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Camera shootout: Google Pixel 4 vs Pixel 3 vs Pixel 2 vs Pixel
Google is known for its computational photography advancements, and the Google Pixel 3 managed to keep its title as one of the best camera phones until just recently. The Google Pixel 4 is finally here and of course you want to know how good the camera is. We have already compared the Pixel 4 to its main competitors. In this camera shootout we aim to find out just how much better the Pixel 4 is compared to its own predecessors — or if it’s worth the upgrade at all.
This camera shootout includes the Google Pixel 4, Pixel 3, Pixel 2, and Pixel. We took these phones on a stroll around New York City and snapped identical photos with each, in different environments and lighting situations. Read on to find out how the Pixel 4 stacks up against the rest of the Pixel family!
It’s hard to rate daylight images, as even affordable smartphones can produce great photos when there is ample lighting to work with. The differences are in the details. We need to pay very close attention to exposure, color, white balance, dynamic range, detail, and texture to spot what separates the field.
Keep in mind that Pixels use similar software. All these images look great, but there are some slight differences you might want to keep an eye on. HDR Plus improvements even out exposure, as well as expand dynamic range. There are clearly more details in the Pixel 4 image’s shadows. Take a look at cars under the bridge, for example. There is also more detail in the buildings’ window outlines and textures.
Google’s software, which is the line-up’s most powerful asset, ensures that these images look similar. There is, however, more detail in the shadows in the tree to the right of the frame. The Pixel 4 seems to handle white balance better, as the Pixel 3 shows a purple tint, while the Pixel 1 displays a warmer hue. Also, if you look very closely you can see a wider color gamut in the trees across the lake.
There is a surprisingly bigger difference among these images in the color department. The Pixel 4 displays a wider color spectrum, with the different colors in each individual flower readily more apparent to the eye and displaying more vibrance. The latest Pixel also seems to deliver better white balance, as the Pixel 3 has a slight purple tint and the Pixel 2 has a cooler hue.
All four devices measured light differently. Lighting changing in the real-world environment may have been a factor, but in this section we are focusing on detail, so let’s not worry too much about exposure.
The Pixel 4 goes above and beyond here. Take a look at the lounge area in the terrace (lower-right corner) and you will see flowers pop more in the Pixel 4 image. Further, the wooden sidewalk cover across the street displays much crisper and detailed wood. Zooming into the walls across the street we also see finely detailed bricks and improved textures. Even the Pixel 3 struggles to match the latest Google phone.
Differences in exposure aside, we can see the Google Pixel 4 reveals more texture on building walls, as well as detail in the trees in the distance. Needless to say, shadows and highlights, as well as color and white balance, are better handled by the Pixel 4 than its predecessors.
To better understand dynamic range, you can read our dedicated post. In a nutshell, dynamic range refers to a camera’s ability to pick up detail at the exposure extremes in a scene, from the darkest to the brightest areas. Cameras with bad dynamic range will more easily either blow out highlights or black out shadows.
In this image, we can see how dynamic range from Pixel phones has improved over time. Take a close look at the wooden posts in the tunnel’s ceiling and the bright area at the end of the tunnel. The first Pixel blows out the highlights and has less detail in the shadows. Exposure balance gets better progressively, from the Pixel 2 through the 3 and 4, with the 4 offering the best dynamic range.
This specific image is very hard to shoot because the scene has both extremely bright and very dark areas. The camera and software must perform a lot of processing to balance exposure. Take a look at the trees across the lake and buildings in the distance to spot the differences in exposure, contrast, detail, and improved dynamic range. Again, the improvements per generation here are obvious, with the Pixel 4 trumping its predecessors.
It’s after the sun goes down that we start to see the real differences between these four cameras. The tiny sensors struggle to capture light in order to get as much detail as possible. Software then takes the image and makes some hard decisions. Do you remove all the noise and risk softening a photo too much? White balance is also something to keep in mind, and most phones fail to get true hues and tints in the process. The device must also figure out what to expose for.
The original Pixel struggles with exposure, but colors and white balance are still acceptable. We see signs of improved HDR performance with the Google Pixel 4, as the shadows have more detail.
This balance in exposure is more noticeable in the brighter lights, which are more balanced with the environment in the latest phone’s image. Take a look at the vertical sign that says “Canton Lounge”, for example. The words are illegible in the Pixel and Pixel 2 images. They are better in the Pixel 3, and are very clear in the Pixel 4 shot. That specific part is a great example of the difference between bad and good dynamic range.
While I like the dreamy, warmer tone of the Pixel, Pixel 2, and Pixel 3 images, the Pixel 4 achieved better white balance and more detail. Texture in the meat, wood, mashed potatoes, and greens have been improved. Thie 4’s image is simply more true-to-life.
Google’s Night Sight is known for its great low-light performance. It is arguably the best night mode on any smartphone, and while the software may be similar for all four Pixel phones, we can see differences in performance across the board.
The Google Pixel and Pixel 2 are pretty bad. They crush the shadows and produce images that are way too soft. Meanwhile, the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 4 produce similar results. The Pixel 4 handles shadows and highlights a tiny bit better, but the difference is minimal and can only be noticed if you pay very close attention.
Things are a bit more polarizing in portrait mode. The Google Pixel just couldn’t handle exposure. The image is a total failure. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 images are similar in the way they handle white balance, color, and outlining. The Pixel 4’s photo offers much more detail, but I don’t like the way white balance was handled; it’s heavy on the blue hue. The image also has an over-processed look that seems unnatural. Outlining looks better, though, which makes sense considering the Pixel 4 has a secondary lens from which to grab depth information.
The original Pixel did better this time, exposing the image correctly and outlining the subject more clearly. The only complaint I have is that it slightly over-exposed the left side of Adam’s face. The other Pixels did a better job at this, but the Pixel 4 and its superior dynamic range handled it beautifully. In addition, the latest Google device has better white balance, crisper hair, and brighter colors.
The original Pixel messed things up again, totally missing focus and blurring areas randomly. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 delivered better results, and I love that the bokeh is gradual (gets blurrier with distance). The Pixel 2 still has more issues outlining the subject, though. The Pixel 4 was the best at outlining the person, and it happens to show more detail in the hair and clothing texture.
The Pixel 4’s selfie camera is generally crisper and more color accurate than the rest. You can’t expect wonders from a selfie camera, but at least this one has a decent front-facing shooter, and it is significantly better than the one found in previous Pixel iterations. All three previous Pixel devices had poor white balance, and the first couple versions produced soft imagery.
Google Pixel 4: To upgrade, or not to upgrade?
Unsurprisingly, the Google Pixel 4 impressed us with its image quality and stands atop the competition. How long the phone will keep the throne is unknown, as Apple, Huawei, and Samsung have improved their cameras by leaps and bounds this year.
If you are like me, you may wish to wait for (what we assume will be) the more affordable Pixel 4a and hope the camera is identical. The Pixel 3a had the same camera as the Pixel 3, and it costs only $399. Those rocking a Pixel 2 or original Pixel phones will probably deem the upgrade worthy. You can see major improvements across the board when comparing the Pixel 4 to the oldest two Pixel handsets.
There is a significant bump in performance with the Google Pixel 4, but Pixel 3 owners might not see enough of a difference to justify an upgrade. Exposure, color, and low-light capabilities are similar between the two. The Pixel 4 improves dynamic range and detail, but perhaps not enough to warrant an upgrade. That is, unless you have an extra $799 and want to treat yourself to the best camera phone around (battery life be damned.)