After putting the leading smartphones — including the new Galaxy S9+ — through in-depth testing and photo comparisons, we think the Pixel 2 XL has the best camera around. Google's phone has the best low-light performance, and it uses computational photography to produce high-end photo effects.
But it's a close battle. The Pixel 2 XL just edges out the iPhone X, which has an excellent optical zoom and uses its dual rear cameras to produce great-looking portrait shots. Think of the iPhone X as a close runner-up to the Pixel 2 XL and certainly the best iOS camera phone you can buy.
We're also impressed by the improvements Samsung made to the Galaxy S9+, which not only has dual rear cameras of its own, but a variable aperture on its main lens for improved photos in low-light. (The single-lens Galaxy S9 has that same variable lens feature.)
Stay tuned for a detailed camera face-off between this trio of flagship phones. Until then, you can see all of other top camera phone picks below, as well as more info on how we test camera phones and tips on what to look for when you’re shopping.
News and Updates (Updated April 16)
- Huawei's new P20 phone lineup is available in most of the world, and while the two new models aren't slated to reach the U.S. as of now, they're still of interest to fans of mobile photography. The P20 Pro, in particular, is noteworthy as it features three rear lenses: an RGB camera, a telephoto lens and a monochrome sensor. We reviewed the P20 Pro and found that while its camera isn't superior to our overall favorite, the Pixel 2, Huawei's new flagship demonstrated the best low-light performance we've ever seen from a smartphone in a 10-round faceoff. If you're interested in importing a P20 Pro, you should take a look at our handy guide.
- The OnePlus 5T, which features a pair of rear shooters, is now out of stock in the U.S., and OnePlus has no plans to produce more models. Instead, you'll have to wait for the OnePlus 6, which is expected to debut within the next couple months.
- Speaking of upcoming phones, Sony just announced the Xperia XZ2 Premium. Due out this summer, the phone will have two rear-cameras — a main lens plus a monochrome sensor — that will create portrait effects, shoot black-and-white images and help with low-light photos. Sony's also touting the phone's ISO12800 sensitivity for video recording. There's no price yet for the XZ2 Premium.
After putting the Google Pixel 2 XL and the iPhone X through multiple faceoffs, we’re convinced that Google makes the phone with the best smartphone camera. It performs more consistently in lower light, and it excels at taking self-portraits. The real story with the Pixel 2 XL involves the computational smarts Google packed into the phone’s camera. Despite the lone rear lens on both the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, those phones can create Portrait Mode-style pictures similar to the iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8 with a stylish background blur. Better yet, they can achieve the same effect through their front cameras as well, which should definitely help you up your selfie game. The Pixel 2 duo are also Google's first handsets to feature the Pixel Visual Core, a purpose-built sub-processor specially designed to improve the processing of HDR+ photos, which makes the beautiful images you capture look even better.
Samsung focused on improving the cameras on its latest smartphones, and Galaxy S9+ owners will reap the rewards for that decision. The most obvious change is a second rear lens, which lets the S9+ capture Live Focus shots with blurred backgrounds just like the Galaxy Note 8. But the real star of the show is the variable aperture on the S9+’s main rear camera. In low light settings, it can switch to a wide f/1.5 aperture, which means your photos look sharper, even when you capture them in the dark. The S9 camera also has dedicated memory aimed at reducing noise in your finished photos.
The iPhone X closely matches the photography prowess of the Pixel 2 XL. While we give the nod to Google’s phone, Apple’s flagship stands out when it comes to its 2x optical zoom. That feature is made possible by a pair of rear lenses — a 12-MP wide-angle shooter and a 12-MP telephoto lens — that let you zoom in for a more detailed image without losing sharpness or clarity. The iPhone X’s dual rear cameras also help with Portrait Mode, letting you add lighting and blur effects to photos. Because Apple built a lot of smarts into the front TrueDepth camera, you can add those same effects to your selfies.
With dual 12-megapixel rear cameras capable of up to a 2.3x optical zoom, the Asus ZenFone 3 Zoom offers one of the best photography experiences you get on a phone for less than $400. In addition to its long reach, the ZenFone 3 Zoom also sports a full-featured pro mode, a dedicated color correction sensor and 4-axis optical image stabilization to ensure your shots stay shake-free. Up front, the ZenFone 3 Zoom features a sharp 13-MP selfie cam, complete with all the beauty mode settings you ever need. And with a battery that lasts more than 16 hours on charge, it's safe to say the ZenFone 3 Zoom should have enough juice to capture your favorite moments.
Like the Pixel 2, Huawei's Mate 10 Pro helps out its camera with some on-board smarts. The Kirin 970 mobile processor powering the phone sports its own dedicated neural processing unit so when you point the phone's camera at an object, the Mate 10 Pro knows exactly what it's looking at. This is particularly helpful for self-portraits using the Mate 10 Pro's 8-MP front camera, as the neural processor inside the phone can detect faces of people and pets and adjust camera settings on the fly for some satisfying selfies.
The latest addition to LG’s V series of phones adds to your video bag of tricks with Cine Video effects. These 16 filters give your videos a stylish look, emulating everything from Thriller to Romantic Comedy to help set the proper mood. Videographers will like being able save their shoots in the Cine Log format, while a Point Zoom feature gives you the power to zoom in on any area of the frame instead of just the center. Like its fellow LG phone the G6, the V30 also excels at taking wide-angle shots with its dual rear cameras. Just like LG's year-old G6 phone, the V30 also excels at capturing gorgeous, expansive cityscapes and hillsides, thanks to a dual-camera setup that supplements a 16-MP standard lens with a 13-MP wide-angle one. LG is planning an updated version of the V30, the LG V30S ThinQ, for later this spring; it will add artificial intelligence feature to the camera, similar to the capabilities of the Mate 10 Pro.
How We Test Smartphone Cameras
We put the market's leading handsets through a variety of common shooting situations, such as landscapes, portraits and selfies in daylight and at night. Then, we analyze each set of images on a color-calibrated monitor to see which smartphone had the best combination of color accuracy, clarity and contrast. We also perform in-depth camera comparisons between the top phones, using each handset in their auto mode to take a wide range of photos in different conditions. After declaring a winner in each round, we name an overall winner of that face-off.
In each of our smartphone reviews, we also factor in any special features, such as dual lenses and what they enable, Portrait Modes, and other special modes, before we come to a conclusion.
5 Quick Tips for Buying a Camera Phone
The megapixels don’t matter as much as aperture. Cameras with a wider aperture (lower f-stop numbers mean wider lenses) let in more light, which can help produce better shots in the dark.
Not all dual lenses are created equal. While more smartphones are featuring dual rear cameras, those cameras don’t necessarily perform the same. Some phones like the Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X use their dual lenses to allow for depth-of-field effects; others, like the LG V30, just let you switch between wide-angle and standard lenses.
Do you need Portrait mode? It goes by different names — Portrait mode on the iPhone, Live Photos on the Note 8 — but more phones let you play around with bokeh effects. That’s where the subject of the photo is in sharp focus, while the background features an artistic blur. While that’s mostly a feature on dual-camera phones, the single-lens Pixel uses software to produce a bokeh effect. Some phones also let you adjust the effect before and after you take a shot.
The front camera specs are just as important. In a world where we’re taking more selfies, you shouldn’t overlook a phone’s front camera. Besides the megapixels, check out the aperture to get a sense of how the camera will perform in low-light. And some front cameras, like the ones on the iPhone X and Pixel 2, can perform the same Portrait mode effects that dual rear cameras pull off.
Don’t forget about video. Your cameras shoot more than just still images. Consider what resolution the camera captures video at along with the frame rate. (The LG V30, for example, can record 4K video at 30 frames per second, while the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus double the frame rate to 60 fps for 4K video.) Also look at the camera offers slow-motion features and video filters.
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