When it comes to smartphone cameras, the Google Pixel 2 is the de facto benchmark for most of us, even though it came out in 2017. Whether it’s still the best smartphone camera isn’t the point — it’s simply the phone camera most of us are most familiar with. That’s why I took a bunch of comparison shots with the Pixel 2 while I was in China for the Vivo Nex launch this week. They’re not direct competitors, nor are they priced equally, and they have far from the same target audiences. Regardless, the two phones posted some very compelling results.
To keep the playing field level, I won’t highlight up front which device took which photo in the slider images below. I’ll keep the same phone on the same side in each comparison below, and reveal which was which at the end with a few thoughts on the results. Let’s see if you picked right.
If you want to pixel peep the full-res images, you can grab them here.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other…
What this first batch of images will likely impress upon you is just how similar the cameras on these two phones are. There are some slight differences in exposure and saturation, but you really need to zoom right in to start picking them apart. Color reproduction is remarkably similar on both, mainly differing in white balance.
Portrait mode reveals big differences in exposure, saturation, and color, with the phone on the left producing a brighter image with poppier colors. The phone on the right gets more contrasty detail on the roof of the building, but loses plenty of detail below the awning and on the tree trunk to the right. Both handle the cutout of foreground and background well and produce a bokeh effect that looks far from fake in either. Remember, the Pixel 2 only uses a single camera to achieve this result while the Vivo Nex has a secondary camera.
The first image here shows very similar results again with a couple of noticeable differences. The image on the left blows out the detail, where you can see the sky through the tree. The image on the right produces an unnaturally bright green on the plant growing out of the roof. With the second scene, the image on the right shows more noise and really struggles with the edges of the TV tower where it meets the sky, especially around the round sections. The image on the left is cleaner overall, but colors aren’t as saturated as on the right.
The results in this batch of images had greater variation. In the first image, the device on the left shows less detail on the white wall at the back, but if you zoom in you can clearly read the sign in the shadows (which you can’t do with the image on the right). The second image shows greater dynamic range in the right-hand image where the hallway meets the bright exterior. It also produces more detail in the shadows inside.
The third and fourth sets of images flip the results a little. Colors notwithstanding, let’s look at the sign and trees on the left of the third set of photos. The image on the left captures much more information in the shadows under the trees and the writing on the blue sign is far more legible. The fourth image pair shows similar handling of the sky, but the image on the right has a peculiar purplish tint and tries too hard to lighten the darker areas under the awning of the building. The image on the left is much more natural-looking.
Detail and sharpening
At first glance the elevated cityscape shot looks nicer on the left. If you zoom right in you can see plenty of oversharpening in effect. In the second image, we see a microcosm of what has come before: a lighter exposure and more detail under the tree shadows in the left-hand image, and a darker exposure and less vibrant colors in the right-hand image. In the third comparison there’s very little in it that wouldn’t be carried one way or another based on personal preference. The final pair is similar again: the photo on the right is darker, with more noise in the water, and slightly duller colors overall.
Like the zoomed-in night-time shot above, these shots of the Shanghai skyline reveal most of the same things. Colors are more saturated in the image on the right (the opposite of what happens during daytime), but sharpness is lost due to the muddy blurring of the bright lights (zoom in on the blue building to the left of the TV tower for an example). The night sky is darker in the right-hand image too, but it also shows much more noise than the cleaner image on the left.
I left this one until last because it seemed the most likely to give away the true identities of the two devices. The Pixel 2 has a very well-regarded front-facing camera, and for good reason. Based on this image alone it’d be relatively easy to identify that the left-hand images throughout this camera comparison came from the Pixel 2. Like the main camera, the Vivo Nex overexposes again. Did you pick which was which correctly?
I was quite surprised Vivo managed to put such a competitive camera on the Nex (the Nex produced the right-hand images throughout). Barring the front-facing camera — sadly one of the big attention-grabbers for Vivo’s new phone thanks to its elevating mechanism — the Nex cameras perform very well. The Vivo Nex camera may not outright beat the Pixel 2, but it comes tantalizingly close on multiple occasions. That fact alone is about as good an advertisement as any smartphone can ask for right now.
Vivo managed to put a very competitive camera on the Nex.
I ran a little blind test amongst a couple of the Android Authority team and most actually preferred the images from the Nex. They correctly identified the presence of oversharpening in the Nex’s image processing but nevertheless preferred the punchier colors and lighter exposure. It’s a little like Samsung displays: we all know they’re more saturated than “normal” but we can’t help but like them anyway. Sometimes an OEM bumping the colors and exposure isn’t so bad — it can actually save us a trip to an editing app before we share them. Then again, others will detest the sharpening and exposure of the Nex.
As I said about the Huawei P20 Pro, which approach you prefer will likely come down to whether you judge a smartphone photo as it appears on your smartphone or as it appears up close on your computer. The Pixel maintains detail at the expense of added noise, only making colors pop at night. The Nex tends to overexpose, with very visible sharpening if you zoom in. We won’t declare an outright “winner,” but the Vivo Nex definitely puts up a very good fight against the smartphone camera against which all others are judged.
Now you tell me: which set of images did you prefer?