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The iPhone XS camera beats the iPhone X, but not the Pixel 2

And given the Pixel’s limited distribution, that’s probably all that Apple needs

Photography by James Bareham

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Apple’s new iPhone XS and XS Max have arrived, and as with any new flagship phone, a key question has been, “How’s the camera?” We now take great displays and performance for granted, especially with Apple’s new and improved iOS 12, but the camera remains the one technical aspect where a modern phone can truly set itself apart. Apple has fallen behind on this front over the past couple of years, which is an unusual place for the smartphone design and engineering leader to be.

The camera question around the iPhone XS is deceptively complex. There are at least two distinct answers to it, depending on which ecosystem you’re coming from and what your photographic preferences are. I’ve harvested some photos and my colleagues’ impressions from our full review of the iPhone XS to try to articulate a more nuanced consideration of all the factors that go into reaching a conclusion about these new cameras.

Compared to the iPhone X

The XS has a bigger sensor than the X, and it shows

Though our instinct is always to compare the latest iPhone against the best tech available, there’s a fair argument to be made that Apple operates within its own, rather enormous bubble and isn’t affected much by what’s going on outside of it. That’s how Apple can introduce features we’ve seen on Android phones for years — like the depth-of-field adjustment slider in the new iPhone XS and XR camera system, which was already available for a year on Samsung’s Galaxy Note — and have most of its user base react as if they’re a wholly new invention. If Apple has meaningfully improved the performance and image quality from the iPhone X to the iPhone XS, that’ll be all that matters to the majority of its users.

Taken with iPhone XS.
Taken with iPhone XS.
Taken with iPhone X.
Taken with iPhone X.

The upgrade from the X to the XS is substantial. My major grievance with the iPhone X camera was that, when you zoomed in up close, fine detail and sharp edges would be lost to a mix of noise-reducing smoothing and dithering. Under challenging light, people’s faces would look like wax figurines at the start of their disintegration after Thanos had snapped his fingers. Equipped with a 32 percent larger sensor, the iPhone XS puts much of that trouble behind it. This camera is much better than the one on the iPhone X.

iPhone XS (left), iPhone X (right) cropped at 150%

Aside from making each pixel in the main camera larger, Apple’s iPhone XS also brings a new level of sophistication to Apple’s image processing pipeline. A new Smart HDR function takes a series of exposures and combines them into one, producing images with more detail and less noise than would be achievable with a single, simply taken snap. This is the new addition that brings Apple’s camera system closer to Google’s.

Compared to the Pixel 2

The Pixel still produces the most detailed photos, but the new iPhone closes the gap

Google’s Pixel, released in October 2016, has owned the title of the best, most capable smartphone camera since the moment it arrived. The only devices that have improved on it have been the Pixel 2, which is the reigning overall champ, and the Huawei P20 Pro, which takes the best nighttime photos. Google’s system works by taking a set of a half-dozen or more underexposed photos and then stacking them with the help of AI to create one correctly exposed shot with unsurpassed image fidelity. Apple’s iPhone XS cameras close the gap, but they can’t eclipse Google’s Pixel 2 achievements.

iPhone XS (left), Pixel 2XL (right)

With its newly enlarged 1.4μm pixels, a 12-megapixel resolution, and an f/1.8 lens, the XS main camera is a direct spec-for-spec match to Google’s Pixel 2. And you can certainly have a lively debate over the particular strengths and weaknesses of the two systems. More than one of our comparison shots exhibits distinctions that appear more a matter of aesthetic preference than hard, objective, photographic facts.

The iPhone XS tends to produce warmer, softer, and flatter images. These make a better base for anyone keen on tinkering with filters and processing their images to get a certain kind of mood. Such pictures are also more flattering when photographing people, as the warmer hues and forgiving degree of detail are like a built-in beautification mode.

The Pixel 2, on the other hand, makes all the processing decisions for you and has no qualms about exposing every furrow and imperfection in your selfies. Google’s images come with plenty of contrast, sharpness, and dynamic punch, which may sometimes sacrifice a little detail but generally makes photos look as good as they possibly can without requiring additional work from the user. Pixel photos exhibit practically no noise-reducing blur, which means the worst you can get from that camera is a noisy image, but never one that’s had its details smoothed out of existence by overaggressive image noise control. The iPhone XS is still occasionally susceptible to the latter problem.

iPhone XS (left), Pixel 2XL (right)

My colleagues Nilay Patel, James Bareham, Dan Seifert, and I all favor Google’s HDR treatment and performance over Apple’s, with the noted exception of portrait photos, where the Pixel can be a little too sharp. But the distance between Apple’s 2018 flagship and Google’s 2017 best is much reduced now. I’ve been using the Pixel 2 XL for most of this year because of how much better its camera was than that of the iPhone X, but the XS is close enough to make that choice a difficult one again.

Compared to the Samsung Galaxy S9

The Galaxy S9 and iPhone XS cameras are more similar than they are different

As impressive as Google’s Pixel phones may be, discussing them in a comparison like this is a little like talking about a tree falling down somewhere in the Amazon. Many people still don’t know about their existence, and most can’t even buy one. The Pixel’s other main weakness compared to the iPhone is its lack of a telephoto lens, which expands the range of your photographic capabilities. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 rectifies these two major issues. It’s ubiquitous and equipped with a dual-camera system on the back.

iPhone XS (left), Galaxy S9 (right)

The overwhelming impression you get from seeing Apple and Samsung’s images side by side is that Apple has moved to almost perfectly match Samsung’s image treatment choices. This may be a deliberate move on Apple’s part, seeking to appease the different photographic preferences of the Asian market, or it could simply be a side effect of the new iPhones’ upgraded imaging sensor. Looking at the camera specs that Apple has disclosed, it’s possible that Apple has moved from a Sony to a Samsung sensor in its iPhone XS generation, in which case the similarities to Samsung’s camera output are a logical result of both Samsung and Apple getting the most out of the same hardware.

iPhone XS (left), Galaxy S9 (right)

Whatever the case, I’m not a fan of Samsung’s imaging, which tends to make photos look artificial. Real life is full of flaws and imperfections, and there’s this forced prettiness to pics coming out of Samsung phones and the new iPhones that I just don’t find appealing. With the noise-reducing smoothing that both companies do, there’s an occasional, for lack of a better word, crunchiness to some edges, which, again, contributes to this inorganic vibe.

Compared to itself

Probably the most fascinating comparison the iPhone XS can be subjected to is one against itself. What do I mean by that? Well, I found my iPhone X photos improved dramatically when I started shooting them RAW in Halide and then processing them via the mobile Lightroom app. It was all too much work to keep doing on a daily basis, but the next step in our exploration of the iPhone XS’s camera should probably be to see how it does in RAW, without any of Apple’s hand-holding post-processing. I expect the images will be noisier but vastly more detailed.

We’re now roughly three weeks away from Google’s Pixel 3 release, and as soon as that phone becomes available, we plan on doing a ridiculously in-depth comparison shoot between Google, Apple, and Samsung’s latest. We might even throw in some other contenders or a DSLR just for fun. This story is far from over.