Google Pixel 2 Review
|Full model name:||Google Pixel 2|
|Sensor size:||1/2.6 inch
(5.5mm x 4.1mm)
|Viewfinder:||No / OLED|
|Native ISO:||50 - 3200|
|Extended ISO:||50 - 3200|
|Shutter:||1/19000 - 1 sec|
2.7 x 5.7 x 0.3 in.
(70 x 146 x 8 mm)
Google Pixel 2 Field Test
An impressive little pocket camera, that also happens to make phone calls
by William Brawley | Posted 03/30/2018
Although my "daily driver" smartphone is an iPhone 8 Plus, I recently had an opportunity to test out the Google Pixel 2. And although the Pixel 2 isn't the newest smartphone on the block, it's still one of the two current flagship "Made by Google" devices, and one that's received rather high praise for the image quality of its camera. With the ever-increasing quality and performance of smartphone cameras, I grow more and more curious about using smartphones for "actual" photography. As a photographer and camera reviewer, though, I do struggle with leaving behind my dedicated camera -- with fast lenses, large sensor and tactile buttons and dials -- to just use a smartphone. But, man, it truly is hard to overlook the convenience of a smartphone that just slips in your pocket, freeing you from having to carry anything else. Simplicity.
|4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/120s, ISO 215|
OK, back to the camera itself...
Despite the small sensor size, I was rather impressed with the image quality from the iPhone 8 Plus (all things considered), and so I was really curious to see how the Pixel 2 compared. The timing worked out really well, too. I received the phone to review, and then shortly thereafter I traveled to Japan for CP+. I activated Project Fi mobile service on the Pixel 2, and then used the Pixel 2 as my daily phone while abroad for about two weeks. Once back in the States, I also shot some more gallery photos as well as some comparison images against the iPhone 8 Plus, both in "regular" camera mode as well as with each camera's respective "Portrait Mode" setting.
|4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/120s, ISO 52|
Unlike a dedicated camera, the Pixel 2 is a much more simplified shooting experience. Using just the default camera app, the Pixel 2 is very much a point-and-shoot-type experience, especially with its single, 27mm-eq. f/1.8 wide-angle camera. Like the iPhone and, really, smartphone cameras in general, simplicity is the name of the game here. (Didn't I mention simplicity earlier?) And, in a way, there is a nice beauty to that; with no dials or knobs, no lens to fiddle with or lens caps, no shutter speeds or apertures to worry about. Just a simple interface that I find forces you to think more closely about your composition. I quite like it.
|4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/1300s, ISO 74|
Now, there are some adjustments you can make to get a bit of control over the final look of your photo. Like the iPhone, the Pixel 2 lets you tap anywhere to adjust focus as well as auto-exposure. Further, if you slide your finger up or down after tapping for AF/AE, you'll adjust exposure compensation up or down to +/-2EV. You can also lock focus and auto-exposure by tapping on a small lock icon that appears along the right side of the camera screen. I'm used to the iOS behavior of tapping-and-holding for AF/AE lock, but Pixel 2 doesn't do that, In fact, the lock icon is much faster than the iPhone's oddly sluggish method (though it could be argued that the iPhone's method is easier to operate one-handed).
The default camera app also offers white balance presets aside from auto white balance, but there's no "manual" white balance option (no surprise). There are also HDR options as well as flash (on/off/auto) and a self-timer. Like the iPhone, the Pixel 2 also offers a "Live Photo"-type capture mode, dubbed "Motion." When enabled, the camera will capture a very brief video clip with a photo (a Motion photo, so to speak).
The Pixel 2 does offer some other unique imaging modes, including a computational Portrait Mode (which I discuss further down), a sweep Panorama mode, an interesting 360-degree "Photo Sphere" mode (that guides you in taking a whole bunch of photos in all directions then automatically stitches them together), and an "AR Stickers" feature, which uses augmented reality to virtually place various objects and characters into a scene (pretty gimmicky, but rather clever and fun).
4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/2000s, ISO 53, 1920 x 1080
AR Stickers: Hey look, a Stormtrooper's on my balcony!
I ended up using the default camera app and the standard photo capture mode for the vast majority of the time. Of course, there are a variety of third-party camera apps, just like for iOS, which offer additional photo features, manuals controls, RAW capture and so on, but it's hard to beat the convenience of the built-in camera app -- especially since you can quickly access it from the lock screen. On that note, though, I do find it a bit awkward to access the camera from the lock screen on the Pixel.
By comparison, on the iPhone, you can quickly raise-to-wake the device, then swipe left from anywhere on the screen to open the camera immediately. With the Pixel 2, it doesn't offer a full "raise-to-wake" feature that turns on the display. Rather, you can very quickly unlock the device with the fingerprint reader on the back, in which case you'll simply need to tap the camera app icon. Or, you have to manually press the sleep/wake button on the side, then swipe up from the bottom right corner. As a lefty, I found the process of pressing the sleep/wake button (on the right side), then swiping up from the right corner a bit awkward. Thankfully, the fingerprint sensor is very responsive, letting me access the phone and camera quickly.
Overall, for your standard snapshots and general picture-taking, the default camera is straightforward, easy to use, and overall very similar to the iPhone camera app. In other words, very little learning curve.
|4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/3906s, ISO 51|
Just a quick note about camera performance. As mentioned, the Pixel 2 is pretty simple when it comes to picture-taking. Shot-to-shot time was very quick, with little to no delay that I perceived when snapping single frames one after the other. Autofocus is single-shot only, and no continuous AF for stills. I find that the tap-to-focus behavior on the Pixel 2 is, however, a bit sluggish compared to the iPhone 8 Plus; it's not a big difference, mind you, but it's enough to be noticeable especially if you have both devices side by side, like I did.
There is a burst shooting mode (simply hold down the on-screen shutter button), but Google doesn't publish a burst rate -- it is very fast, though, and you'll capture a whole bunch of frames in short order! It's so fast, it's hard to time it, but I'd estimate around 20 or so frames in about a second.
|4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/7813s, ISO 59|
Now the moment you've been waiting for, right? Image Quality. Well, I'm happy to report that the Pixel 2 does, in fact, take excellent photos for a smartphone camera. Despite its very small sensor, the Pixel 2's 12MP camera captures images with lots of fine detail as well as pleasing, natural-looking colors. Similar to what I saw with the iPhone 8 Plus, though, if you zoom in, you'll see the limitations of the tiny sensor. At 100%, you can see a lack of very fine details that cameras with larger sensors would typically be able to resolve. Luminance noise is also visible, even in low ISO images.
|4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/2128s, ISO 52
Despite the wide-angle shot and far-off subject, the Pixel 2 is still able to resolve fine brick detail in this building. You can also see fairly strong sharpening artifacts, however.
Compared to the iPhone 8 Plus, however, I think I have to hand it to the Google Pixel 2. I tried my best to take some side-by-side images with both cameras (handheld shots, one right after the other), and the Pixel 2 was able to capture photos with a bit more fine detail as well as less noise than the iPhone 8 Plus. It was very surprising, despite the two devices having similar 12MP rear cameras. The Pixel 2's image processing and noise reduction are noticeably different from that of the iPhone's. The Pixel 2's photo processing definitely ups the contrast more than the what I see from the iPhone, and the Pixel 2 also seems a bit more aggressive on sharpening, but not to an extreme extent -- at least to my taste.
Fine detail is also quite impressive when focusing on close-up objects. Though not capable of macro photography (out of the box), the Pixel 2 camera's close-focusing ability is pretty good. Combining good close focusing and nice lighting, you can see in the image below that the Pixel 2 is capable of capturing lots and lots of fine detail:
|4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/2342s, ISO 51|
Color accuracy and white balance, on the other hand, appear a bit more natural from the iPhone 8 Plus, I find. In this comparison shot below, you can see how the overall colors look quite pleasing from both cameras, especially when it comes to a nice, clear blue sky. However, the shadows from the Pixel 2 photo have a slight bluish cast, while the iPhone 8 Plus feels a bit warmer.
Google Pixel 2: 4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/2128s, ISO 52
iPhone 8 Plus: 4mm (28mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/1333s, ISO 20
Dynamic range is also quite good on the Pixel 2, all things considered. Despite the boost in contrast from the image processing, the Pixel 2 captures nice photos with plenty of detail in the highlights and shadow areas.
Low Light & High ISO
Bearing in mind the tiny sensors, it's not surprising that smartphone cameras struggle in low light situations. That being said, I'm rather pleased with the low light/high-ISO performance from the Pixel 2. Given the camera app's auto-exposure behavior and thus auto ISO functionality, the Pixel 2 was rather smart when dealing with low light and seemed to prefer lowering the shutter speed rather than cranking up the ISO. Even in really dark locations, the Pixel 2's ISO only ever crept up to about ISO 700 or so. To be fair, that's a pretty high ISO for such a small sensor, and there certainly is a lot of noise and noise reduction going on when you look at the image close-up, but at small sizes or for the typical Instagram post, the low-light shots look rather nice and still manage to display some fine detail.
|4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/33s, ISO 400|
At the relatively high ISO of 400, at least for a smartphone, the Pixel 2 still manages to capture lots of fine detail, even the fingerprints on this glass!
Lastly, I want to discuss the Pixel 2's Portrait Mode. Like the iPhone 8 Plus and many other modern smartphone cameras, the Pixel 2 offers a "Portrait" mode that produces photos with a simulated/computationally-derived shallow depth of field look. The iPhone 8 Plus and other dual-camera smartphones utilize both cameras simultaneously to capture sharp, in-focus subjects blended with an out-of-focus background.
Portrait Mode: 4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/1232s, ISO 52
The Pixel 2, on the other hand, only has a single rear camera, so how does its Portrait mode work? Hard to say if it's more complex, but it certainly behaves differently that the Portrait mode on my iPhone. With the Pixel 2, it uses its HDR+ mode to capture multiple shots, then it separates the foreground and background using machine learning and a trained neural network (essentially chroma-keying out the subject from the background), and finally it uses the camera's on-chip phase-detect AF sensors to create a depth map, before combining all this information together for a final image. It's amazing that this complex, multi-stage process happens in only a matter of seconds -- from the user's perspective, it looks like you're just snapping a single photo!
What's different about the Portrait mode experience on the Pixel 2 compared to the iPhone 8 Plus (and presumably other dual-lens smartphones) is that you can't see the blurring effect in real-time on the Pixel. You have to take the shot first, then when you preview the photo, after a few seconds the camera will generate the depth-of-field effect. It's not as seamless of a process or experience as it is on the iPhone.
Also, since there's only one camera/lens, it's not as telephoto as the Portrait mode is on the 8 Plus -- though Portrait mode does crop-in on the Pixel compared to its normal photo mode.
As for the results? It's decent, but not great. Portrait Mode on the Pixel 2 is far from flawless, but nor is the iPhone's for that matter. Just as I experienced with the 8 Plus, the Pixel 2 can create interesting and pleasing-looking shallow-depth-of-field photos, but on close inspection, you can often see errors in the processing.
It's particularly noticeable on subjects with complex shapes or glossy or transparent surfaces; the Pixel 2 can struggle with edge-detection and knowing what part to blur relative to the intended sharply-focused subject. Overall, the Portrait mode on the Pixel 2 is okay, but I didn't find myself using that feature all that often (I don't use it on my iPhone very much either, to be honest). I do feel that the iPhone 8 Plus -- at least in my experience -- does a slightly better job, as I noticed more egregious compositing and incorrect blurring issues with the Pixel 2. Given that the Pixel 2's Portrait mode is more software-based, considering its single-camera setup, perhaps it will improve with future software updates.
Field Test Summary
The rapid progression in image quality of smartphone cameras continues to amaze me, and overall, the Google Pixel 2 is a very impressive smartphone camera. It captures some of the best photos from a smartphone that I've seen. Is it better than the iPhone, or at least the 8 Plus in my case? That's debatable; both cameras offer very good image quality. I think the Pixel 2 edges-out the 8 Plus in sharpness and detail resolving power just a bit, as does its noise reduction processing. Photos are crisp and display a lot of fine detail. The Pixel 2 also does quite well in low light, all things considered. Side-by-side, you do see image quality and image processing differences between the Pixel 2 and the iPhone 8 Plus, with the Pixel 2 producing images with much more contrast and pop and more sharpening, while the iPhone is a bit more understated.
Functionality-wise, both smartphones are very similar. The Pixel 2 camera is fast and snaps photos very quickly one after the other, but I do find the iPhone 8 Plus a bit more responsive with its tap-to-focus performance. I also enjoy the extra creative versatility that the two cameras offer on the 8 Plus compared to the single camera of the Pixel; having a wide-angle and short telephoto camera in one device is pretty cool. On the flipside, the overall smaller size of the Pixel 2 compared to the 8 Plus is refreshing; the 8 Plus is almost too big for my hands and pockets.
4.4mm (27mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/3344s, ISO 63
(Note: this image has been edited slightly in Photoshop. Please click to see the original photo.)
All in all, from just the camera's standpoint, the Google Pixel 2 is excellent. As I mentioned in my iPhone 8 Plus Field Test, a smartphone camera is still not going to replace a dedicated camera for me, particularly if I'm purposefully going out to take photos. However, I would certainly have no qualms going without one from time to time and snapping photos with the Pixel 2.