After putting the leading smartphones — including the new Galaxy Note 9 — through in-depth testing and photo comparisons, we still consider the Pixel 2 XL to have 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 that narrows even further with the arrival of the iPhone XS Max and iPhone XS. Camera enhancements in those two new phones address the iPhone X's few flaws while retaining an excellent dual camera setup. Google's phone still holds the edge in our initial comparisons — we've got another faceoff in the works — but the latest iPhones definitely offer the best cameras of any Apple device.
We're also impressed by the AI-driven smarts Samsung introduced in the Note 9. That's a feature you'll find in other well-regarded camera phones like LG's G7 ThinQ, but the Note 9 includes flaw detection features alongside its ability to detect images. And it sports the same low-light shooting features that have made the Galaxy S9+ one of our top-rated camera phones.
News and Updates (Updated Sept. 18)
- New iPhones Reviewed: Check out our review of the iPhone XS and XS Max, which includes photo comparisons of shots taken with the dual lens setup. Meanwhile, the iPhone XR, a phone with a single rear camera but with many of the same features as the Xs, arrives in October.
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. Google is currently working on a successor to the Pixel 2 XL, with the Pixel 3 slated to debut at an Oct. 9 event.
Lots of cameras have turned to artificial intelligence to help optimize camera settings, and the Note 9 is no different. Its Scene Optimizer feature can recognize 20 different scenarios and adjust camera settings on the fly so that your image comes out with the proper contrast, brightness and saturation. Scene Optimizer worked well in our tests, particularly in low light. But where the AI-powered Note 9 really stands out is with a Flaw Detection feature, which notices when you’ve taken a picture that may not be up to snuff. If someone blinks or if there’s too much blur, the Note 9 will suggest you take the photo again; it can also preemptively warn about backlighting.
Apple improved the cameras in its latest iPhones by adding a sensor with bigger and deeper pixels to let in up to 50 percent more light than the iPhone X's camera did. The result is you get improved photos in low-light settings, putting the iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max on more equal footing with the Pixel 2 XL. A new Smart HDR mode in the latest iPhones combine a new ISP, faster sensors and better algorithms to bring out the highlights and details of a photo, even one with shadows. And a new Depth Control feature lets you adjust the depth of field after you take a shot.
Samsung focused on improving the cameras on the flagship phones it released in 2018. The Galaxy S9+ was among the first to reap the benefits 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 and Note 9. 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.
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.
Last year's entry into 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 and it can capture 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. A software update to the V30 also added the AI-powered image recognition features at the heart of the LG G7 ThinQ. For that reason, we favor over it over the newer LG V35 ThinQ, which has an upgraded processor, but not enough additional enhancements to justify the higher price tag.
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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