Cameras continue to get better and better on smartphones, this year an unknown smartphone brand outshined the competition.
2016 was a pretty competitive year for Android smartphones, especially in the camera category. It appeared that just about every manufacturer would highlight their camera's capabilities when announcing their latest device. This year also saw the beginning of some interesting camera setups on mobile devices. Not only did we see dual-camera setups, but also an augmented reality setup with Tango and Lenovo. Which has led to our mobile smartphones replacing our actual cameras, for a lot of people. However they are not quite in the realm of replacing our DSLR's and even mirrorless cameras, but that doesn't mean it won't happen in the next year or two.
Winner - Google Pixel XL
For years, camera enthusiasts have laughed at Google's cameras on Nexus smartphones. The Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P that the company put out last year were great upgrades, and almost put them on par with the competition, but not quite good enough. The debut of the Pixel and Pixel XL this year changed the game for Google. Gone is the old days of a camera that may give you a good shot, but might also be a bad shot, especially if the lighting conditions were not favorable. The Pixel and Pixel XL are essentially the same device - especially in terms of the camera, as the only spec differences are the display and battery - and it performs incredibly. There have been virtually no complaints about the camera from either of these devices (from reviewers and those that bought the device), which is pretty impressive to say the least.
Google decided to use a larger sensor on the Pixel XL, putting a 12.3-megapixel, 1.55um pixel sensor on the Pixel XL. What this does is it allows the camera to let in more light, especially useful in low light situations. Google also has laser autofocus, phase detection autofocus and electronic image stabilization as well. Which makes it easier to get pictures that don't look blurry, again this makes it easier to take photos in low-light situations, as the camera takes longer to snap that picture due to it attempting to grab more light. Other specs for the Pixel XL include a 5.5-inch 2560x1440 resolution AMOLED display, powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 821 processor along with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. Google has also packed in a 3450mAh battery which allows it to last all day on a single charge. Let's not forget that it is also running Android 7.1 Nougat, which no other smartphone is running (except those that have a developer preview, which is still a bit behind the Pixel and Pixel XL).
This past fall, we reviewed the Google Pixel XL, and we found it to be one of the best smartphones of the year, in just about every category. Which isn't something that you see everyday with smartphones. Now the Pixel XL isn't the perfect smartphone out there, but it's one of the best. As always, it could use some changes to make it a better smartphone. Google took a few chances with the Pixel XL this year, leaving the Nexus branding behind and going with the whole "Made by Google" approach, also leaving behind the "affordable" pricing that the Nexus program had been using in recent years. The Pixel starts at $649, with the Pixel XL coming in at $769, it's definitely not a cheap smartphone. But it is a premium smartphone, with the best camera of 2016, and the latest and greatest version of Android straight from Google, so it's definitely worth the higher price tag.
Runner Up - Samsung Galaxy S7/Galaxy S7 Edge
Samsung knows smartphone cameras, that's something that we all know at this point. They have put out some amazing cameras in the last few years on their flagship devices, and 2016 was no different. The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge are tied here for second place because they have the same camera and camera software. The camera has gone through numerous shootouts here at Android Headlines, and it has continued to perform well, even as more and more competitors entered the arena. Like Google, Samsung has also gone with a lower-megapixel count in their camera this year, although the sensor is slightly smaller at 1.4um, but it's still a 12-megapixel sensor. With its f/1.7 aperture and OIS included, the Galaxy S7 family does extremely well in low-light. On top of that, Samsung threw in the best available specs into the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge. That includes the Snapdragon 820 processor (or Exynos 8890 depending on the region) along with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. The Galaxy S7 sports a 5.2-inch QHD AMOLED display with a 3000mAh battery, the Galaxy S7 Edge sports a 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED curved display with a 3600mAh battery inside. Despite looking similar to Samsung's 2015 offerings, the Galaxy S7 family is a pretty big upgrade in just about every category, and it still has an amazing camera.
Honorable Mention - Huawei Mate 9
The Huawei Mate 9 is actually the newest smartphone on this list, and it offers something that these other smartphones don't. That is their dual-camera setup. Huawei debuted their dual-camera setup earlier this year on the P9 through a partnership with Leica and they've improved the camera and brought it back for the Mate 9. The dual-camera was already pretty impressive and now it's even better. Huawei is using a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor and a 12-megapixel color sensor here, which combine to make a pretty impressive picture. They also threw in a few other features like hybrid zoom, allowing you to get 2x zoom without getting a grainy or blurry picture. It also offers some pretty impressive bokeh effects, something you'd normally only get from a mirrorless or DSLR camera, and now you can get that from the phone in your pocket. But Huawei didn't stop with just the camera, they also tossed in their latest processor, the HiSilicon Kirin 960, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. There's also a pretty hefty 4,000 mAh battery. So not only do you have a great camera, but it'll last you all day long.