For the last few years, improved cameras have been among the top reasons people upgrade their phones. That makes photo and video capability a key battleground between industry heavyweights. Each, in turn, showcases glamorous photos with gushing hyperbole about its latest camera tech. Today was Google’s turn, with its launch of the new Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. We take a look at what’s new and updated, and how they compare with other flagship models.
Unique 3-Camera Design, Including a Group-Selfie Cam
We’re starting to see a wide variety of camera configurations in phones, including five in the LG V40, but Google may be the first to continue to rely on a single main camera while adding a second front camera. The dual front cameras exist for the same reason they do on the V40, with the second wide-angle camera used for group selfies and to assist with the depth estimation that is critical for Portrait mode and creating Bokeh. As with Apple, Huawei, and Samsung, you can adjust the amount of blur via a simulated depth-of-focus slider after taking a Portrait-mode photo with the front-facing cameras.
The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL feature the same camera setup. Their main camera is a 12.2MP unit featuring an improved sensor over the Pixel 2 with 1.4-micron pixels and an f/1.8, 76-degree field of view (FOV) lens. It also has an integrated spectral and flicker sensor, as well as both optical and electronic image stabilization. Like the Pixel 2, it uses the dual-pixel design of the sensor to estimate depth for Portrait effects. The dual front cameras are both 8MP, but the wide-angle camera has a 97-degree FOV and f/2.2 lens compared with the 75-degree FOV and f/1.8 aperture of the more traditional one. Images taken with the front cameras in poor light are enhanced with a synthetic lighting effect, similar to what Apple has done.
Google rightly touts continued improvements to its HDR+ technology for assembling multiple exposures into one image featuring increased dynamic range, although all of its main competitors now do something similar (most recently Apple’s Smart HDR), so the proof will be in how real-world tests stack up. Google has extended this approach with a new feature, planned for later this year, called Night Sight, that uses a longer exposure at night to create reasonable images even in scenes where previous phones would have been useless. Like previous Pixels, you get free unlimited photo storage for images shot with the phone — until the year 2022 in this case.
Top Shot Uses AI to Make You a Better Photographer
One of the hardest skills to master as a photographer is how to press the shutter at exactly the right time to capture the desired action or expression. That is particularly hard if a scene is unfolding quickly. It is a big reason that professional DSLRs sport high frame rates — and that press conferences often sound like an automatic weapons shooting range. Phones have traditionally been at a large disadvantage here, as they were slow to focus, a little awkward to use, and couldn’t shoot a lot of frames quickly. However, that has changed in a big way over the last couple years, and with Top Shot Google has given phones a superpower that high-end cameras only wish they had.
Top Shot takes advantage of the fact that while you are composing an image your phone’s sensor is capturing frames. So when you snap an image, it has a buffer of images just before and just afterward. This is how Live Photos work, and isn’t unique to the Pixel 3 — other cameras have some version of “Best Shot Selection.” Where the Pixel 3 pushes the envelope is by deploying Google’s machine learning running on its Visual Core to help you select the best frame to keep. It has been trained to look for smiles, open eyes, in-focus subjects, subjects looking at the camera, and so on. Of course, we won’t know how well it really works until it the phones ship, but even if the AI isn’t spot on, the photographer can look through the frames and choose the one they like best.
Motion Autofocus That Can Track Your Subject
A real Achilles heel of phone video has been focusing on a moving subject or changing scene. With Motion Autofocus in the Pixel 3, once you focus on a subject (say your dog, a kid, or a race car) the camera will continue to focus on it as you shoot your video, even if it’s moving. Or at least that is the theory. It’ll be great to see if it can help with photographing sporting events, pets, and kids. You also get video stabilization in the front cameras, in case you’re moving when you are recording a selfie video or live stream.
Super-Res Zoom Beamed in From Mars
Google kicked off its announcement of the super-resolution capability of the Pixel 3 by citing how the technology was used to create high-resolution images of Mars. But the company omitted that it’s been in phones from competitor Huawei and probably others for a while now. Google was thin on details of the new implementation, but in addition to aligning and using multiple frames to enhance detail, it likely also uses some of Google’s own AI research on filling in detail within a single frame. I’ve used the “AI-Zoom” feature on the Huawei Mate 10 Pro and found it helpful but not amazing. Here, too, we’ll see if Google has done enough to provide a Zoom on its single rear camera that can compete with dual and triple camera systems from its competitors.
Camera App Redesign and Integrated Google Lens
The Camera app on the Pixel 3 starts by automatically fetching Google Lens results when you point it at an object it recognizes and suggesting appropriate actions (like scanning a business card). Not that it is all that hard in the current version, as you just need to click on the Lens icon. I’m actually not sure I’d want this feature enabled all the time, as it could be distracting if you simply want to take a photo. Rounding out what’s new with the Pixel 3 photo experience is a redesign of the Google Camera app. It now features tabs, with additional features nestled under a new “More” tab.
As usual, we’ll also be looking to see how many of these features will be available via updates to current Pixel owners. Presumably at least the new app design. Taken together, the new capabilities put the Pixel 3 camera well ahead of previous Pixel devices. Until there are some real-world reviews, it’s hard to say whether it will be worth shelling out the $800+ for the new model.
Now Read: LG V40 ThinQ: How 5 Cameras Push the Bounds of Phone Photography, Best Android Phones for Photographers, and Google Releases Android 9 ‘Pie’ for Pixel Phones.