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108MP sensor vs computational photography: Which one wins?

Do more megapixels take better pictures, or can you get away with fewer pixels and some clever software tricks?

Published onJanuary 5, 2020

Xiaomi Mi Note 10 vs Google Pixel 4 cameras

Update 8th January: Xiaomi provided additional information on how bokeh capture works in the Mi Note 10. We’ve updated the article to include these details.

Smartphone photography underwent two major trends in 2019: the adoption of bigger sensors with megapixel counts stretching into the hundreds and the growing number of use cases for computational photography. Not to mention the mainstream adoption of triple cameras as well.

Two smartphones epitomize these trends and their different approaches to mobile photography. On the one hand, there’s the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 with its 108MP main sensor and quintuple rear camera configuration. On the other, the Google Pixel 4 offers a more modest dual rear camera configuration with just 12MP and 16MP of resolution each.

Of course, these two phones cater to two rather different price points. The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 is a much more affordable smartphone, while Google’s Pixel 4 and 4 XL come with flagship-tier price tags. However, both pride themselves on their photography capabilities and make great showcases for these two prevailing approaches to improving smartphone picture quality. If you want a rundown of the two phone’s camera specs, check out the table below.

Google Pixel 4Xiaomi Mi Note 10
Main sensor
Google Pixel 4
12.2MP, f/2.0, 1/2.55", 1.4µm
27mm focal length
Xiaomi Mi Note 10
108MP, f/1.7, 1/1.33", 0.8µm, (27MP 1.6µm)
25mm focal lengh
Camera 2
Google Pixel 4
16MP, f/2.4, 1/3.6", 1.0µm
50mm, 2x telephoto
Xiaomi Mi Note 10
12MP, f/2.0, 1/2.55", 1.4µm
PDAF, Laser AF
50mm 2x telephoto
Camera 3
Google Pixel 4

Xiaomi Mi Note 10
8MP, f/2.0, 1.0µm
92mm 3.7x telephoto
(5MP 5x telephoto)
Camera 4
Google Pixel 4

Xiaomi Mi Note 10
20MP, f/2.2, 1/2.8", 1.0µm
Laser AF
13mm ultra-wide focal length
Camera 5
Google Pixel 4

Xiaomi Mi Note 10
2MP, f/2.4, 1/5", 1.75µm
Macro Lens

Today, we’re running through a selection of head-to-head scenarios. Rather than looking at broader imaging differences, we’re going to hone in on how these two approaches affect the type of pictures you can take and how successful they are at what they set out to do.

See the full-res photos on Google Drive

108MP vs 12MP

We’ll get the really obvious and least interesting comparison out of the way first. On paper, the 108 megapixels of the Mi Note 10 offers vastly more detail capture than the 12MP main camera on the Pixel 4. Although when you consider than the Xiaomi handset defaults to 27MP through the use of pixel binning, the discrepancy isn’t as large as it first seems.

To get the basics out of the way first, both cameras take great-looking pictures when examining at full frame. You won’t spot issues with over-processing, lack of detail, or noise, at least not until you start pixel peeping. Xiaomi hands in a more natural color balance than the Pixel 4, which tends to be a tad too warm. But that’s arguably just my personal preference for cool pictures.

The only noticeable differences at full frame boil down to color processing. 108 megapixels certainly doesn’t mean that Xiaomi’s pictures automatically look better. The Pixel 4 is renowned as one of the best smartphone shooters for a reason, even with its seemingly small 12MP count. To see the real differences we need to pixel peep. So just how much more detail to do you get from one of these 108MP sensors?

Our first sample reveals close to a 4x cropable zoom difference between the two cameras, thanks to Xiaomi’s massive resolution. However, closer inspection reveals that at 108MP the Mi Note 10’s images are heavily processed and don’t contain as much detail as we typically expect from a 100% crop. There’s a fair amount of noise in all the images captured at 108MP, making the files not worth their huge 22MP size.

In this lower-light shot, note how both phones are noisy and quite heavily processed. You can still crop in closer with the Xiaomi, but the fine details are mushed together due to the lack of light. The huge sensor still gives you a decent crop factor that well exceeds the Pixel 4, but there’s a reason the Mi Note 10 defaults to 27MP. In less than perfect conditions, you simply can’t max out the huge resolution.

Unfortunately, we can also see a few purple patches of chromatic aberration distortion on the tree trunks from the poor quality lens slip into the second image. Just as worryingly for Xiaomi’s sensor implementation, I was actually able to obtain superior distant detail using Google’s software zoom versus its 108MP sensor. Although both are much too ugly to want to use as a 100% crop.

108MP gives you more detail, but results are highly environment-dependent.

Overall, the Xiaomi Mi Note 10’s 108MP sensor is a bit of a disappointment when it comes to providing additional detail capture. You’ll gain some benefit, providing you’re in bright daylight, but nothing close to 108MP of actually usable detail. Better to stick to the 27MP pixel binned-mode.

In reality, we’re looking at something closer to a 27MP versus 12MP resolution difference. The image above of a 27MP vs 12MP shows the actual crop benefits you’ll get from Xiaomi’s camera. Just over a 2x free crop factor is notable, but not game-changing, given the prevalence of telephoto zoom capabilities.

The Mi Note 10 certainly captures more detail as the Pixel 4 and produces a smoother image in its 27MP mode. However, the results vary greatly. Hence why Xiaomi chose to include a wide range of zoom cameras too.

Detail at a distance

Both the Mi Note 10 and the Pixel 4 offer telephoto zoom capabilities. Google finally came around to the idea and implemented a 2x optical zoom camera. Xiaomi goes further, offering not only a 108MP sensor for digital crops but also 2x and 3.7x optical cameras too. The Mi Note 10 hits up to 5MP lossless zoom by cropping in on the 3.7x camera’s 8MP sensor. However, Google also implements a machine learning-based super-resolution zoom technology that obtains very decent results at long range as well.

At 2x, the optical zoom of both phones’ cameras, the Pixel 4 produces a much more natural, less processed look. It’s arguably a tad on the soft side but does a great job at capturing detail, exposure, and color. The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 provides a hefty dose of oversharpening that ruins the look of the image on closer inspection. Both pictures look decent at full frame, but the Pixel 4 presents the cleanest image.

At 3x, we see Google’s software implementation come into play. The image is again quite soft, but the bulk of the important details remain in the full-frame shot. Xiaomi’s small zoom sensor, by comparison, has the opposite problem. Although Xiaomi captures more fine detail, the crop reveals some noise that’s made worse by a sharpening pass. The image is also overexposed.

The Pixel 4's zoom looks better at medium range, but the Mi Note 10's hardware pulls ahead at 5x.

At 5x, Google’s software zoom algorithm has a much more negative impact on image quality. While certainly not bad at full frame, our crop reveals that fine details mushing together. Xiaomi’s 5x shot (a combination of 3.7x optical zoom and cropping) retains finer details. Again though, the small dedicated zoom sensor struggles with noise and the image is a tad over-sharpened.

It’s actually a surprisingly close call between these two shooters. At medium zoom distances below 3x, the Pixel 4 is the better camera. Owing to far less aggressive post-processing and sharpening, although the images are a tad soft. However, at longer zooms of 4 and 5x, it’s the Mi Note 10’s camera that captures a smidgen more detail. Still, it’s an excellent showing for the Pixel 4’s primarily software-based zoom.

The best at low light

The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 and Google Pixel 4 offer two very different takes on low-light photography. Google continues to focus on its multiple exposure, HDR+, and Night Shot technologies. Meanwhile, Xiaomi’s 108MP sensor uses pixel binning technology to offer 27MP images with large 1.6µm sized pixels. That makes each pixel slightly larger than the Pixel 4’s 1.4µm and should, at least in theory, offer slightly better low light performance. So which will win out in low light: hardware or software?

This image showcases the typical differences between the two cameras in low light. The Mi Note 10’s larger sensor results in a better color balance and less noise than the Pixel 4. The Pixel 4’s reliance on multi-exposure software produces a more over-processed look with harsher edges. However, Google’s HDR+ does a better job at picking out details in low light. Take a look at the rock textures, for example.

This second example highlights the difference in noise capabilities. The Pixel 4 exhibits black crush and noise towards the left and bottom of this crop. Resulting in a loss of detail. There’s no such issue for the Mi Note 10 and its colors are also more vibrant and realistic. The phone does experience a larger lens flare problem than the Pixel 4, but both have issues here when shooting into the sun.

Xiaomi's larger sensor wins in terms of noise and dynamic range, but Google's algorithm pulls out more detail in low light.

There are scenarios where each handset shows its pros and cons. The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 performs admirably in high dynamic range environments. The large sensor captures plenty of light from shadows, avoiding the black crush that you sometimes see from Google’s software. However, even in pixel binned mode the Mi Note 10 misses out on low light detail in a lot of shots.

What about dedicated Night shooting modes?

Both phones boast impressive Night mode processing. Google’s multi-exposure technology ensures a good balance of highlights, shadows, and detail even in very dark environments. The Mi Note 10’s implementation, combined with its good low-light hardware, is enough to make up the gap. In fact, Xiaomi provides, arguably, better white balance and overall exposure with its Night mode.

The Pixel 4 earned its reputation as an excellent low-light shooter, but the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 is even better. Xiaomi’s phone performs pretty well with a quick shutter press and its long exposure easily keeps up with Google’s. Although the Pixel 4 is still the way to get your hands on the fun ASTROphotography mode.

Bokeh hardware vs software

To create depth maps, Xiaomi uses a combination of its telephoto camera, 108MP sensor, and software algorithms. The bokeh is developed from the combination of the main sensor’s wide lens aperture and software techniques. The Pixel 4 uses a very similar approach with its two cameras, allowing Google to use camera perspective differences to obtain more accurate results than previous generations.

Both phones exhibit familiar bokeh issues, albeit to slightly different extents.  The Pixel 4 has a little more trouble with edges, while the Mi Note 10 is more so-so on foreground and background separation. Edge detection on both handsets is reasonably good, providing that you avoid complex textured backgrounds. Sadly, Xiaomi’s software pass removes far too much image detail and the quality of its software bokeh is not as good.

In the second example, the Mi Note 10 places parts of the skull and android in two different planes. This error bleeds some blur into the foreground prematurely, although other edges are detected very well. While the Pixel 4 identifies front and background planes more conclusively, it struggles with the glass edges and doesn’t blend into its bokeh blur as seamlessly. Furthermore, Google still doesn’t allow you to remap the focal point in post-processing, which remains a major bugbear of mine. Xiaomi has no problem with this, although its bokeh processing times are notably slower than Google’s.

Overall, the two perform admirably at bokeh edge detection but both are hit and miss, as is typical of all phones. However, the quality of Google’s blur effect is notably better than Xiaomi’s, resulting in nicer looking results in most scenarios.

Xiaomi Mi Note 10 vs Google Pixel 4 backs

Computational photography vs 108 megapixels: the verdict

I’m a big fan of Xiaomi’s color grading and white balance. If nothing else, the Mi Note 10 nails these points better than Google’s flagship Pixel 4. Both phones take great-looking photos in a variety of environments, demonstrating that there are still quite a few ways to achieve great-looking pictures.

However, the 108MP and quintuple camera arrangement in the Mi Note 10 is more hype than substance. The combined camera capabilities are certainly very flexible. However, the results are mixed. The 108MP sensor certainly offers more detail than the Pixel 4’s 12MP sensor, but it only shines in perfect daylight conditions. In lower light, the detail difference between these sensors is far less pronounced than the numbers suggest. Zoom-wise, Xiaomi’s cameras are passable but not quite as good as the best out there, and its software bokeh algorithm could be improved. Despite the Mi Note 10’s huge range of sensors, it doesn’t quite master any of them.

Computational photography helps the Pixel compete on flexibility with just two sensors.

The Pixel 4 proves that you can obtain similarly flexible and great-looking results with just a couple of cameras and very smart software. Of course, not everyone has made the computational photography investments that Google has. But this is where high-end phones can continue to add value over more affordable models.

Computational photography squeaks into first place in this shootout. However, Google’s next-gen Pixel could certainly learn a few tricks from Xiaomi. Most notably using a bigger sensor for even better low-light performance. Afterall, computational photography still benefits from better underlying hardware. Despite the verdict, the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 is an excellent shooter for its price point. It rivals much more expensive smartphones, like the Pixel 4, and should certainly be on your radar if you’re after a great camera phone on a budget.

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