Low Light, Selfie Camera, Video Capture

Low Light

This indoor low light photo is brighter and less grainy captured on the Galaxy S9+, with better depth of field, more natural yet still saturated colors, and similar detail to the Pixel 2 XL image. The Pixel 2 XL image is better exposed, though there is noticeable grain even when downscaled, and the slight yellow tone is oddly unnatural and different to the colder tones we’ve seen in other images taken by the Pixel

However, in a darker indoor environment, the Pixel 2 XL delivers a clearly superior photo when detail is required. The Galaxy S9+ image is devoid of fine detail in many areas, creating almost a blurry effect on the fabric. In contrast, the Pixel 2 XL image is more highly detailed at the expense of slightly more grain. Also, it’s worth mentioning the colors on the Pixel 2 XL image are more vibrant and more accurate, while the Galaxy S9 photo looks washed out to an extent.

The Galaxy S9+ does have an advantage, however, in near pitch black conditions. The above image is actually visible with the Galaxy S9, while the Pixel 2 XL’s capture is basically useless. The Galaxy S9 photo isn’t particularly accurate, however if you need a ‘brighter than real life’ photo, it is capable of it.

Selfie Camera

Looking at the selfie cameras, it’s clear the Google Pixel 2 XL has a far superior front facing camera that delivers better results in a range of conditions.

While both front facing cameras are 8-megapixels, the Pixel 2 camera captures significantly more detail, which is seen in both my skin texture and beard. The Galaxy S9+ image is brighter, however the result is very soft and lacks skin detail, and that’s with Samsung’s beauty feature disabled. There’s slightly better bokeh with the Galaxy S9+ selfie from the wider lens, but the difference is negligible and I far prefer the greater depth provided with the Pixel 2 selfie camera.

It’s a similar story in low light. Even though the Pixel 2 XL’s camera uses 1.4µm pixels with an f/2.4 lens, and the Galaxy S9+ has 1.22µm pixels with an f/1.7 lens, the Pixel 2 XL’s low light selfies are captured with more depth, more accurate colors and more detail. The Galaxy S9’s low light selfies are somewhat brighter and less grainy, but devoid of all detail and depth

Video Capture

Both the Galaxy S9+ and Pixel 2 XL are capable of 4K video capture and slow motion capture, however the quality produced by the two phones does differ significantly.

In terms of color quality, saturation, accuracy, white balance, exposure, dynamic range, contrast and color depth, what you get is very similar to the still photos produced by both phones, so I won’t cover that aspect again. Instead I’ll look at just the video-specific aspects.

When recording at 4K, detail is one of the key components. If there is not enough detail in the 4K image, you may as well record at 1080p and save yourself some storage space. When it comes to the Galaxy S9+’s 4K recordings, there is a severe lack of fine detail – worse than with the still images – such that grass, rocks, wood and any other detailed objects in wide shots will be devoid of detail and a blurry, smudged mess.

The Pixel 2 XL isn’t exactly a fantastic performer with 4K video detail, however like with still images, it again has a handy lead on the Galaxy S9 in this department. Where the Galaxy S9+’s 4K capture looks like 1080p at best, the Pixel 2 XL does provide a bit of extra detail at 4K. In fact when downscaling both results to 1080p, there is noticeably more fine detail in the Pixel 2 XL’s videos, while the Galaxy S9+ is still unimpressive even when downscaled.

The Pixel 2 XL is also faster at both exposure changes and focusing, and its video stabilization is superior with greater shake reduction, fewer artefacts and smooth panning. The Galaxy S9+’s stabilization is good, though there are stutters at times, particularly while panning. I also noticed some weird panning artefacts with the Galaxy S9+ capture that weren’t present on the Pixel 2 XL capture, while conversely, the Pixel 2 XL did have a few more compression artefacts in its result.

In general, though, it’s no contest: the Pixel 2 XL’s 4K capture is far superior. It also uses roughly the same bitrate, 46 to 48 Mbps, and I feel an increase to 60 Mbps would deliver even better quality with the Pixel 2 XL while the same change wouldn’t make a significant difference to the Galaxy S9+’s image quality.

The Galaxy S9+ does have an advantage in that it can capture 4K 60 FPS video, whereas the Pixel 2 XL is limited to just 30 FPS. You lose image stabilization at 4K 60 FPS, which is a key downside, however the additional frame rate could be handy. That said, considering the fine detail quality, there isn’t much difference between the Galaxy S9+’s 4K 60FPS capture, and the Pixel 2 XL’s 1080p 60 FPS.

Where the Galaxy S9+ stands out is in its 960 FPS slow motion video capture at 720p. The Pixel 2 XL can only manage 240 FPS at this resolution, which is still good by smartphone standards, but not a patch on 960 FPS.

There really is no contest here: the extra frame rate of the Galaxy S9+ capture produces far more compelling results. There isn’t much else to say here; if you want the best slow motion capture out of these two devices, get the Galaxy S9+.

Extra Features

In addition to the primary photo and video modes, both the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9+ have some additional modes that are worth discussing. I’m not going to go through every single option these cameras have, instead focusing on the key items.

To start with, both phones include a ‘portrait’ mode that attempts to simulate shallow depth of field. In the case of the Pixel 2 XL with a single camera, it attempts to increase the background blur around a focused object through software algorithms and edge detection. The Galaxy S9+ has a secondary camera, so it captures a depth map to assist the algorithms and edge detection to introduce this background blur effect.

I tend to find portrait modes extremely hit or miss, with conditions heavily influencing how the image turns out. Most cameras do a pretty good job when things are simple, but with a complex subject, like this potted plant, the best edge detection and depth algorithms come in to play.

Here the Galaxy S9+ does a poor job of proper depth mapping and edge detection, with obvious and quite jarring areas that are incorrectly blurred. The general blur effect is quite pleasing but the transition in some areas from sharp to blur is a bit strange. The Pixel 2 XL image has much better edge detection and better depth sensing – which is surprising as it only has one camera and no true depth data – however there are still some areas incorrectly blurred.

In general the Pixel 2 XL image is better here and this was also the case throughout other portrait mode tests. Not only was the image quality better, the Pixel 2 allows you to use the mode in a much wider range of conditions, including in macro scenarios. The Galaxy S9+’s mode will not function if you are too close or too far away from the subject, which is frustrating at times.

The issues I mentioned earlier carry over to the portrait selfie mode. Here the Galaxy S9 actually does a reasonable job, however it still incorrectly blurs some areas of my face, particularly my hair, and hasn’t performed as well as I’d like in edge detection. The Pixel 2 XL delivers a much sharper result with better edge detection, though again the depth mapping is not perfect and there are some areas with artefacts.

Both the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9+ have some augmented reality effects. The Pixel 2 XL allows you to place objects into a scene through its AR Stickers feature, which works really well. The Galaxy S9+ has AR Emojis, which scan your face to create a cartoon 3D representation that responds to your facial expressions. AR Emojis are neat and a clear rip-off of Apple’s Animoji feature, though it’s not a particularly useful addition and falls into the uncanny valley at times. In fact no AR camera features are ever particularly useful aside from a few fun experiments.

One clear advantage the Galaxy S9+ camera has is a proper manual mode, whereas on the Pixel 2 XL camera you are stuck with just an auto mode complemented by a few minor settings you can change. The Galaxy S9+ allows you to change aperture, white balance, exposure, shutter speed, ISO and more in its manual mode, so you can nail the exact shot you are after. I wish these settings were available on the Pixel 2 XL camera, outside of a third-party application.

Final Thoughts

Across all the side-by-side photos we captured with the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the Google Pixel 2 XL, there are some clear areas where each phone succeeds. There are a lot of comparisons in this article targeting varied shooting conditions, and after a lot of time testing both phones, it’s clear to me which provides a superior camera experience.

It’s the Pixel 2 XL.

But the battle is close. In most situations, the images you get from either phone are fantastic, and it can be hard to split the difference without nit-picking. However, in some key areas, the Pixel 2 XL pulls ahead in terms of image quality, and that’s why it retains the top mobile smartphone camera crown.

The Pixel 2 XL camera is better at exposing images, produces photos with higher detail and color depth, and deals with high-contrast environments in a superior manner. Color balance isn’t quite as good as the Galaxy S9+ in some situations, but the Pixel 2 XL delivers similar levels of saturation without losing nuance.

There are other areas where the Pixel 2 XL stands out. It captures images faster and with less motion blur, which is key for capturing fast-moving objects. In low light you can get brighter, less noisy images with the Galaxy S9+, but the Pixel 2 XL delivers more detail and better colors in low light situations. The Galaxy S9+’s f/1.5 aperture mode does deliver slightly better bokeh, but the Pixel 2 XL gets close with f/1.8 and overall I don’t think the dual aperture camera is a significant advantage.

The selfie camera is universally better on the Pixel 2 XL, including color performance, detail, and low light performance. This is also the case with 4K video capture: the Galaxy S9+’s 4K capture lacks the detail of true 4K and ends up looking like upscaled 1080p, while the Pixel 2 XL packs more detail into the same bitrate. On top of this, the Pixel 2 XL features better image stabilization, fewer artefacts in motion, and faster adjustments to exposure and focus.

However, it’s not a slam dunk win to the Pixel 2 XL. Several shots we captured across a variety of conditions did look better on the Galaxy S9+, and the ‘first glance’ appearance of many photos is very good. The Galaxy S9+ also includes a 2x zoom camera, which the Pixel 2 XL does not, and in the case of this smartphone, the secondary zoom camera does provide significantly more detail for zoomed images than a simple digital zoom of the primary camera.

While the Pixel 2 XL has a better portrait mode for the front and rear cameras, I don’t think either implementation is rock solid just yet. The Galaxy S9+ also packs much better slow motion capture, at 960 FPS versus 240 FPS on the Pixel, and includes a proper manual mode for fine adjustments on the go. To get a manual mode on the Pixel 2 XL, you’ll need to download a third-party application.

All up, though, I’d choose the Pixel 2 XL over the Galaxy S9+ as the best smartphone camera, however I wouldn’t be disappointed with the Galaxy S9+: it puts up a great fight and shouldn’t disappoint buyers after a dependable phone camera.

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