After putting the leading smartphones through in-depth testing and photo comparisons, we have a new favorite when it comes to capturing photos. The Pixel 3 offers the best camera on a smartphone, improving on the outstanding Pixel 2 XL with software-driven enhancements. That's even more true now that the impressive Night Sight feature is arriving on Google's phones.
Still, it's a close battle for camera phone supremacy. The iPhone XS Max and iPhone XS offer enhancements of their own over the iPhone X that produce better low-light photos. The latest iPhones definitely offer the best cameras of any Apple device and beat out Samsung's Note 9 in our recent camera face-off.
That said, the AI-driven smarts Samsung introduced in the Note 9 really impress. 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.
Meanwhile, if you still want a good camera but don't want to spend more than $400 on your next phone, the Nokia 7.1 is a midrange model that doesn't sacrifice camera quality in exchange for a lower price. It's our new pick for best budget camera phone.
News and Updates (Updated Jan. 10)
- Galaxy S10 Incoming! (and still leaking): We just got the invite for the Feb. 20 event where Samsung plans to unveil the Galaxy S10 phones. The Galaxy S10+ is rumored to boast dual front cameras and as many as four rear cameras. The upcoming phone may also sport a hole-punch camera on the left side of its screen instead of a notch, based on an S10 prototype reportedly spotted in the wild. Check out our full roundup of Galaxy S10 rumors.
- OnePlus 6, 5 and 5T get Nightscape Mode: OnePlus introduced Nightscape Mode for low-light photo ops with the OnePlus 6T, and the feature is now rolling out to a few of the company's older models with the latest OxygenOS update.
- Xiaomi Mi Mix 3's Pop-Up Camera: Xiaomi took a different path to avoid having a notch on its new Mi Mix 3 phone — the front-facing camera pops up. We've gone hands-on with the new phone, which is coming to the UK, but not the U.S.
Last year’s Pixel 2 had one of the best cameras on a smartphone, and the Pixel 3 ups the stakes not with hardware improvements but by leveraging Google’s expertise with AI and computational photography. A new Top Shot tool suggests a better photo from the many exposures the Pixel 3 has captured when an unwanted blink or blur mars your shot. Super Res Zoom makes up for the Pixel’s lack of optical zoom by combining multiple frames to fill in the details when you zoom in on a shot.
Up front, dual lenses help you squeeze more people and background details into your selfie shot. And a software update has brought improved low-light photos with Google’s Night Sight feature. Based on our comparisons, the Pixel 3 is now the camera phone to beat.
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.
The Nokia 7.1 puts the lie to the notion that you have to pay top dollar for a good camera phone. This $350 smartphone may have a midrange price, especially when compared to what Apple and Samsung charge for top-of-the-line devices, but it didn't skimp on the 12-megapixel and 5-MP rear cameras. When we compared the cameras to the Nokia 7.1 to similarly priced phones, we were rewarded with shots that offered less blur and more accurate white balance. Add in a great display and surprisingly strong performance, and you've got a phone that's more than worth its low-asking price.
Huawei's Mate 20 Pro follows the lead of a previous Huawei phone, the excellent P20 Pro, by adapting a triple lens setup for its rear camera. The results are pretty impressive even if the Mate 20 Pro lacks a dedicated monochrome sensor. The 40-MP main camera, 8-MP telephoto and 20-MP ultra-wide lenses work together to provide top quality images and a 3x optical zoom. AI powered features help optimize camera settings without forcing you to fiddle with anything. Our biggest disappointment with the Mate 20 Pro is that it's not officially available in the U.S., though you can find international versions at some retailers.
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 9 and iPhone XS 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. Other flagship phones are adding a third lens, which generally helps improve low-light photography while also adding depth-of-field effects.
Do you need Portrait mode? It goes by different names — Portrait mode on the iPhone, Live Focus on Samsung's phones — 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 XS and Pixel 3, can perform the same Portrait mode effects that dual rear cameras pull off. The Pixel 3 is one of a handful of phones to add dual lenses up front, letting you fit more people or include more background in your shots.
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 XS and XS Max 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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