Is the Google Pixel/XL camera really that good? Yes it is.

An impressive amount of tech sites are raving about the camera quality of the Google Pixel/XL. In this comparison, you'll see how I compared its results with those coming from the Nexus 6P and the Huawei P9/Plus. However short, it's been a quite surprising trip for me I have to admit. The Google Pixel/XL is a fantastic shooter indeed and you'll see why in this post.

First off, the Google Pixel has the same optics as the XL, hence I'm writing about the "Google Pixel/XL". Same goes for the "Huawei P9/Plus". When you live in the Netherlands, it's even more tempting to see if the Google Pixel/XL camera is as good as you read just about everywhere (especially the US tech sites), since for some reason it's not possible to buy one over here. Officially, as far as the EU is concerned, you can even only buy the device in the UK and Germany - but online, if at all. Moreover, it'll cost you a fortune.

I was lucky enough to borrow the Google Pixel/XL from a friend (for a very limited time), to be able to write this post. During the past two days, I've been capturing dozens of shots with it, next to the Nexus 6P (by Huawei) and the Huawei P9/Plus. I didn't want to include any of the great old Nokia or Lumia cameras in this comparison, I just wanted to compare it to other 12MP shooters (and unfortunately I don't own the Galaxy S7/edge or any iPhone 7).

Both the Nexus 6P as the Google Pixel/XL use the native Google camera application, which doesn't offer RAW support. It'll be enough for by far most users, but some will be frustrated they can't save the "raw" digital negative (DNG) as well, to work on their results later with software like Lightroom. Huawei does support RAW in the P9/Plus, Samsung does in the high-end Galaxy range, even Apple does nowadays. 

Google appears to think of their smartphones more like a consumer product - not a professional device - and has been investing on the HDR+ technology in both the Nexus 6P as the Google Pixel/XL. And for the .JPG output the result is remarkable with both. 

In cases like these, I've been suggested to buy an app which does RAW photography as well, but I'm not convinced an app can handle very specific sensor technology. On the contrary, I believe that the eloborate work on the software during the production process of the smartphone squeezes the best result out of the specific sensor - whereas an app will just use the information from whatever sensor. Let's have a very short look at the sensors at hand first.

The sensors
Huawei uses two sensors on the P9/Plus. If I understand correctly they are produced - not by Sony - but by Sunny Optical from China. One is for RGB (Red, Green and Blue), the other is monochrome (black/white). This enables you to capture black and white pictures only for the more artistic results - hence the collaboration with Leica. The idea when shooting in color is that what both sensors capture is combined, adding pure black and white to the colors. And yes, that works really fine and I've been happy with the Huawei P9 Plus for the past months. 

I found the pixel size on the 12MP sensors of the P9/Plus are 1.25μm and aperture doesn't go further than f/2.2. Aperture value on both the Nexus 6P and Google Pixel /XL are only slightly better at f/2.0, but both have a much larger pixel size: 1.55 μm. Both the Nexus 6P as the Google Pixel/XL are using Sony sensors and the differences seems small but are quite effective - so I learned from this fantastic post over at XDA-Developers by Steven Zimmerman.
In short:
- the Nexus 6P uses the IMX377 (Exmor R line, a Backside Illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor)
- the Google Pixel/XL got the IMX378 (Exmor RS line, a Stacked BSI CMOS sensor). 

I urge you to read it where I got it from if you really want to dive into the juicy technical details XDA Developers managed to gather from Sony. Also, the IMX378 support Phase Detection Autofocus (PDAF). And I quote from Steve Zimmerman's article: "It allows the camera to effectively use the differences in light intensity between different points on the sensor to identify if the object that the camera is trying to focus on is in front of or behind the focus point, and adjust the sensor accordingly." I've seen the same technology used in the Samsung Galaxy S7 where I could already notice the camera is blazing fast - like the Google Pixel/XL is noticably, even way faster than the other two devices in this comparison. 

15 samples makes 45 crops...
In case you don't know how I work, I capture dozens of scenes, capturing each scene multiple times with each device I'm testing - luckily only three in this case. Per device, I select what I think is the best shot, both in quality as in similarity to the other shots I got from the same scene. If I find some results for instance are much darker, I know it has more to do with me than with the device at hand - it might be I didn't notice sudden change in available sunlight (which happens quite often where I live), or I focused on a different part of the scene: tapping the screen on a slightly different spot may seriously change the lighting. 

In all I selected 15 scenes I captured with three devices, so I'm wondering how to share 45 shots in one post. Here's what I'm looking at on my laptop:

Shots captured inside and outside - from a shopping mall, a flower shop, fashion and shoe stores, graffiti, inside the office building I work, a sports hall and outside on a farm is what I selected from way more shots with three cameras in a few days. Both the Nexus 6P as the Google Pixel/XL where on DHR+ in all shots, the Huawei P9 Plus was on auto (not using its Pro settings).

Here's what I'll do. I'll share a resized version from each scene, followed by three 640 x 480 (or 480 x 640) pixel crops of each result. The resized result from each scene comes from the Google Pixel/XL, the crops come in the ranking order of just about each and every scene I captured:
Third place: Huawei P9 Plus
Second place: Nexus 6P
Winner: Google Pixel/XL
I just want to share it all so you can really make up your own mind about it as well.

At the end of this post you'll find a link to all the original files on Flickr. Please remember the crops are from 1. Huawei P9 Plus, 2. Nexus 6P and 3. Google Pixel/XL - in that order.

Shopping mall

Flower shop

Fashion store (I)

Fashion store (2)

Fashion store (3)

Running Shoes


Grafitti close-up

At the office


At the office (2)

At the gym (1)

At the gym (2)

At the farm (1)

At the farm (2)

I think by far most of these shots must have convinced you of the amazing quality of the Google Pixel/XL .JPG output. Lighting, details, contrast, incredible speed as well - it ticks all the boxes (not to mention its gorgeous design).

Clear to me is that the predecessing Sony sensor in the Nexus 6P does a very good job as well. In a certain sense I could even proclaim it the "winner" of the three, since it's so incredibly hard to get your hands on the Google Pixel/XL in many countries anyway (even apart from what Google is asking for it).

I must admit I'm a bit disappointed in the .JPG output from the Huawei P9/Plus: agressive noise reduction does lose quite a bit fine detail as just about all the crops have shown. On the other hand: you can still shoot RAW and BW with the P9/Plus, so I'm very sure there's enough left to enjoy with this device anyway. In fact, because of this I believe that for professional users, the Huawei P9/Plus still is the best of the three devices.

One more thing I should add - be it a minor detail - the focal lenght of the P9 is a bit longer (5mm) than from both Google phones (4mm). This means that with the P9/Plus you'll get a bit less in your shot from the scene in front of you. Both focal lengths are extremely wide if you would compare it to the real camera world by the way. 

If you want to have closer look at the fifteen scenes like I captured them with all three devices, you can find them in a new album on Flickr.  

It's a pitty I didn't have the chance to borrow a Samsung Galaxy S7 on this short notice as well - it would have made for an even more interesting comparison. You know I don't do too many comparisons anymore since I'm more into "real" camera's these days. Moreover, I felt that the difference between high-end smartphone cameras has become marginal. This comparison however has learned me this is not always the case.

Anyway, it's been fun doing this once again, so the next one I'm planning will be the Samsung Galaxy S7 - maybe even the Galaxy S8? - compared to the Nexus 6P. And I would love to put the still quite new Huawei Mate 9 up against the Nokia Lumia 950 - both boasting a 20MP resolution. Really looking forward to see what the Mate 9 will prove to be capable of. And of course, I'm looking forward to what the new Nokia 6 will have to offer, if only for old time's sake.

That's all for now and I'm looking forward to your comments as always. If you feel what I'm doing here is worth more than just your time, please hit the "donate" button on the right hand side of this page and I'll add you to the list of sponsors. Thank you very much in advance! :-)