Last year's Nexus 6 brought with it a camera sensor that was used in a ton of other devices, the excellent Sony Exmor IMX214. Comparing Google's implementation with that of most other OEMs that used the sensor showed just how much work Google has been putting into its camera software, notably that special HDR+ feature that uses "magic pixels" to achieve something that's incredibly underrated and even less talked about in the industry. As such we saw the quality of the Nexus 6's photos skyrocket above most phones powered by the IMX214 sensor, but this time around Google is using a sensor from a brand new generation in its Nexus 6p and 5x phones; the IMX377. This sensor sports considerably larger pixels (1.12 microns vs 1.55 microns), and as such can accept quite a bit more light than the old sensor. To top that off Google shipped a brand new version of its camera software with the new Nexus phones, one that's not available yet on previous generation devices and offers some significant new advantages. Let's find out how the Nexus 6 has aged and whether or not this new sensor is all that it's cracked up to be.
All Nexus 6 photos are to the left of Nexus 6p photos in the examples below. Click each thumbnail for a full-screen pop-up to see the full quality. All pictures are in an album and can be moved between via the navigation arrows for each comparison and clicked on to zoom in.
First up is the broad daylight photos to see all the detail each sensor can pick up. The Nexus 6p's new sensor is actually slightly lower resolution than the Nexus 6's, 12.2-megapixels versus 13-megapixels, but it seems to more than make up for this slight difference in practice. Focus was better on the 6p in the first shot thanks to the laser auto-focus module, and the colors pop a little better on the Nexus 6p's shot than on the Nexus 6's shot. The second picture reveals something really interesting about that 12.2-megapixel sensor when compared to the slightly higher resolution Nexus 6's 13-megapixel camera. I saw this plane in the sky and figured it would make a good detail shot between the two, but I didn't think it would be quite so much as this:
These 100% crops show just how much more detail the new Nexus 6p's camera sensor can take in versus the older one in the Nexus 6. It also shows that HDR+ mode is actually instant, and at least from all the testing we've done should never be turned off if you care about the quality of your photos versus sheer speed of the capture. Dynamic range and shadow detail time!
Since HDR+ isn't just bracketed HDR (meaning it does more than just take a picture with high exposure, one with low exposure and combine them), it works to pull out more shadow detail and get colors more accurately than most other HDR modes. Testing that in some extreme lighting conditions is important to see how well it works, and what better than sunlight filtered through a tree onto colored beads? This one is a little more subtle than initially thought but if you look at the bowl in particular you'll see there's more shadow detail on the beads in the Nexus 6p's shot. This is also the case with the beads in the shadow toward the back of the photo too. In the second example we're looking straight at the setting sun through the tree branches. We can see the Nexus 6p's lens seems to be a bit wider than the Nexus 6's, bringing in more of the right side of the photo while still maintaining all the stuff toward the left of the tree. Dynamic range on the 6p is higher, especially in shadow detail of the tree, and there's quite a bit more detail on the bark as well. The third shot is under a covered porch with indirect sunlight (opposite side of the house from the sun), and the details and focus quality on the Nexus 6p absolutely outshine the Nexus 6's shot in every way here.
So far low light performance has been the biggest winner for both new Nexus phones, and this comparison is absolutely no different. The smaller sensor of the Nexus 6, the 1/3.06" Sony Exmor IMX214, is really showing its difficulties with low light scenes versus the larger Exmor IMX377 1/2.3" sensor on the Nexus 6p. The difference in all three shots is obvious, the amount of light that's let into the Nexus 6p's sensor makes the scene more vibrant, clearer, brighter and cleaner. There's less noise on all three shots and much more detail, although the Nexus 6p seems to have some issue focusing properly on the objects in the second scene. I retook the shot and the same results came out, showing that while the laser autofocus helps in most situations to get a clearer picture, it's not a perfect solution.
Here's a couple more examples in low to moderately-low light where the Nexus 6p got a brighter, more color accurate scene but ended up lacking details because it had trouble focusing on the right point. This was fairly consistent at this level of light but wasn't there at either very low light or anything above moderately low. At a smaller resolution you may find that the 6p's photo looks better because of light and color, but once you blow it up it falls apart due to the focus issues.
Last but not least is the front-facing "selfie cam," a feature that's only become more and more important as social media continues to dig further into our lives. The improvement in the Nexus 6p's front-facing camera over the Nexus 6's is astronomical to say the least. Wider lens, better sensor, HDR+ support, more accurate colors, etc. This is an upgrade in every single way.
That black bar on top may look awkward to some, but it's clear that Google and Huawei have packed some serious magic inside. The Nexus 6p takes brighter, clearer and more vibrant pictures than the Motorola-built Nexus 6 from last year, and it does so with a new set of features that wasn't available on that phone either. Burst mode of up to 30 pictures per second, automatic GIF making, 120FPS recording and 240FPS slow motion recording are just a few of the features you'll find on the Nexus 6p that you won't find on the Nexus 6, and it's all part of the equation to continually build a better phone. The laser autofocus works better in most situations but seems to have some struggles in moderately low light, an oddity that will hopefully be addressed in an upcoming update. Those looking for a camera upgrade from their Nexus 6 certainly don't need to look much further, and be sure to stay tuned for our upcoming video comparisons between the phones as well!