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.)
You can find out more on how these three leading smartphone cameras fared in our three-way face-off, or skip to our picks for the best best camera phones below. You'll also find out how we test camera phones and tips on what to look for when you’re shopping.
News and Updates (Updated May 16)
- OnePlus 6 Arrives: The latest phone from OnePlus goes on sale May 22, and like its predecessor, the OnePlus 6 features dual rear cameras. But OnePlus has made some notable improvements to the rear camera on its flagship phone, increasing the size of the image sensor and adding optical image stabilization. OnePlus says that should mean brighter photos with less blurriness in low light; we'll find out for ourselves when we review the OnePlus 6.
- Xperia XZ2 Reviewed: The new flagship phone from Sony features a 19-megapixel rear camera with an f/2.0 aperture and electronic image stabilization. When we reviewed the Xperia XZ2, we were disappointed by how the camera performed in low light, and we thought the 5-MP front shooter produced underwhelming selfies.
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.
A recent trend among smartphones has been to turn to artificial intelligence to improve photos. The LG G7 ThinQ benefits greatly from AI, with its dual 16-MP rear cameras relying on image recognition to optimize settings. The AI-powered cameras can recognize 18 different scenes — including food, flowers and people — and automatically adjust settings to take the best possible shot. In addition to building in AI smarts to the cameras, LG also worked with Google to tightly integrate Google Assistant into the G7, with 32 "Hey Google" commands specifically designed for this phone. Many of those focus on the camera like asking the assistant to launch the AI Cam or take a self-portrait.
The most recent 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. 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. A software update to the V30 also added the AI-powered image recognition features at the heart of the LG G7 ThinQ.
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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