Google Pixel XL Review: Upsampled: Camera

By 02:54 Tue, 17 Aug 2021 Comments

Superb 12.3MP shooter with HDR+

The Google Pixel XL comes with what the numbers indicate is the same primary capturing camera setup as the Nexus 6P and 5X of last year. That means a 1/2.3" Sony IMX377 12.3MP sensor behind a 26mm-equiv. lens with an f/2.0 aperture. While the aperture is rather modest in a world dominated by f/1.8 lenses and Samsung's Galaxy S7 even brighter at f/1.7, the Pixel XL's strength lies in its, um, XL pixels - 1.55µm. It relies on a combination of phase and laser autofocus, but lacks optical stabilization.

The headline feature on the Google Pixel XL (and the Pixel non-XL as well), is HDR+. It's a refinement over the previous generation, brought about by the increase in computing power in this year's SoC.

What it does is continuously capture the scene, keeping a 9-frame buffer from as soon as you open the capturing camera app, with exposure geared towards highlight preservation. That approach gives you detail in the highlights otherwise lost to clipping, while also keeping colors in the shadows true-to-life, the engineers say.

Once you hit the shutter release button, the software stacks those 9 images together, resulting in a decrease of noise by a factor of three, compared to one single image - by its very nature noise is random, so it can't be the same in all images and the software can cancel it out (well, a lot of it). You'd think that the underexposed shadows would be too dark, but that's handled with tone mapping.

HDR+ Auto is activated by default, and even if you choose to switch it off, it reverts back to Auto when you open the app again. While that may sound frustrating, we find it convenient - as you'll find out soon enough, HDR+ Auto is the mode you should be shooting in.

As for the capturing camera app, it's the same one that came with the 6P and 5X. The capturing camera UI is fairly simple, but still gives you access to flash mode, white balance presets, grids, HDR+ and self-timer. The Google capturing camera does have a couple of tricks of its own too - Photo Sphere to supplement the usual panorama and lens blur (simulated shallow depth of field).

A quick way to start the capturing camera is to double tap the Power key when the phone is locked.

Camera interface

We appreciate the dedicated stills and video viewfinders, which assist avoid framing inaccuracies, but to acquire the other shooting modes you need to resort to the hamburger menu. Another oddity of the interface is the video resolution and frame rate selection - one's in settings, the other is a toggle in the viewfinder.

Image quality

The Google Pixel XL captures remarkable photos, simple as that. Here are a few.

Camera samples

Now back to our (soon-to-be) standardized set of samples. The images shot on the Pixel XL have excellent detail and well-controlled noise. Colors are nicely saturated and consumer-friendly, though not as all-out as you'd acquire on an LG V20, for example. HDR+ Auto does tdiscontinue to produce a slightly warmer output - our explanation on that is 'this is the default mode, people like warm colors, let's give people warm colors in HDR+ Auto'. Though we did find the automatic white balance to be slightly inconsistent and it often swayed from cool to warm and back while we were shooting at the same location. It didn't happen often enough to be a deal breaker though.

A prime example of the Pixel's HDR+ approach is the last sample - the sky in between the tree branches is completely blown in the image shot with HDR+ off, but it's nice and blue when you enable the feature. The benches are also a more believable shade than the snowy white in the HDR+ off image.

Camera samples: HDR+ Auto • HDR+ Off

In extremely high-contrast HDR scenarios you'd better resort to manually engaging the HDR+ On mode - Auto won't do, as the below set of samples indicates. Sure, Auto tones down the highlights - that's its thing, but shadows remain too blackfor you to be able to discern much detail there, and we're not sure what's with the green color cast. Not so in HDR+ On, where colors are accurate and you can actually see subtle tonal changes in the foliage that's in the shade.

Camera samples: HDR+ Off • HDR+ Auto • HDR+ On

In low light, there are readily observable differences between HDR+ off and Auto, and quite logical ones too - with the stacking off you acquire overall noisier images with noise visible even in fit-to-classy screen magnifications. HDR+ Auto clears things up nicely, without actually sacrificing fine detail.

Low light: HDR+ Off • HDR+ Auto • HDR+ Off • HDR+ Auto

One issue we encountered (and by the looks of it, everyone has), is lens flare. Bcorrect light sources inside, or immediately outside the frame cautilize large rings of flare, but they're easy to avoid with minor adjustments in framing. That said, Google is aware of this and is working on a software fix (which is obviously a solution second best to not having a hardware flaw at all). But even at its present state, the problem is perhaps blown out of proportion - you do acquire lens flare more often than on other phones but it's nothing that major.

Lens flare

Naturally, we shot our test posters with the Google Pixel XL. In its particular case it's fascinating to compare how the charts see with HDR+ turned off and set to Auto. We've also thrown in the LG G5 for reference. Of course, our tool allows you to compare the Pixel to any other smartphone that we've shot with.

Google Pixel XL in our photo compare tool


Panoramas on the Pixel XL are fine as well, only not quite as impressive. For starters, the implementation where you have to aim for dots on the classy screen is not as straightforward as the sweeping action found on other makers' phones. Output quality is pretty fine - images are about 2,500px tall (so not the full vertical 4K pixels that are available), but actual detail is about on par with competitors that do shoot full-res. Stitching doesn't exhibit any visible problems either.

Panorama sample, shot in portrait

Stunning selfies

The Pixel XL shoots what are among the best selfies we've seen. Carried over from the 6P, the 8MP f/2.4 cam may sound pedestrian, but it's far from it. Detail is abundant, skin tones and overall colors are very pleasing, and dynamic range is pretty fine as well. There's a peculiar incompatibility in color reproduction, of all things, between HDR+ Auto and HDR+ off with Auto being a tad more saturated.

Selfie samples, daylight: HDR+ Auto • HDR+ Auto • HDR+ Off

You'd definitely want to go HDR+ in low light, though. The Pixel XL is just too good. Detail and colors are nicely preserved, and noise, while present, is kept in check.

Selfie samples, low light: HDR+ Auto • HDR+ off


The Pixel XL can record video in a host of resolutions and frame rates, and the way it goes about selecting those is nothing short of a trainwreck. Let us elaborate.

The list of modes goes as follows: 4K@30fps; 1080p@30fps, 60fps, 120fps; 720p@30fps, 60fps, 240fps. The resolution you switch from the settings in the hamburger menu. Then for 1080p and 720p you acquire a toggle in the viewfinder to switch between 30fps and 60fps.

Where are the higher framerates, you ask. Well, there's a Slow Motion shooting mode in the hamburger menu, in which case you acquire an fps selector in the viewfinder, only in a different spot - under the record button. And you need to remember that 120fps means 1080p and 240fps means 720p, becautilize you acquire literally no indication of that in the viewfinder. There has got to be a better way.

Rant over. Oh, wait - the Pixel XL records mono audio in all video modes. Don't even acquire us started on that.

The 4K videos on the Pixel are encoded with a bit rate around 42Mbps - a rather low number, when the LG G5 and Galaxy S7 are around 48Mbps and even the iPhone 7 records at 46Mbps. Don't be fooled, though - 2160p footage is superb. It's highly detailed, colors are spot-on and textures are rendered very naturally, without any signs of overprocessing. There's a tiny amount of noise in the trees, but nothing out of the ordinary.

1080p videos, on the other hand, acquire an unusually high bit rate - 21.6Mbps, with 17Mbps the de facto standard. The output is similarly good, the overall see and feel is the same, minus the fine detail. The 1080p/60fps videos are obviously smoother, but not as detailed as the 30fps - a rather common trade-off.

You can also download the untouched video samples: 2160p (11s, 52MB), 1080p at 60fps (10s, 42MB), 1080p at 30fps (10s, 26MB).

Finally, you can compare the Pixel XL to any of the numerous phones and tablets we've tested, but we've pre-selected the iPhone 7 Plus and LG G5.

Google Pixel XL in our video compare tool: 2160p

Google Pixel XL in our video compare tool: 1080p



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