion autofocus) so you can tap on the screen to lock onto kids, adults, pets, fish or anything that moves. It works on stills but I found it most helpful in video.
  • Both record in stereo, but the iPhone XS sounds a lot more rich and full than the Pixel 3's track when you listen in headphones.
  • Slow motion: You can get to 240fps, but the Pixel is only at 720p. The iPhone is 1080p.

So which camera is best?

Both are fantastic camera phones that have significant improvements over their predecessors. If I never compared the photos, I would be happy with either. It's really hard to tear them apart because for most categories, there aren't any glaring issues and sometimes the results aren't completely consistent -- especially for something like portrait mode.

It's also really tough to separate the two because the computational photography techniques on each really push the limits of what the hardware can do on its own. And some features (like Night Sight) haven't been implemented yet. But I think the Pixel 3 just has the edge for overall still images, especially in extreme low-light conditions, and if you like images to look ultrasharp and vibrant straight out of camera without any editing. For more natural-looking photos and video recording, I would choose the iPhone XS.