Apple iPhone XS vs Google Pixel 3XL – My Unbiased Search for the Best Phone Camera

I’ve been getting a ton of questions and DM’s lately about the Pixel 3 and how I’ve been liking it since I’ve been posting some pics from it and I thought since I have some time, I’d write up my personal thoughts. This is not meant to be click bait or anything like that – trust me, I’ve watched enough video “reviews” and read enough “articles”to know that they’re either paid to say what they’re saying or they are fanboys of a product that tend to be more biased than you’d like. Two things: 1) I’m not paid to write this even though I wish I was and 2) I’m not a fanboy of any product. I’m a fan of the best product. Most people know I’ve switched between Apple and Android multiple times because each time, one or the other has met my expectations of what I want in a phone.

The Pixel 3XL in this moment in time is what I feel to be the “best” phone right now. I’ll try to lay it out in sections and then provide some sample shots between the Pixel 3XL and iPhone XS. Real world shots taken by me with my own device and Diana’s iPhone. No gimmicks, no trick shots and no photoshop.

Physical Device/Feel/Aesthetics

The Pixel 3XL is not a looker. In fact, the only aesthetically pleasing thing to me is the use of an accented colour power button. In my case, I bought the Clearly White model with the light green power button. Other than that, it’s got a larger chin than it should and the notch is just a notch to me. People call it notch city, I call it extra real estate at the top of my phone – regardless of how big it is. The screen is nice and vibrant, it’s a little cooler in temperature than the iPhone XS but still pleasant to look at.

The iPhone XS in every sense is one of the nicest phones I’ve ever seen and held. It’s like holding a piece of expensive jewelry – the weight and the stainless steel – beautiful. If any phone should aspire to look like something, it should be the iPhone XS. The screen is beautiful – it’s pleasing to look at whether it’s on or off. It feels solid and not plastic-y. It’s nice to have practically no bottom chin, and the notch – well it’s just a notch to me just like the Pixel 3’s. It’d be nice to see a phone without it like a few of the Oppo phones, but still not a deal breaker for me.

Overall – iPhone XS wins this and it’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to go with the XS. It’s great to hold and use.

OS/UI/Usability/Touchscreen 

The number 1 thing that separates the iOS users from the Android users. Honestly – the Android UI is something even I had to get used to. It was exciting for me though because I loved the idea of customizing my phone exactly how I wanted. I could use icon packs, I could change how my weather is displayed, I could put whatever I wanted on the homescreen. I could get away from the rows of icons and folders that had strapped iOS down so tightly. But at the same time… The simplicity of iOS is what makes it so great. It’s easy to use, you know where your icons all are and everything just “works” in the Apple ecosystem. I could live with both and I’d be content because I love customization but I also favour simplicity.

Google’s phones uses simple and bloatware-free versions of Android. There isn’t a bunch of apps installed that you’ll never use. It’s just the basics and it’s fast and effective. It’s very difference experience than a phone like the S8 (which was my daily driver previous to the Pixel). It’s fast and snappy – it does what you want and when you want it. There were a few RAM management issues that have just been addressed otherwise, it’s nice. The gesture system isn’t nearly as refined as Apple’s iOS although I wish it were. I just want to be clear though – this does not translate to a phone that is clunky or terrible in any way. Everything works as it should – gestures and motions just aren’t as fluid as iOS – but if you’ve never used iOS you wouldn’t notice any issues at all and even after migrating away from iOS – everything begins to feel right.

iOS’s button-free gestures are so perfectly designed that it feels like the your thumb and the images/icons/pages beneath it are one and you wonder why Apple didn’t do this sooner. The UI is the same familiar UI you’ve been familiar with ever since the iPhone 3G with a few additions here and there but why fix what ain’t broke, right? The one thing Apple lacks – and has always lacked – is the ability to customize the phone to your liking. It stays how it is out of the box until the day you decide to part ways with it.

This section is 49/51 for me. Both use such a different way of navigating and operating. The 51 going to Apple because of how refined the UI is and just how nice it is to use. Bravo, Apple.

Apps/Integration

This section is important to me and I don’t see many people talking about it – not even the big tech guys. The first step to deciding you like a phone is whether you like how it looks (covered), the next is how does the phone feel when you use it (covered), and the most overlooked part is how well do the apps you use work on the device you chose.

The app selection between both OS’s (for my use and most of the public’s general use) is pretty much identical. You want instagram and facebook? You got it. You want home automation? You got it. You want an assistant? Siri and Google Assistant are there (albeit, Google assistant is a lot more versatile than Siri). Getting the apps themselves is not typically the problem – it’s how well do those apps work with the OS and while you might not think it’s a big issue, it actually is. This is one of the main reasons I was very close to getting an iPhone XS and we’ll talk about why I didn’t soon.

For a social media junky like myself and many others – the social media apps I use should work exactly as intended. Instagram – one of my main social media apps does not work the same on Android versus iOS – change my mind. Instagram has been refined and optimized for iOS and works flawlessly. From things like story highlights, to the way you get and see notifications.

For example, Instagram stories on iOS will show everything at perfect ratios – but on Android, the stories have a slightly larger aspect ratio resulting in stories to be cut off on the outer edges. Did someone put text right to the edge of their story? Sorry, Android – you’re not going to be able to read it all. The upload processing of Android versus iOS is also different – upload one picture from iOS and most of the quality is retained as long as it isn’t an incredibly high resolution picture. Upload that same picture from Android and the results are clear – there is degradation in the photo quality and I’m not entirely sure why after many tests between my previous S8+ and Diana’s iPhone XS. Important to note: the issue does not seem to exist when uploading from the Pixel so it seems to maybe be device specific or even Android version specific?

Most other apps work as intended – Facebook, Twitter – simple platforms such as those show no difference in performance to me. My personal biggest gripe was the “lack of performance and refinement” in Instagram and it might not be yours but it’s worth noting.

The issue with stories still exists – ratios are off – and this is confirmed on the S8+, the Pixel, and the new Mate 20 Pro so I’m concluding it’s an Android thing. Is it a deal breaker? It could be for some – was it for me? Almost… But we’ll talk about why it wasn’t in the next section.

Camera

Maybe the most important section for some – it certainly is for me – and maybe the least important for others. Surely you all know by now that I like to take pictures and my camera – whether it be my SLR or my phone or any other medium that I’m using – has to be able to provide better than average results. It needs to have 3 things:

  1. Clarity
  2. Sharpness
  3. Good/Great Autofocus

Now before you go on and start talking about DxO scores and ratings of every cellphone camera, I don’t care. The tried and true method of determining whether a picture “looks good” is my eye. DxO score of 90 vs 110 doesn’t mean anything to any regular person so we’ll use our eyes instead. I’m sure you’ve heard it before but there’s a reason the Pixel has had the best camera year after year since the original Pixel came out and it’s hard to believe how good it is until you see it because up until now – DxO has marked the iPhone almost consistently at the top until the P20 pro and Mate 20 pro came out. It’s also something that we’ve been conditioned to believe – the iPhone in all it’s glory and somehow justified high price and dual camera system is the best in the business. I mean, you’d think that’s true based on my whole novel up above – Apple (the iPhone) creates an important sense of pride in both the product and the brand. It’s great to hold, it’s nice to use, it combines everything so perfectly.

Prior to seeing Pixel-quality photos in person, I, too believed that the iPhone captured great photos. It still does but they aren’t amazing. I like to think that “they are great for photos captured on a phone”. If you look at an iPhone photo, you know it’s from a phone. Something is just missing. Let’s talk about portrait mode – the mode that seems to be taking the world by storm. Really quick – if you don’t already know – portrait mode aims to focus on  a subject while creating blur (bokeh) behind the subject to create a visually pleasing separation between the two. Often seen in pictures where there’s a large aperture (f1.4, f1.8).

The iPhone uses two lenses to create the effect. One lens to capture your subject and another to capture the rest of the scenery and then AI/processing to put the two together and make a best computational guess at the edges on where to create the separation. The Pixel on the other hand has only one lens to rely on and the rest is handed over to AI/processing to determine where the edges start and where separation begins. One would think that capturing two images and merging them would be the best option and I think where the iPhone fails is the lack of proper processing. Queue the entrance of the Pixel – where it is literally the opposite. Google’s AI/processing is superior to the iPhone in every way as far as my eyes can tell and pictures don’t lie. 9 times out of 10, the Pixel’s edge detection and separation beats the iPhone and not by a smidgen – by a lot and for every portrait mode photo that Diana’s iPhone XS takes, my heart breaks a little more and my faith dwindles into a darker hole than before.

Now, I want to be clear – I’m only talking about portrait mode because as I said – I want something in my pocket that can attempt to recreate the same photos I take using my Sony A7II as much as possible and many of those photos are done with a larger aperture AKA portrait mode. For regular pictures – between the iPhone and Pixel – I can hardly tell the difference besides some saturation and highlight/shadow differences and that’s only if I’m looking at them side by side. Anyway, I’ve said enough – we can let the pictures do the talking. Please note – I did my very best to ensure that both phones were capturing the best image that they could. Using manual press-to-focus on the subject and taking the best of the bunch. I’m not butchering one phone in favour of the other – if the Pixel fails, it fails and if the iPhone fails, it fails. As a bonus, I’ll also take the same photo with my A7II and 35mm f1.4 – you’ll have 3 comparisons to make your judgement.

First Example – Pixel/iPhone/A7II (non-edited, RAW, no HDR, 35mm F1.4) Note – the 1.4 aperture is probably gonna be a little unfair here and it’s also going to produce a very different type of bokeh but I still just want to include it for comparison.

PIXEL 3 – I really wanted to just take pictures where edge detection was important for overall quality comparison. The Pixel does a pretty good job and only missed in 3 spots overall. The left leaf is mistaken for the background, and the two leaves on the right near the bottom. These two are easier to forget about but the left leaf –  not so much. It almost did a good job in between the botton middle leaves and the chair behind it. Sharpness is a little high and more evident on the very top of the plant, but not terrible.

It does a good job of using HDR to keep detail in both the leaves and the light behind it.

iPhone XS – A little better on the edge detection here – still kind of blew out the left leaf but not noticeably as much. The two right leaves were captured properly too. It did about the same thing to the chairs behind it between the leaves at the bottom – a bit too much but still minor.

I’m not sure why the iPhone failed me here – it kind of blew out exposure even though exposure point was on the middle of the green for all photos. It just looks a bit fuzzy and soft –  not enough sharpness here.

A7II – I’m not sure if there’s much to say for the A7II because it’s in its own league. But just here for comparison.

PIXEL 3 – lots of detail here – the important spots to look at are the right edge of the Christmas tree trailing down and to see where did edge detection fail. I’m surprised because this was extremely sharp. I could be nit picky about the bottom part of the bristles but pretty good.

iPhone XS – Sorry – slightly different spot but I’m still just looking for edge detection here. Again, I could be nitpicky about the area by the bottom right rose gold ornament but still good. A little soft again compared to the Pixel.

A7II.

PIXEL 3 – Easier edge detection but I wanted to try and meld dark foreground with a dark background (so the top of the black hat). You’ll see it faded it together here – noticeable if you’re looking for it. Overall edge detection though is pretty clean – especially to the left of the black hat and the separation with the scissors. Again, good HDR work here.

iPhone XS – again, I just feel the XS is softening and neutralizing the pictures. Side note – I did notice that the “beauty gate” issue is still slightly apparent. It was Apple’s take on trying to decrease noise – but when you apply too much noise reduction it textures start to look airbrushed. The separation is not bad but not sharp either – it still works because it creates a very soft edging and convince most people.

A7II.

PIXEL 3 – more textures around fuzzy-type objects – another enemy to portrait mode. The Pixel 3 nailed it here – all the way around lucky cat. Note the quality of the bokeh here – a very smooth and well spread bokeh.

iPhone XS – Not terrible but not better either. Edge detection failed a bit on the right ear at the top causing almost a halo effect because of the colour of the cat. AGAIN, it’s just too soft for me and it creates this artificial fuzziness around the cat – most notably on the left of the cat. Note the bokeh in this one now – a little less smoothness but still passable.

A7II.

PIXEL 3 – Probably the worst nightmare for portrait mode is hair – more specifically – single strands of hair. More often than not, the Pixel 3 is able to capture a great amount of detail in the strands of hair in portrait pictures. This is a good example because I would say almost 95% of this photo has accurate edge separation between strands of hairs.

iPhone XS – this is where I find that the iPhone fails me the most. This is not the most extreme example but it does show where it almost creates holes in the picture and blurry gobs on the edges of the hair.

No A7II here.

PIXEL 3 – Perfect separation especially on the points of the leaves. Good HDR between the monitor and the dark plant.

iPhone XS – ALMOST perfect separation except on the points of the left blades. HDR not so great here, and a bit soft but no comparison here to the Pixel 3.

No A7II here.

PIXEL 3 – The final test. Multiple edges on different subjects with a pretty neutral but complicated background with conflicting horizontal lines to the plants. I would say that this is a good example of near perfect edge separation with the only fault being in-between the twigs of the middle plant. No edge separation between the plant and the chair as it is assuming the chair is part of the plant.

iPhone XS – Poor edge separation here throughout the whole picture. Most notably on the middle plant tips, the chair behind it and on the right plant tips and the string on the stick. Even the separation of the plant pots from the table is a little poor to me. This would be a deal breaker for me at this point.

A7II.

At the end of the day – here’s what I’ve concluded: the iPhone overall is the better phone. Aesthetics, feel, UI, dual camera system – it is the well-rounded phone you’re looking for and it’s damn beautiful. I love holding and using Diana’s and I wish that I could somehow merge the iPhone and Pixel together to create the ultimate phone for myself. The Pixel is also a great phone but falls short on all aspects listed above. Androids in particular have some work to do on the aesthetics and feel of their phones but maybe that’s why the cost is significantly less (besides the point). However, for someone like me that has “camera” at the top of their list, the Pixel 3 wins – by a long shot. I can handle non-apple smoothness – Android Pie is not terrible either – it’s great. It’s not a fancy stainless steel in gold, but I can live. Do I want a dual camera? Yes because why not? But at the end of the day – the Pixel 3 captures exactly what I need it to capture every single time and brilliantly at that. When Apple and Google decide to combine two of their best products into one – then I’ll pay $2,000 for it. Until then, I don’t think I can move away from the Pixel until Apple or any other Android device can top it.

What do you think?

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