Google has a reputation as one of the best phone camera companies in the business, but can the search giant hold on to that reputation in 2020? The Google Pixel 5 sticks uses the same old main sensor as last year’s Pixel 4, while also ditching telephoto capabilities for a wide-angle lens. It’s a very conservative approach in the modern age of quad-lenses and experimental sensors. It’s going to be an uphill battle against its rivals.
We’re undertaking a four-way shootout this time, pitting the Google Pixel 5 against three of the best camera phones of the year: the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus, Huawei P40 Pro, and the Sony Xperia 5 II. With the Pixel 5 arriving at a much more affordable price point than its rivals, can it still offer a competitive camera experience? Let’s find out.
If you want to examine the results in closer detail, you can find the full-res shots in this Google Drive folder.
More Pixel 5 camera shootouts:
|Google Pixel 5||Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus||Huawei P40 Pro||Sony Xperia 5 II|
|Main Camera||12.2 megapixels
Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
|50 megapixels (12.5MP binned)
Omnidirectional PDAF, OIS, RYYB
Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
|Secondary camera||107˚ wide-angle
40 megapixels (10MP binned)
Dual Pixel PDAF
|Third camera||3x hybrid zoom
64 megapixels (16MP binned)
|5x telephoto zoom
PDAF, OIS, RYYB
|3x optical zoom
|Fourth camera||Depth (time-of-flight)
Color balance and exposure
Let’s start with the quintessential aspects of any good picture. Color, exposure, and white balance.
We know what to expect from these companies when it comes to color processing. Samsung heavily saturates for more pop, but results don’t look very realistic. Sony aims for natural, muted colors, although this can appear boring in places. Google and Huawei sit somewhere in the middle, aiming for realism but sometimes adding in a small boost to accentuate some scenes.
This really is a case of personal preference. I lean towards Sony’s approach.
Color temperature varies a lot between all four phones. The Xperia 5 II prefers a cooler pallet, which plays to its realistic look, while the Galaxy S20 Plus is by far the warmest. The Pixel 5 sits more conservatively in the middle, as does the P40 Pro. Although Huawei has the most dynamic approach, switching up its color temperature based on the scene’s contents — see the warm vs cold hues above and below, respectively.
Exposure-wise, Google is definitely the most consistent and well balanced. Samsung’s images often have clipped highlights as part of its saturated look, and Huawei’s camera also occasionally overexposes to help pump up its colors. Sony’s exposure is more hit and miss, sometimes over, sometimes under. I ended up with a lot of snaps that weren’t quite right, as you’ll see later on.
Photography terms explained: ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and more
Google Pixel 5: Excellent exposure and realistic colors. No complaints.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Oversaturated colors and clipped highlights, typical Samsung. Definitely not realistic.
Huawei P40 Pro: Colors occasionally dial up a notch too far but otherwise great with excellent white balance. Mostly good exposure too.
Sony Xperia 5 II: Most realistic colors out of the four, but much more hit and miss exposure. Coolest white balance.
Cropping in on details
Moving on to details, all four cameras look great at close and medium range. Although even here we can see that Huawei produces the softest, most lifelike details. However, the P40 Pro has the annoying habit of automatically switching to the wide-angle camera for macro shots. This lens captures far less detain than the main sensor and I wish this feature could be disabled.
Cropping into longer distances highlights the differences. Sony offers the least detail but thankfully avoids heavy processing to compensate. As a result, it still looks pretty good overall. Samsung captures a little more detail but images appear a little oversharp in places. Google’s details appear to be touched up too but there’s no denying that the level of detail in bright daylight is exceptional.
Huawei is the softest and most natural-looking of the four, although the results are perhaps a bit too soft in places. A perfect result would be somewhere between Google’s and Huawei’s images. However, in less than ideal lighting situations, the Pixel 5’s venerable hardware begins to show its age as noise quickly creeps in. This has a knock-on effect for fine details but certainly won’t ruin the general look of your pictures.
The Pixel 5’s results still look acceptable overall, but Huawei and Samsung overtake in the last scenario. Particularly when it comes to noise reduction, which you can see on the wooden surface. Huawei looks the most realistic — aside from the warm tint — with Samsung resolving a fraction more noise. The Xperia 5 II again struggles the most with fine details in less ideal lighting. When it comes to picking the best for detail, it’s a toss-up between the Pixel 5 and Huawei P40 Pro depending on the specific shot.
Google Pixel 5: Great details in daylight, poorer in low light.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Consistently good details, but 100% crops are a tad over-processed.
Huawei P40 Pro: Softest post-processing for excellent detail that holds up best in low light.
Sony Xperia 5 II: Decent detail in good light, but the weakest of the four overall. Not bad overall, just not exceptional.
Google helped pioneer modern smartphone HDR processing, so we’d expect good performance here.
In this first example, all four balance the picture quite well. The Xperia 5 II is a little washed out and adds in a little too much blue into the overcast sky. Samsung again overpumps the colors and injects even more fake blue sky, which just wasn’t there. Huawei is pretty much spot on.
The Pixel 5 is actually the worst of the bunch. First, the sky clips, unlike Huawei and Sony’s efforts. You can’t make out the clouds at all. More alarming is the noise present in the darker portion of the image, such as the bottom left. It’s a strong enough effect to notice at full frame.
This second example is even worse. I don’t quite know what’s gone on with Google’s HDR algorithm here. It is a very tricky shot to balance the bright sun with the dark barn interior, and both the Pixel 5 and Galaxy S20 Plus suffer from some bloom. But the sheer amount of grain and noise in this daylight scenario point to a processing issue with Google’s phone. Especially as I’d taken a different shot moments before that turned out fine.
Looking at the other phones, Huawei and Sony hand in the most realistic image and well balanced dynamic range. The latter actually has the better depth and shadows this time, suggesting some software tweaks since I tested the Sony Xperia 1 II. The Galaxy S20 Plus looks super vivid, but this is nothing like the real scene.
Next, I want to draw your attention to something in the following two sample sets. The Google Pixel 5 suffers badly from chromatic aberration (the purple hue seen in between the tree leaves). The Huawei P40 Pro has the same problem, but the effect is limited to the upper left corner of the lens. The Galaxy and Xperia handsets have no such issue. Once again, shadow noise rears its head in the Pixel 5’s shots.
Overall, it’s quite hard to pick which is best for HDR. The Pixel 5 has major issues I really didn’t expect from a Google handset. Shadow noise and lens distortion detract from an otherwise well balanced HDR algorithm. Huawei balances highlights the best, but shadows can come out too dark. Some of Sony’s HDR shots look too washed out, while Samsung’s look artificial.
Google Pixel 5: Good exposure, but very noisy shadows and noticeable lens distortion issues with bright highlights. Long processing time.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Oversaturated colors and highlight clipping hold back an otherwise excellent HDR implementation.
Huawei P40 Pro: Generally solid HDR with very fast processing. Sadly, small signs of lens distortion are noticeable.
Sony Xperia 5 II: Good HDR capabilities, but processing and settling times are longer than the competition. Exposure is hit and miss.
Bokeh and portraits
The Huawei P40 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus feature dedicated time-of-flight sensors to calculate depth information. So we’d assume these handsets have a built-in advantage, but let’s find out.
For bold shapes, edge detection is pretty good across all four phones. However, note how the Xperia 5 II is a little confused with the complex textures in the gap between the statue and the white box in the image below and doesn’t blur the reflection on the left enough. The Pixel 5 also misses the edge of the white box and blends the background and foreground on the left incorrectly. Huawei blurs this area rather oddly too, so reflections are clearly very difficult.
In terms of blur quality, Samsung is a little too harsh for my taste, smearing rather than softening in places. Google, Huawei, and Sony produce a more natural bokeh. Although I give the nod to Huawei and Sony who roll-off more naturally, versus the Pixel 5’s harder cut-off and stronger blur. Still, all three look pretty good.
Irritatingly, Sony doesn’t let you zoom in or out while using the bokeh mode and also demands that you stand 1.5m away from your target. While all of the other cameras default to a 2x zoom for closer portraits and aren’t so picky about subject distance.
Portraits are trickier to capture accurately, especially if you’re rocking a lockdown haircut. Here we see that the Pixel 5 and Xperia 5 II struggle with stray hairs. The Xperia 5 II clearly misses the ToF sensor from the Xperia 1 II. The Galaxy S20 Plus grabs most of the stray edges, while the Huawei P40 Pro is pretty much flawless. Huawei also produces the most detailed portrait. The S20 Plus is smudged, Pixel 5 has good tones but is rather grainy, while Sony’s is blown out.
Google Pixel 5: Reasonable edge detection and good quality blur. Struggles with loose hairs and the portrait is grainy.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Solid edge detection but not the nicest looking blur. Smudges portrait details for an overly soft look.
Huawei P40 Pro: Best overall bokeh images. Offers the best edge detection, good looking blur, and excellent portrait details.
Sony Xperia 5 II: Lack of zoom makes it difficult to take portraits. Not great edge detection but good blur quality and OK portrait detail.
All four phones also feature ultra-wide cameras, albeit with varying specifications and viewing angles. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus provides the widest field of view to fit more in, followed by the Sony Xperia 5 II. Don’t let Huawei’s 16:9 aspect ratio fool you, it’s virtually a match for the Pixel 5’s equally narrow field of view.
In terms of quality, the Huawei P40 Pro provides the crispest, most color-accurate, and detailed images. Although cropping in on a wide-angle shot defeats the purpose, there’s something to be said for detail retention and focus. Google’s Pixel 5 performs by far the worst in this regard, with a fixed focal point that’s often out-of-focus. The Xperia 5 II and Galaxy S20 Plus are comparable for detail in the frame’s center, but Sony’s phone suffers from more edge distortion.
Unfortunately, Google’s usually excellent colors don’t carry over to the wide-angle lens. The results are more washed out than the main sensor. There are also a few signs of chromatic aberration (purple halos) once again, and the lens is more distorted than its rivals that offer wider fields of view. Not very good.
The Xperia 5 II’s colors are realistic enough, although the second picture is definitely underexposed. This leaves us with the Galaxy S20 Plus and Huawei P40 Pro as the most appetizing to look at.
Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus provides the best wide-angle experience. Not only does it offer the widest field of view, but its detail retention and colors (bar the typical oversaturation) are reasonable too. The Huawei P40 Pro is by far the best in terms of image quality, but the lens isn’t quite wide enough. The Xperia 5 II is functional, while Google’s wide-angle camera is basic at best.
Google Pixel 5: Out of focus, washed-out colors, and comparatively narrow field-of-view. Decidedly lower-end capabilities.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Widest field of view and decent details make it the best wide-angle lens overall.
Huawei P40 Pro: By far the best details and focus, with good colors and no distortion. Just a shame the lens isn’t wider.
Sony Xperia 5 II: Wide field of view with good colors. But focus and details aren’t sharp, especially away from the frame’s center.
At full-frame, all of the cameras look very good up to 3x, and the Huawei P40 Pro, with its periscope camera, offers the best quality at extreme ranges beyond 5x. Sadly, the Pixel 5’s lack of zoom hardware starts to tell at about 3x, rendering it pretty useless beyond that. Samsung retains decent quality out to 5x. The Xperia 5 II hands in a good performance between 3x and 4x. Unfortunately, the 2x sample is a pretty poor quality upscale from the main sensor on close inspection.
Camera zoom explained: How optical, digital, and hybrid zoom work
Color, white balance, and exposure are good when zooming in with all four of these phones. However, there’s a noticeable bump in quality and change in lighting when the Huawei P40 Pro’s 5x periscope camera kicks in. The samples below also showcase the inconsistent quality below 5x for this setup compared to the telephoto lenses from Samsung and Sony. Although to capture such a shot you’d obviously zoom in further to activate the periscope camera, rather than crop in like I have to showcase the post-processing.
At short distances, the Samsung Galaxy S20+ produces the best looking and most consistent results, followed by the Sony Xperia 5 II (which struggles at 2x). Closer inspection of the Google Pixel 5 doesn’t look very good, although it manages to retain more detail than Huawei in the example above. So chalk that up as a win for Google’s Super Res Zoom technology.
Meanwhile, only Huawei offers decent image quality when stretched right the way out at 7x. Samsung looks passable here, albeit with a heavily processed look. Softer processing from the Xperia 5 II looks a little more pleasing to the eye at the expense of detail. Sony’s phone would have exceeded expectations, if not for the poor quality at 2x. None of these phones touch the Huawei P40 Pro at ultra-long range.
Google Pixel 5 zoom test: Is Super Res Zoom enough?
Google Pixel 5: Super Res Zoom looks OK out to 3x, but the absence of telephoto hardware holds back quality and distance.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Reasonably consistent zoom quality with full-frame images that hold up well to about 5x. Crops look heavily processed, however.
Huawei P40 Pro: Hit and miss performance and heavy processing around 3x due to longer range hardware. By far the best quality at 5x and beyond.
Sony Xperia 5 II: Minimal processing looks very natural. Details are hit and miss, especially at 2x and beyond 4x, but full-frame holds up well. Pinch zoom doesn’t toggle the telephoto lens automatically.
Low light and night mode
Unlike the other three handsets, Sony’s Xperia 5 II doesn’t offer a dedicated low light shooting mode. Instead, it will automatically increase the shutter time for you in low light situations. As I’ve noted in the past, you seldom need the Huawei P40 Pro’s night mode. The default mode takes pictures much faster and tends to produce sharper-looking results.
In low light, all four phones perform very well. Although the Pixel 5 and P40 Pro are the brightest. As long as your hands are steady, there’s no noticeable blur, plenty of exposure, and even some reasonable colors from all of the phones. Google’s white balance is a little too cool for the first scene’s warm light. However, the phone captures the sharpest image and most dynamic colors, in exchange for a little more noise at the frame’s edges.
Out in the pitch black, there’s a bigger difference between the handsets. The Xperia 5 II struggled to focus but eventually produced a shot with decent colors and balance. Although the sensor struggles to pick out meaningful details and is quite noisy in such low light. It’s clear that Google’s Night Sight algorithm produces the best white balance and colors, and the noise isn’t as bad as Sony’s sensor. The P40 Pro offers the best detail without using Night mode and has OK dynamic range, but the green tint is wrong. Likewise, Samsung’s color balance is just a little too warm (the light is yellow rather than orange) but it captures marginally more detail than the Pixel 5.
Google Pixel 5: Excellent colors and white balance consistency. The small sensor punches above its weight, but noise is evident.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Works well to brighten scenes while preserving details. White balance isn’t as good as Google or Sony.
Huawei P40 Pro: Night mode results in less detail than a standard shot. Exposure is good, details hold up OK, but the white balance is more hit and miss.
Sony Xperia 5 II: Excellent white balance and good colors, but the sensor struggles for detail and focus in very low light.
Google Pixel 5 vs the best Android cameras: The verdict
Testing four of the industry’s most coveted smartphone camera packages has yielded some surprises and a few insights into the way the mobile photography industry has moved over the course of 2020. All four handsets are capable of taking some excellent pictures, but they all have their own issues as well. It’s these problems that will likely help nail down which handset is best for you.
If I had to pick a winner, my preferences fall between the Huawei P40 Pro and the Sony Xperia 5 II. But your pick will depend on your photography requirements. To help you decide I’ve put together a quick recap for each phone, in no particular order.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: We know what to expect from Samsung these days — a generally solid camera package with an over the top color pallet. If you can live with the punchiness, the Galaxy S20 Plus is the most consistent camera package here. It offers the best wide-angle experience and decent zoom, albeit with a dash too much processing for my tastes. Still, there isn’t a scenario this phone can’t handle, even if it’s not the absolute best when it comes to image quality.
Huawei P40 Pro: Huawei has the reputation to beat, but the P40 Pro is not a hands-down winner. It offers the best looking wide-angle shots, but the lens is quite narrow. Similarly, the periscope zoom is great at long range, but less so closer up. When it comes to quality, the Huawei P40 Pro can hand in the best images of any smartphone. Particularly when it comes to realistic details, portraits, and soft bokeh. However, some shots still suffer from red tint or under-exposure. It’s a very very good camera package, but not flawless.
Sony Xperia 5 II: Sony’s Xperia 5 ii produces the best colors, offers solid HDR, and takes a soft approach to post-processing for pleasingly realistic results. But its sensor is a little behind the curve for fine details and messes up exposure far more than its rivals. The wide-angle and telephoto results look equally good at full-frame but have issues on closer inspection. Sony has put more effort into features (like 20fps continuous shot) at the expense of some image quality. But I’m quite excited about where Sony can take its cameras next generation.
Google Pixel 5: I’m far more mixed on the Pixel 5. It still takes some great snaps and stands out in the dark, but flaws in the older hardware are becoming more obvious. Colors and exposure remain at the top of the pack, and detail is good in daylight. But the hardware is showing its age when it comes to HDR noise, zoom capabilities, and lens quality. Similarly, the wide-angle camera falls far short of what we expect from Google. The Pixel 5 is the cheapest of the bunch and is a capable shooter for its price, but Google clearly isn’t fighting for first place this year. That said, I’m itching to see what Google could accomplish with newer camera sensors.
That’s it for our in-depth look at the Pixel 5 vs the best Android camera phones. Which do you think came out on top?