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Is the new Microsoft Pix app smarter than the stock iOS Camera app?

Microsoft has a new camera app for the iPhone. See how it stacks up against the iOS Camera app.

Microsoft this week released Pix, an iOS camera app that it claims "is so smart that you won't have to waste time on adjusting settings, focus hunting, or reviewing and choosing from multiple shots."

I checked out the app to put Microsoft's claims of higher intelligence to the test and to find out if it's smarter than the stock Camera app I use almost exclusively to take photos and shoot videos on my iPhone 6S. What I found in my side-by-side tests was Pix produced superior results, particularly when photographing people, but forces you to cede a great deal of creative control. The app is smart but knows it's smart and assumes full control of each shot.

Pix primer

Before we get to my side-by-side tests, allow me to present a quick primer on how the app works. Pix offers minimal controls. At the top, there is a button to view your photo gallery and another to switch cameras. At the bottom, the shutter-release button sits in the middle, flanked by a button to open Pix's edit tools and another that lets you toggle between capturing photos and videos. You can tap on the screen to set a focus/exposure point, but only when in video mode do you have the option to enable the flash.

Pix's edit tools are also minimal. You can crop and straighten a photo and choose among eight filter. That's it.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

When you snap a photo, the app captures a burst of 10 frames -- some before and some after you snap the shot -- and quickly goes about analysing the frames to pick the best image (and occasionally the best two or three). It discards the rest of the frames it captures so they don't clutter your camera roll but not before using data from them to improve elements of the image it deemed the best, including noise reduction and adjusting ISO, exposure and more. Pix also recognizes faces in your shots and prioritizes its Best Image selection and image adjustments to make your human subjects look their best.

Similar to Live Photos with iOS, Pix offers Live Images. Unlike Live Photos, you don't have control of when Pix captures a Live Image. On the flip side, you can't forget to turn off the setting, which then fills your camera roll and local iPhone storage with dozens or hundreds of Live Photos you don't want. When Pix senses interesting movement -- flowing water, swaying leaves, a passing car, for example -- it offers up a Live Image. Here's an example of a Live Image I captured with Pix. Or, rather, it decided to capture for me:

With videos, Pix offers image stabilization and the ability to turn new and old videos alike into looping time-lapse videos by way of Microsoft's Hyperlapse technology. Hyperlapse is a fun feature and I appreciate the ability to select between 2x and 32x speed, but at the heart of any photo app is, of course, its ability to capture photos.

Side-by-side tests

With that, let's take a look at some side-by-side comparisons where you'll see photos on the left from Microsoft Pix and images on the right taken with the stock iOS Camera app.

Shooting against a bright background is difficult for any camera, but the Pix photo on the left got the exposure right with the foreground subject while not overexposing the bright background.

Matt Elliott/CNET

In direct sunlight, the Pix photo on the left offers accurate color. The iOS Camera photo on the right looks a bit washed out.

Matt Elliott/CNET

In this scene, the Pix photo on the left looks oversaturated in its attempt to provide detail of the tiger lily blooms.

Matt Elliott/CNET

In this landscape, the differences are slight but the Pix photo on the left offers vivid, accurate color and more detail.

Matt Elliott/CNET

Pix is less concerned with canine faces than human faces, but it handled the bright background better in this scene. The iOS Camera photo is a bit overexposed.

Matt Elliott/CNET

In this scene, the Pix photo on the left is a bit loses some detail to the bright background in an attempt to provide detail in the foreground subject. The iOS Camera photo on the right offers better balance.

Matt Elliott/CNET

In this low-light situation, the Pix photo on the left offers more accurate color.

Matt Elliott/CNET

Verdict

After shooting with Microsoft Pix for the past two days, my admittedly unscientific tests revealed that it is smarter than the stock iOS Camera app in analysing faces in a shot and adjusting the exposure and tone accordingly, though if it errors, Pix errors on the side of oversaturation. When faces aren't in the frame, the differences between Pix and the Camera app are less noticeable.

Personally, I enjoy photography and take multiple shots at a time and like being able to choose the best of the bunch. With Pix, it does the selecting for you, which will certainly appeal to many iPhone users. All of Pix's image processing takes a bit of time, however, and results in a second or two delay after each shot.

A troubling side effect of all of the image processing Pix does behind the scenes is that my iPhone got fairly warm after using the app for only a handful of shots.

Microsoft has an uphill climb to change the shooting habits of iPhone shutterbugs, but the early results are promising. If it can shorten the delay after each shot and would offer a setting that would let me choose for myself the best shot of the 10 frames it captures before it works its image-processing magic, it may push the Camera app off of my iPhone's home screen.

Microsoft Pix is free and works with the iPhone 5S and later, the iPad Air and later, the iPad Mini 2 and later, and the iPad Pro. An Android version is in the works.

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