The Google Pixel 2 proves a fantastic mobile camera is about the software as much as hardware.
WINNER: Google Pixel 2 / Pixel 2 XL
2017 proved to be an immense year for mobile photography and the camera smartphone with a broad range of major advancements being made across the board and dual-camera setups becoming ubiquitous, yet the convincingly best Android imaging performance was delivered in the form of a single-lens system found on the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. While many were skeptical about Google's decision to miss out on a two-sensor setup for the second year in a row, the company once again managed to prove that a fantastic smartphone camera depends on the software as much as hardware, and software is where Google truly excels.
The results produced by the Pixel 2 lineup speak for themselves and despite being stellar in a wide variety of scenarios, they somehow manage to stand out from what the rest of the premium smartphones released over the course of this year are offering in the smartphone camera department. Google's new handsets are the only true Android flagships that opted against heavy processing in terms of colors, ultimately delivering less saturated and more natural shots that can't really compare with anything else on the smartphone market. The company's artificial intelligence technologies and everything else that went into making the Pixel 2's camera what it is delivered on basically all fronts, providing consumers with a mobile camera that's both versatile and extremely consistent even when pushed to its very limits. While the technology still isn't nearly advanced enough to allow smartphones to compete with DSLRs and high-quality point-and-shooters, the processing used by the Pixel 2 attempts to mimic such devices by focusing on color accuracy instead of delivering results that look like they were pulled through three Instagram filters at once. Sure, you can always apply frames, skins, filters, and (augmented reality) stickers to the photos taken with the Pixel 2, especially since the handset already natively supports such features, yet the vanilla images it produces can temporarily fool you into thinking you're looking at something that most certainly wasn't taken with a smartphone camera, even upon inspecting it on a computer monitor.
This achievement and the level of authenticity reached by the Pixel 2's camera is the main reason why Google's new Android flagship is the one being honored here, though it's also easily the best choice when it comes to other imaging aspects; Auto-HDR+ is a nothing short of a technological marvel and a solution that will take your mobile photography to the next level without you doing anything other than point and shoot. The software controlling the f/1.8 lens of the device and the one processing the information collected by its 1.4µm sensor transcends makes the camera of the Pixel 2 punch well above its hardware weight implied by these figures and can make you question the overall informativeness of such metrics. Google's dominance in the mobile photography segment is even more impressive in the context of 2017 and the sheer volume of excellent phone cameras delivered by other OEMs which should certainly be worried about what the Alphabet-owned company will be able to achieve once it finally transitions to a two-sensor setup, with that change possibly happening as soon as next year.
Runner-up: LG V30
LG has been aggressively advertising the V30 as a versatile multimedia device and following its release, it's easy to see why - the V30 may "only" have the second best smartphone camera on the market as far as taking actual photographs is concerned, yet it manages to innovate in the video segment by providing users with seemingly countless options for capturing clips. The Cine Video mode is nothing short of amazing, and being able to capture 4K content in 10-bit color depth is another fantastic feature to have in a smartphone. While the Pixel 2 beats the LG V30 in terms of low-light photography, it only does so by a margin as it manages to produce consistently stellar results, though the V30 is still more than capable of taking excellent shots in the dark, so coupled with some burst, slightly worse consistency really isn't an issue in everyday use.
On the hardware side of things, the LG V30 is an incredibly impressive achievement, with its f/1.6 lens allowing you to correctly expose images taken at extremely high shutter speeds, so while the company was primarily advertising this feature as being conducive to excellent low-light shots, it actually benefits sports and other types of photography which has you freezing motions even more. Ultimately, the LG V30 is a convicing runner-up in the 2017 mobile photography race but remains the best choice if you're primarily interested in shooting videos with your smartphone simply due to the amount of control it offers.
Honorable Mention: Samsung Galaxy Note 8
The Galaxy Note 8 marked a major imaging change for Samsung by becoming the company's first handset with a dual camera smartphone setup and instantly managed to take advantage of its secondary lens to improve upon the already excellent imaging capabilities of the Galaxy S8 lineup. While the results delivered by Samsung's latest phablet may not be as accurate as the one produced by the Pixel 2, they're still incredible to look at. Furthermore, Samsung's inclusion of a telephoto lens allows the Galaxy Note 8 to boast 2x optical zoom that's entirely lossless and nothing short of impressive when it comes to details, regardless of the kind of photography you use it for.
The Galaxy Note 8 also has the most balanced smartphone camera app on the market as it packs just enough features to provide you with more choices than something like the Pixel 2 without outright overwhelming you if you're not familiar with photography principles like the LG V30 can easily do. The dynamic range of the handset is also truly incredible and while not everyone will be a fan of Samsung's processing and the saturated results it delivers, few will argue they don't look magical, even if they aren't entirely representative of reality. Then again, photography doesn't have to be ultra-realistic to be fantastic, and the Galaxy Note 8 drives that point home rather well.