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You may have heard that the new Essential Phone has a lousy camera. But that's not quite true -- as we discovered when we pitted it against the Google Pixel, one of Android's top camera phones, in a side-by-side test. While the Pixel's pictures were generally more detailed, the Essential's sensors aren't bad at all.

The bigger story isn't pure photo quality -- it's how much work it takes for Essential's camera app to do a decent job.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

Here's the good news: With an easy subject, in good light, if you hold still and don't zoom way in, the Essential Phone can take a photo that's nearly indistinguishable from the Pixel.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

Sure, the Pixel's colors pop more, but that's primarily because of its automatic HDR mode. And you could easily argue the Essential's colors are more accurate.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

When things get darker, though, the Essential starts to struggle. Particularly if you're using Essential's own camera app. The viewfinder starts to lag. The photos get dim -- way dimmer than what you see with your own eyes -- unless you tap to focus on something darker in your viewfinder. You have to hold still to avoid blurry photos. 

Essential hopes to fix these issues soon.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

Compare to the Pixel, which took this well-lit nighttime shot the very first time I hit the shutter.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

But bright light isn't an automatic win for the Essential Phone's camera. Here, much like the OnePlus 5 in our previous camera shootout, the Essential struggles to keep these flower highlights under control, leading to their unreal, glowing appearance in this photo.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

The Pixel's photo is darker overall, but you can see more of the delicate, tissue-paper-like detail in the flower.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

And no matter the light, the Essential Phone doesn't capture nearly as much detail, as you can see in these 100 percent crops. Look at the text, but also the textures of the stone beneath the text, and in the lower right-hand corner.

It's worth noting that the Essential is outputting much smaller file sizes than the Pixel, so overzealous image compression may be partly responsible for the reduced detail. 

(On Windows or Mac, you should be able to right-click and save these images to your desktop for a closer comparison.)

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

Essential's HDR mode also needs a lot of work. Both phones demonstrate visible splotchy noise in the sky, but the Essential's is far worse (we tested on daytime skies as well) and there are a lot of digital artifacts around these neon tubes.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

At first, this sure looks like a win for the Essential: a well-lit, sharply focused picture of a dandelion hiding in the sharp, leafy grass. What you don't see here: The Essential's not-so-great autofocus meant I had to try eight times just to get this one photo.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

This shot from the Pixel is a little darker, but I got it on the second try. And if I wanted to brighten before shooting, the exposure control is a swipe away. Essential's camera app doesn't have that ability at all yet -- when you tap, focus and light balance at the same time for the object or person you tap on.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

The Pixel doesn't always take the better floral photos. Here, Google's HDR image totally dulls these beautiful sunflowers, while the Essential keeps them vibant. Even if this gentleman's face is a little blown out, I far prefer the Essential Phone's photo.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

Someone left this perfectly good school bus on the playground. Let's take a closer look...

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

Right now, the Essential camera's one saving grace is its black-and-white mode. Originally, the idea was that the Essential Phone would combine its twin sensors -- color and monochrome -- into a single image with the benefits of both. As you can see from the splotchy image at left, that hasn't happened yet.

But in the meantime, you can get Pixel-beating sharpness and levels of detail if you're willing to shoot in the dedicated black-and-white mode.

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET

It's worth noting that all these photos were shot using the Essential Phone's own camera app, and you can fix a few of these issues simply by picking a different one.

Although you may not be able to shoot with the black-and-white camera that way.

Good luck!

Caption by / Photo by Sean Hollister/CNET
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