I took the phones to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to test them out.
All photos and videos were taken using the default camera app on automatic exposure settings, with auto HDR modes turned on. I used the Pixel 2, which has the same camera as the Pixel 2 XL.
|Pixel 2||iPhone X|
|4K (30fps) 1080p (30/60fps) 720p (30/60fps)||4K (24/30/60fps) 1080p (30/60fps) 720p (30fps)|
|1080 (120fps) 720 (240fps)||1080 (120/240fps)|
|f/1.8||f1.8 (wide-angle); f/2.4 (telephoto)|
|Fused Stabilization (optical and electronic)||Optical Image Stabilization (both lenses)|
|8 megapixels||7 megapixels|
Both cameras do an excellent job of capturing landscapes and portraits in daylight. The Pixel does appear to have the edge in sharpness, as we noticed in our other comparisons against phones like the Note 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. In general, photos from the iPhone appear slightly warmer than the Pixel's, which may be more flattering for portraits if that's the effect you're after.
Google's HDR+ Enhanced mode makes photos look more vivid compared with the regular HDR+ mode. The image below is of the HDR+ Enhanced mode side by side with the auto HDR from the iPhone. The Pixel Visual Core, a chipset in the Pixel 2 designed to enhance HDR images, has not yet been enabled in a final release of Android at the time of writing.
Apple popularized portrait mode with the iPhone 7 Plus. It's designed to simulate bokeh, or the shallow depth of field effect that makes a subject look sharper than the background. The phone uses its two lenses to create a depth map to separate the subject, then blurs out the background with software. Using machine learning, the Pixel 2 can achieve the same effect with one lens.
If you like a more subtle effect with gradual falloff between the subject and the background, you'll probably enjoy the iPhone's portrait mode. But if you want the subject to "pop" against the background, the Pixel will be your go-to. Again, due to the way the Pixel renders its images straight from the camera, details look sharper.
Sometimes I found the iPhone really struggled to lock on to subjects in low light, asking me to turn on the flash. With a little bit of coaxing I managed to get the iPhone to play along by adjusting my position and making sure enough ambient light hit the subject. The Pixel took the shot every time.
That being said, for low-light portraits specifically, I prefer the warmer tones from the iPhone.
For selfies, both phones can produce the portrait mode effect on the front-facing camera. The iPhone does a better job of rendering fine detail like hair, although its pics don't look as accurate as ones taken with the rear camera.
The iPhone X also comes with a variety of lighting options (currently in beta) that can add different effects to photos shot in portrait mode.
Zoom and flash
The second iPhone lens gives 2x optical zoom, while the Pixel relies on digital zoom alone to get closer to subjects. At reduced magnification there's not all that much difference to notice between optical 2x and digital 2x zoom, but the devil's in the details. On the Pixel, images are softer and look smudgy when you're looking at 100 percent magnification.
To my eyes, the Pixel's flash doesn't do as good a job as the iPhone's. Subjects look more washed out with harsh lighting compared with the subtle effect from the iPhone's True Tone Flash.
Like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the X supports slow sync flash so the subject and the background are more evenly illuminated.
The iPhone X's big strength is consistency between photo and video quality. See examples in our video linked in this article.
For video shot outside in daylight, footage looks clean and pleasing to watch. The Pixel is more uneven: It blows out highlight detail that would normally be rendered well in still photos.
Video from the selfie camera on the iPhone X favors the subject, so the exposure is good for faces, but as a result the background can get blown out. The Pixel's video image appears to have more dynamic range but makes subjects look less vibrant.
As we noted in our Pixel vs iPhone 8 Plus comparison, audio recording on the Pixel sounds flat. The iPhone produces a better result for voices and other ambient sounds, while the Pixel tends to clip and pick up wind noise really easily.
Both phones can record at 240fps for slow-motion video, but only the iPhone records this frame rate at full HD resolution. The Pixel maxes out at 720p and the video looks a bit softer overall. It also can look a bit more washed out or overexposed compared with the iPhone when you leave everything on auto, but there's exposure compensation if needed.
Google uses "fused stabilization" on the Pixel 2. That's a fancy way of saying it uses a combination of optical (OIS) and electronic (EIS) stabilization, plus post-processing, to keep shots smooth.
This system compensates really well for movement, like walking. But like any camera that uses EIS, the Pixel sometimes shows the "Jell-O" effect. Sometimes shots look a little wobbly around the edges of the frame, particularly if you pan or shift the scene quickly.
Apple's system relies on OIS in both lenses. Footage looks a little jerky if you're walking or doing a tracking shot. That said, it's nice to have the option of OIS when using the 2x lens for shooting video.
Low-light photos and video
This one's very close. Both phones do a really good job for cameras with small sensors, but the Pixel has the edge when it comes to detail.
Low-light video is where the two phones show significant differences. The iPhone's video image looks cleaner than the Pixel's, with a better overall exposure. Highlights can blow out on the Pixel and the shot looks noisy.
Which camera wins?
The Pixel 2 and iPhone X have excellent cameras that produce fantastic photos. I like the still images from the Pixel because the detail and dynamic range mean I have more to work with in post-processing. Portrait mode on the iPhone looks far more subtle and pleasing to my eye, while the 2x optical zoom is incredibly useful for getting closer to subjects. I love the stabilization system on the Pixel but overall prefer the video image quality from the iPhone, especially in low light.
It's unlikely you'll make a buying decision based on camera alone, but if you want the best all-rounder for photos and videos, I would get the iPhone X. For the best still photos, I'd choose the Pixel.