Google thinks the Pixel 3's 1 rear camera will beat Samsung's 4

Commentary: Pixel 3's single camera in a multiple-camera world is a brag.

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The  Pixel 3 's lone rear camera makes a brazen statement to any phone with two rear cameras or more: "Google's single lens is better than all your fancy cameras combined."

Those are fighting words in a landscape where a dual-camera setup is now so coveted, even budget phones like the Moto G6 have two lenses for portrait photos. With the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, Google is now the only major phone-maker whose most high-end device has just one rear camera. Case in point: The  iPhone XS  has two, the Huawei P20 Pro  and LG V40 boast three, and Samsung's new Galaxy A9 has a jaw-dropping four cameras on its back. 

Cameras are a big deal. Along with battery life, photography is one of the main reasons why people choose one phone over another. Photos with the most vibrant colors, deepest contrast, sharpest edges and brightest low-light shots can win the day. Extra features like portrait photos, dramatic lighting options, wide-angle selfies and automatic, AI-driven scene detection can help phones stand out from one another -- or keep phone-makers from falling further behind their competitors.


Samsung's Galaxy A9 comes out swinging with four rear cameras.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Phone-makers have been known to reserve a second lens for the more high-end model of a set. For example, the  Galaxy S9  and  iPhone XR  have single lenses, while the  Galaxy S9 Plus  and iPhone XS have two each. But Google's Pixel 3 and larger Pixel 3 XL share the exact same 12.2-megapixel sensor. There's no camera advantage to buying "bigger." It's also worth noting that the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL both have two 8-megapixel front-facing cameras, but I'll get to that later.

There are a few reasons phones have a second, or even third, rear lens. Many phones have a telephoto sensor, which can add depth for portrait photos and give you a better image when you zoom in. An additional monochrome sensor can take black-and-white photos without applying a filter, or be used to add details that enhance a color picture. The triple-lens Huawei P20 Pro has all three.

A close look at the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

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The LG V40's three rear cameras can simultaneously snap a photo from each lens, and you can pick your favorite. That's more a software gimmick than an actual benefit. And the rumored Galaxy A9 is said to have an ultrawide lens in addition to a "depth camera," a telephoto lens and the 24-megapixel "main" sensor.

Google's willingness to bet the farm on its cycloptic lens is a play of confidence in the company's hardware quality and software strength. It only "needs" one camera, the Pixel 3 suggests, because Google's process is better. The tech titan, with its seemingly limitless resources, is far ahead of phone-makers when it comes to advanced image processing. 

Specifically, AI and machine learning are two cutting-edge efforts in helping computers make decisions on their own, for example brightening a photo based on dark weather conditions. And Google's studied millions of photos on Google Images to rethink "how images are captured," Google hardware SVP Rick Osterloh said in Tuesday's presentation.

Google has also outfitted its Pixel 3 phones with extra or enhanced camera modes. Super Res Zoom creates a zoomed-in shot from multiple photos. Portrait mode lets you fine-tune the focus point, depth of field and color saturation. And low-light photos promise to be even brighter and better than the Pixel 2's already lauded low-light capabilities permit, without you ever turning on the flash -- a feature Google dubs Night Sight. Top Shot picks your best photo for you when you have motion mode on.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

The Pixel 3 and 3 XL's two 8-megapixel cameras get more of your friends and your background in your shot.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What about the Pixel 3's two selfie cameras?

Given Google's extraordinary confidence in its single rear camera, it's interesting that the Pixel 3 phones follow handsets like LG's V40 in adding a second camera on the face.

Last year's single-lens Pixel 2 was one of the only phones I used in 2017 that accurately kept my curly hair in focus on a portrait mode shot. Google accomplished that feat with software alone, so why is a second lens necessary now?

Google says that the wide-angle selfie cam, which it claims is 184 percent wider than the iPhone XS' front-facing shooter, is designed to fit more of your friends (or your landscape) into the frame. We managed to fit 13 CNET editors into a selfie shot on the Pixel 3, so it's off to a good start.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

Some Pixel 3 camera tricks are still to come.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The waiting game

The question on my mind -- and everyone else's -- is how well Google's Pixel phones will succeed. Is the single camera really better than two or more? And which meaningful tricks and tools will the Pixel phones miss out on that other phones have?

Unfortunately, we have to wait. CNET's Pixel 3 reviews are ongoing, and those camera comparison deep dives you love take time. Besides that, two of the Pixel 3's camera features (Night Sight and Top Shot) won't be ready until after the phones go on sale.

Until then, I'll leave you with the reminder that Google's Pixel phones have an excellent photography track record. In fact, I can't think of a single mainstream phone playing at this high-end level that doesn't take terrific pictures overall.

In other words, if you're drawn to the Pixel 3 for its relatively lower price, timely Android updates and unlimited storage on Google Photos, it's a safe bet that its photos will be good, even great. If you're looking for professional-grade photography and want to be completely sure, hold off ordering while we work on competitor comparisons.

Scenes from Google's Pixel 3 event

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First published Oct. 11, 7 a.m. PT.
Update, Oct. 13 at 3 a.m.: Adds more details.

Read now: Hands-on with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL

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