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Galaxy Note 8 vs. Pixel 2 XL camera shootout

The two best Androids battle it out in an old-fashioned camera comparison.

Patrick Holland/CNET
versus-note-8-pixel-2-3454-001-1

We put two of the best Android phone cameras to the test.

Josh Miller/CNET

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 has two rear cameras, while the Pixel 2 XL has just one. And while you may assume two is always better than one, in this comparison that's not necessarily the case. 

My journey testing these pocket photography wizards took me over land and sea and both phones proved skillful enough to capture the world around me. But each had different strengths and weaknesses.

Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy Note 8 rear camera specs


Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Google Pixel 2 XL
Standard angle resolution 12-megapixels 12.2-megapixels
Telephoto resolution 12-megapixels None
Standard angle aperture f/1.7 f/1.8
Telephoto aperture f/2.4 None
Optical image stabilization Both standard-angle and telephoto Standard angle
Optical zoom 2X None
Portrait Mode Rear camera only Front and rear cameras

Picture quality

My camera showdown started just after sunrise in San Francisco. Both phones captured appealing pictures but for varying reasons. Photos taken with the Note 8 had boosted contrast and saturation, mimicking a frame of film from a movie.

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This photo of California Street taken with the Galaxy Note 8 looks like a scene from a film. The colors pop and there's a nice amount of contrast.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Pictures from the Pixel 2 XL had a pure clinical beauty with expertly rendered detail and highlights. These photos have a timeless documentary feel, recording the moment just as it was.

nourish-cafe-pixel-2-xl

The Pixel 2 XL took this early morning picture of a cafe window. Notice the details of the reflections on the glass and the more subdued colors.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Color and detail

I boarded a diesel-powered ferry boat and voyaged across San Francisco Bay. The photo below was taken with the Note 8's telephoto lens and shows off the beautiful oranges and yellows of a sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Pixel 2 XL's standard angle lens rendered the same scene with cooler tones and more detail in the waves.

In most situations, I preferred the photos from the Pixel 2 XL. The detail and sharpness really impressed me. But in the case of the sunset, the Note 8's zoom and color rendition made for a more dramatic shot.

Portrait mode

I headed back to land and tested out portrait mode on some friends and co-workers. Portrait mode (or as the Note 8 calls it "Live Focus") gives photos an artistic blurry background simulating a shallow depth of field. The Pixel 2 XL has Portrait Mode on both the front and rear cameras. Its portraits have more detail and better focus falloff from people's heads to the background even when taking selfies.

The Note 8's Live Mode only works on the rear cameras. Note 8 portraits looked warmer and rendered the background blur better. Take a look at the lights in the background of the photos below. Because of the Note 8's telephoto lens, people's faces looked more natural while those from the Pixel 2 XL's made faces look a tad more oval -- good for giving people a "thinner" look, if you're into that.

On the Note 8, if a portrait shot didn't come out stellar, I was able to adjust the amount of blur to better blend in the foreground and background. This saved many portrait images for me and it's something the Pixel 2 XL can't do.

I showed people portraits on each phone. Everyone preferred they way they looked on the Note 8's display. The Pixel 2 XL's display made skin tones overly cool and made the detail in people's skin appear unflattering. But when I showed people the same images side-by-side on a computer screen, everyone liked the Pixel 2 XL shots better. This brings me to my next point about the screens.

Displays

Years ago, analog cameras took pictures on film and when you went to get the negatives developed and printed, you had a choice between glossy, semi-glossy or matte photo paper.

Something similar goes on with the screens on these phones. Pictures viewed on the Note 8 look like a glossy photo printed on glass. The Pixel 2 XL's screen makes images appear slightly flat with a blue hue. I think this is a combination of the more natural-looking way the Pixel 2 XL takes pictures and the fact that OLED displays tend to have a slight blue hue to them.

And this is where I feel conflicted. Sometimes it was difficult to get excited about a Pixel 2 XL photo I took, when the images looked just "OK" on the display. I found myself reassuring people that the photos would look great once I offloaded them onto a desktop.

Since I shot the photos for this camera comparison, Google added a software update that provides three display color options: Boosted, Natural and Saturated. I only got to use the new modes for a short time, but I like the new Natural option. It seems less bright and less blue than the non-Vivid mode in the previous version of the software.

Zoom

Whether I was on a boat, or a cable car or taking pictures of pets, the Note 8's 2X optical zoom allowed me to get closer to my subject without diminishing image quality. The Pixel 2 XL's single rear camera only has digital zoom, which resulted in closeups that looked softer and had more color noise -- that's the blurry colored specks you can see in some images.

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Pushing the digital zoom on both phones to their limits. The bottom photo is for reference.

Patrick Holland/CNET

You can see the difference in the photo above when I pushed both phones to their digital zoom limits.

Video

The Note 8's video stabilization is good, but the Pixel 2 XL's "fusion stabilization" is the best I've seen on any phone. It uses a combination of optical image stabilization (OIS), electronic stabilization (EIS) and post-processing to achieve super steady, but natural-looking video. Go ahead and film your best "Goodfellas" steadicam shot imitation.

Video image quality from both were good, but a let down compared to how nice photos are. Pixel 2 XL video didn't have the detail and dynamic range its photos had and the Note 8's videos had noise and aliasing in the shadows. Take a look at the video that accompanies this article to see examples of video shot with both phones.

On the left, a Pixel 2 XL video shot at 1,080p 120fps and on the right one from the Note 8 filmed at 720p 240fps.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The Note 8 and Pixel 2 XL are capable of jaw-dropping 240fps slow motion. Unfortunately it's at a not-quite-so-jaw-dropping 720p resolution leaving the video looking soft. However, the Pixel 2 XL can shoot 120fps at 1,080p producing dramatic slow motion without sacrificing resolution.

The little things

selfies

The selfie in the top left corner was shot with a Samsung Galaxy Note 8. The rest were shot with Portrait Mode on the Pixel 2 XL's selfie camera.

Patrick Holland/CNET

There are a couple of miscellaneous things each camera can do too, which don't belong in any category but are still fun or useful to tool around with. Both phones have image recognition -- Google Lens on the Pixel 2 XL and Bixby Vision on the Note 8. These software features use AI and machine learning to identify objects and bring up additional information about them.

The Pixel 2 XL's front-facing camera also lets you take Portrait Mode photos and they look amazing. And the Note 8 can shoot time lapses and has built-in Snapchat-like stickers.

The best camera

Trying to determine which phone has the best cameras is complicated. If you use zoom a lot and want a gorgeous display to view your photos, the Note 8 is the way to go. But if you want the best photos, the steadiest video and excellent Portrait Mode selfies, go for the Pixel 2 XL.

Considering the way I use my camera, I would go with Pixel 2 XL. The photos' detail and dynamic range is worth not having optical zoom.

If these phones are too expensive, consider cheaper options such as the Galaxy S8, which has the same standard-angle camera as the Note 8, or the Pixel 2, which has the same camera and abilities as the Pixel 2 XL but has a smaller screen.