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Galaxy Note 8 and Pixel 2 XL photos: What's the difference?

I compare the photo and video capabilities of the Note 8 and Pixel 2 XL. Are two rear cameras really better than one? Take a look.

Patrick Holland
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick Holland
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Camera showdown: Google Pixel 2 XL vs. Samsung Galaxy Note 8

There is no doubt that the Google Pixel 2 XL and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 are two of the best Android phones you can buy. The Pixel 2 XL packs one rear camera and uses machine learning and AI to create stunning images. The Note 8 has dual rear cameras each with optical image stabilization (OIS). But which one takes better photos?

Let's take a look.

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Galaxy Note 8

Here's a photo of the Port of San Francisco taken with the Note 8. Notice the boosted contrast and saturation.

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Galaxy Note 8

I took this shot with the Note 8 as the sun was setting behind a sailboat. It looks like a frame of film from a movie.

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Pixel 2 XL

This picture by the Pixel 2 XL has a pure clinical beauty with expertly rendered detail and highlights.

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Portrait Mode comparison

Both phones have a Portrait Mode which simulates a shallow depth of field by blurring the background. It's called Live Focus on the Note 8. The portrait on the left was taken with the Pixel 2 XL and the one on the right with the Note 8.

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Portrait Mode selfie on Pixel 2 XL

The Pixel 2 XL also has a Portrait Mode on its front facing camera. And it works amazingly well.

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Galaxy Note 8

Here are two shots of Stella the cat. This one is taken with the Note 8.

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Pixel 2 XL

This one was taken with the Pixel 2 XL. Notice the extra detail in the pillow and the cat's fur.

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Pixel 2 XL

This photo of Ruby the dog was taken with the Pixel 2 XL.

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Galaxy Note 8

Here's Ruby again, and I'm standing in the same spot, but I'm using the telephoto camera on the Note 8 to zoom in on Ruby's expression. Being able to have an optical zoom is an added advantage of the Note 8.

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Galaxy Note 8

I was on a ferry crossing San Francisco Bay when I saw the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge. I used the Note 8's telephoto camera to take this picture. I really love how dramatic the photo came out.

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Pixel 2 XL

Here's the same moment taken with the Pixel 2 XL. While I could digitally zoom in, I didn't because I didn't want to lose image quality. Notice the detail of the waves and how well the Pixel 2 XL handled the highlights.

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Galaxy Note 8

Low light is always challenging for smartphone photography. The Note 8 renders the scene OK, but there is a lot of color noise (the blurry specks) throughout the photo.

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Pixel 2 XL

The Pixel 2 XL handles the color noise much better. It's not perfect, but the sky and water looks pretty good.

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Galaxy Note 8

As Salesforce Tower grows into the San Francisco skyline, there are new ways the city frames itself. This shot was taken at dusk on the Note 8.

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Pixel 2 XL

Here's the same scene taken with the Pixel 2 XL. Notice how much more detail there is and how well it handles the highlights in the clouds. You can actually see the soft pink hue.

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Galaxy Note 8

I loved these leather gloves inside this cable car. It looks like there's an invisible person holding on. This photo was taken with the Note 8. Notice the blown highlights in the background.

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Pixel 2 XL

And here is the same cable car captured with the Pixel 2 XL. It holds the highlights in the background well enough that you can see the green leaves on the tree.

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Galaxy Note 8

Here's an old building near Nob Hill taken with the Note 8. Notice the detail in the bricks and windows.

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Pixel 2 XL

This picture was taken with the Pixel 2 XL. It has just a tad more detail in the textures of the building. And the color temperature of the photo is more accurate.

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Portrait Mode on Galaxy Note 8

The next 18 shots were all taken in Portrait Mode on the Pixel 2 XL or Live Focus Mode on the Note 8. In general, the Note 8 renders better looking background blur and people's skin appears softer and more flattering than it might normally be. Some people like that and some people don't.

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Pixel 2 XL

The Pixel 2 XL portraits have much more accurate detail in the face and do a consistently good job separating the foreground from the background.

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Portrait Mode on Galaxy Note 8

Galaxy Note 8 portrait.

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Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XL portrait.

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Portrait Mode on Galaxy Note 8

Galaxy Note 8 portrait.

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Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XL portrait.

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Portrait Mode on Galaxy Note 8

Galaxy Note 8 portrait.

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Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XL portrait.

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Portrait Mode on Galaxy Note 8

Galaxy Note 8 portrait.

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Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XL portrait.

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Portrait Mode on Galaxy Note 8

Galaxy Note 8 portrait.

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Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XL portrait.

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Portrait Mode on Galaxy Note 8

Galaxy Note 8 portrait.

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Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XL portrait.

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Portrait Mode on Galaxy Note 8

Galaxy Note 8 portrait.

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Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XL portrait.

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Live Focus Galaxy Note 8

Galaxy Note 8 portrait.

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Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XL portrait.

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Portrait Mode selfie on Pixel 2 XL

Here's a selfie taken in Portrait Mode on the Pixel 2 XL. The camera does an excellent job at separating both of us from the background despite us not being on the same plane.

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Pixel 2 XL

The next eight pictures are some of my favorite photos that I took with the Pixel 2 XL. Here's a cargo ship going under the Golden Gate Bridge. I digitally zoomed in to capture the moment.

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Pixel 2 XL

This is a statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi near the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

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Pixel 2 XL

A quartet of chocolate chip cookies awaits bagging at Nourish Cafe.

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Pixel 2 XL

Here's the wake after a ferry boat I was on with the Bay Bridge in the background.

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Pixel 2 XL

This is a shiny circular sculpture located in downtown San Francisco.

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Pixel 2 XL

I am impressed that I got this shot of the American flag. It was flapping around quite fast.

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Pixel 2 XL

Some seagulls fly in front of my view of the Bay Bridge.

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Pixel 2 XL

Friday and Saturday nights mean Mo Gamin' in the Mission.

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Galaxy Note 8

An old Honda is decked out with televisions and vintage Nintendo consoles which are free to play -- the hand sanitizer is also free.

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Galaxy Note 8

The next seven photos are some of my favorite pictures that I took with the Note 8.

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Galaxy Note 8

The Ferry Building looks stunning all lit up at night.

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Galaxy Note 8

A sail boat glides across the bay.

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Galaxy Note 8

A seagull just as it is about to take off.

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Galaxy Note 8

Another shot of the sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge. I like that there is a cargo ship in the background and the silhouette of a sailboat crossing in between it and me.

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Galaxy Note 8

I am riding at the front of a cable car going down California. This shot was taken through the window.

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Galaxy Note 8

The sun rises over San Francisco and makes Salesforce Tower glow pink on the horizon.

For more on my camera comparison between the Google Pixel 2 XL and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 check out my full shootout story.

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