The Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones will be available online and in stores starting October 19th. I’ve been testing demo units since Friday, which isn’t quite enough time for a full review. But I wanted to share some thoughts on one of the most important features of the new phones: the cameras.
Google’s first-generation Pixel phones had some of the best smartphone cameras when they launched in 2016, and a year later there are those who’d argue the original Pixel phones still take better pictures than any other phone released in the last year.
This year’s phones have cameras that are even better… although one of the most impressive new features can be a bit hit or miss.
While there are a few key differences between the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL including screen size and resolution, physical design, and battery capacity, most of the specs for the two phones are identical. That includes the cameras.
Google loaned me both a Pixel 2 and a Pixel 2 XL, but so far I’ve spent most of my time with the smaller model. Everything in this review should apply to the larger version as well, but I’ll make corrections if I discover any differences.
Both phones feature a single-lens rear camera with a 12MP image sensor, an f/1.8 aperture, optical image stabilization and electronic image stabilization (last year’s models had just EIS), and a shiny new portrait mode that applies a background-blur effect that does with software what dual-camera phones do by combining data from two different lenses.
The rear camera can shoot at resolutions ranging from 720p to 4K. At lower resolution you can record at either 30 frames per second or 60 fps, but 4K videos can only be recorded at 30 fps.
There’s also a slow-motion mode that can record at 120 fps or 240 fps.
The front-facing camera can capture still images at up to 8MP or video at up to 1080p. You can’t use optical image stabilization with the front camera, but you can process a stabilizing effect when editing videos you’ve already recorded with this camera.
There are also options to enable two gestures that could let you do some things more quickly. You can toggle a double-tap to zoom feature, and there are three volume key actions available in the “Gestures” portion of the camera settings:
Keep in mind, I’m not a professional photographer. In some ways that makes me an imperfect person to review a smartphone camera. In other ways, it makes me a pretty good person to do so… if I can get decent shots with this camera, anyone should be able to. And I was able to get some pretty stellar shots.
Note that you can right-click on any of the photos in this post and choose the option to open the image in a new window to see a higher-resolution version of each picture. The photos of the Pixel 2 itself, by the way, were taken using a Pixel 2 XL.
I should also point out that it might take a while for some images to load, depending on your internet connection speed. Most of the pictures in this article are very large.
Point and shoot
Out of the box, the Pixel 2 is set up to capture 12.2 MP images from the rear camera and 5MP from the front, but you can adjust those settings if you’d prefer to shoot at different resolutions or aspect ratios (you can choose between several 4:3 and 16:9 options). And out of the box, HDR+ is enabled, although you can turn it off or switch to HDR+ enhanced.
Thanks to a combination of image stabilization, automatic light level detection, autofocus that uses both phase detection and laser detection, and a bunch of other features, you can pretty much just point this camera at anything and expect a halfway decent picture.
It performs surprisingly well in low-light settings. Sure, images snapped in dark environments will be relatively grainy if you don’t turn on the flash, but take a look at this picture I took in our dining room, which was only illuminated by the kitchen lights in the room behind me:
While traditional cameras manage to capture detail in dark settings by leaving the lens shutter open for a longer time, but since you’re probably not using your phone with a tripod, that’s not always a great idea for phone cameras. So the Pixel 2 actually snaps a few photos quickly and combines the data to create a single image.
Of course, you’ll get even better results when shooting the same subject in better lighting.
I’ve been impressed with the camera on my Google Nexus 5X smartphone from 2015, but Google’s camera software and hardware technology has come a long way in the past two years… and the Pixel 2 has more memory, more storage, and a faster processor, which makes it a much better phone to use for photography.
When I try to shoot a bunch of pictures in a row on my Nexus 5X, the phone will eventually refuse to take any more until it finishes processing HDR effects on some of the earlier shots in the series. I haven’t had that happen yet with the Pixel 2.
And since the entry-level Pixel 2 comes with 64GB of storage, it’ll take a lot longer to run out of space for pictures. When you do, you can take advantage of Google’s cloud storage option: you can automatically backup images to Google Photos for free.
Actually, anybody can do that if they’re willing to let Google compress their images. If you have a Pixel 2 phone, you get unlimited free storage for uncompressed images… through 2020 anyway.
Here are some more pictures captured using, more or less the default settings (if you don’t count occasionally tapping on an object to automatically adjust the lighting to highlight that object).
One of the most talked about new camera features for this year’s Pixel phones is the ability to apply a bokeh-style effect that blurs the background to make an item in the foreground pop. It’s called Portrait Mode, and Google is hardly the only company using the feature in its smartphones.
But Google is doing it in a different way from just about every other phone maker.
Most phones that allow you to selectively blur areas of a photo based on their depth use dual cameras to do it. Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus and later, for instance, have two camera lenses and combine imagery from each to enable Portrait-style photographs that keep a person in the foreground and blur everything else in the background.
Google doesn’t have two cameras on the back of the phone. But it does have a single camera with a dual-pixel sensor, which means that every photo you take actually has pixels made up of two smaller pixels.
So when you want to apply a bokeh-style effect, Google will ask you to tap the item you want to focus on and then essentially take two photos, one with everything in focus and one with just the item you tapped in focus. Software determines what to focus on based on your tap and based on algorithms that detect people, which Google figures are some of the objects you’re most likely to use Portrait mode on.
The results aren’t quite as natural looking as what you’d get from a dual-camera phone, but it’s surprisingly good for a single-camera phone… when it works.
That’s the weird thing about Portrait Mode: it doesn’t always work peefextly, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. If you zoom in on the self portrait above, you’ll notice that my earrings are blurred as if they were part of the background.
But sometimes you’ll think you’re shooting a portrait and you won’t find out that you’ve basically just got a regular photo until you go look at your camera roll (which is actually Google Photos on the Pixel 2).
Portrait Mode works really well with faces. Sometimes it works really well with cats. Occasionally it works well with plants. But there are some shots I just couldn’t get, and others where it was clear that the Pixel 2 wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be focusing on.
When viewing your camera roll you’ll see a Portrait icon for any picture that is a successful portrait. And you’ll also be able to flip between the blurred and non-blurred version of the photo so you can see which you like better.
Oh, and since Portrait Mode is largely software-based, Google went and added support to the front-facing camera too.
So here’s something I didn’t notice until I started looking through the photos I shot at the park (see above). Some of the photos weren’t just photos. They moved.
The Pixel 2 includes a feature called Motion Photos, and when it’s enabled the phone will sometimes save a (very) short video along with your still image. It does this automatically, and I hadn’t even realized the feature was on when I started capturing Motion Photos.
It won’t apply to every picture, just the ones that Google’s algorithms think are likely to be interesting enough to save a second or two of motion from around the time you hit the camera shutter.
Google’s Pixel 2 phones aren’t the first to have this sort of feature. HTC introduced something similar called Zoe a few years ago, and Apple’s iPhones support something called Live Photos.
You can export Motion Photos as videos. There’s currently no option to export them as GIFs although that seems like a logical next step.
I haven’t performed extensive video recording tests, but here’s a 4K video I shot on my rooftop:
The good news is that the image quality is pretty impressive and video stabilization does a pretty good job of reducing shakiness when I’m walking or panning the camera.
What I didn’t realize while I was recording the video is just how unnatural some of the motion looks when using image stabilization and trying to record myself walking and talking. It’s like the system gets a bit confused about whether the foreground or the background is supposed to be holding still, and just processes everything through the uncanny valley.
Also check out what happens at the 1:10 mark in the video when I intentionally shake the camera. It looks like the cityscape in the background is printed on a piece of paper that’s waving in the wind.
That said, I don’t think Google really intended for you to shoot video selfies from the rear camera, at least not without the help of a selfie stick and maybe an external microphone. You can hear the audio quality improves dramatically when I’m facing the screen rather than the back of the phone.
This is without a doubt the most impressive smartphone camera I’ve used to date.
I’m sorely tempted to buy this phone for the camera alone. Not only would it help me better document the lives of my cats, but I’m pretty sure it’d be the only camera I’d need to cover CES 2018 or other events, allowing me to leave the bulky Canon PowerShot SX50 HS I took to CES 2017 at home (or maybe just in my hotel room in case I need a backup).
The only feature I’d really miss is optical zoom. But the Pixel 2 does a better job of focusing, shooting in low light environments, adjusting light effects generally, and highlighting objects through Portrait Mode. Videos recorded on the phone also look a whole lot better than videos I capture with the PowerShot camera… although the video stabilization can appear a bit unnatural at times.
And of course, the Pixel 2 isn’t just a camera. It’s also a pretty great smartphone. I’ll have more details about phone performance soon, but here’s a sneak preview: I love almost everything about the phone, but wouldn’t mind a slightly bigger battery… and a headphone jack. A lower price would be nice as well, but $649 is pretty reasonable for the entry-level model with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.