Let me tell you about me and phones. I care about a few basic things with them, mainly nice clean software and good picture quality. I don’t care about having a flagship phone, but until recently only flagship phones have offered excellent cameras. That’s still mostly the case, but here comes some good news!
Google Camera is the camera app that Google developed for its Pixel phones. It performs some software sorcery to produce extremely high picture quality. Basically, in my opinion, Google Camera’s HDR+ algorithm does a better job than any other phone’s HDR trickery. There’s a bunch of reasons for this, but I’ll get into that later.
There is now an entire cottage industry of different ports of the Google Camera app for other phones. Different developers add different tweaks to their versions of the app, and they’re constantly updating them to support new features introduced by Google. These ports aren’t officially supported by Google, and have to be side-loaded instead of installed & managed through the Play store.
Google Camera can take a phone with unremarkable camera quality, due to either hardware, software, or both, and make a huge improvement.
So what’s so great about Google HDR+? All phones’ HDR (High Dynamic Range) modes work in a roughly similar way: when you take a picture, the phone takes multiple shots at different exposures and combines them into one image.
The small image sensors in phone cameras have some physical limitations that can be improved by this HDR method. Generally speaking, the smaller the pixels on an image sensor are, the less sensitive to light they are. Sensors with smaller pixels tend to have narrower dynamic range (the range of dark to light areas of the image that the camera can capture and turn into a recognizable image before they become totally black or totally white) and higher noise (the colorful splotchy crap you often see in dark areas of digital images).
All HDR modes at the very least take a longer exposure to fill in the gaps from the dark areas, and a shorter exposure to fill in the gaps in the bright areas. Google HDR+ not only improves dynamic range, it also uses multiple shots to improve detail and reduce image noise.
Different camera companies take different approaches to noise reduction. Some of them like Samsung and Huawei smear away the noise but also smear away the detail. If you’ve seen a digital picture taken in low light that looks like a watercolor painting, that’s a result of overly aggressive noise reduction.
Google HDR+, instead of smearing over details, manages to reduce the chroma (color) noise while taking a light hand with the luminance (black & white) noise. The result is that HDR+ pictures taken in low light have much more detail than other noise reduction methods, and the noise you do see is not colorful, and is instead a grain-like texture very similar to film.
Here are a bunch of pictures taken with Google Camera on my Essential PH-1. Which, admittedly, started out as a flagship phone, but one known for its shitty camera. These are unedited, straight out of the camera. A couple of them were taken using Night Sight, the trick new long exposure mode Google introduced on the Pixel 3. I noted that with captions. Night Sight works better on phones with Optical Image Stabilization that my PH-1 (and the original Pixel) lacks, but it’s still pretty cool either way.
I’m also a compulsive editor of photos and use Snapseed to make them pop even more. I’ll spare you another photodump but basically, these pics which already look pretty damn impressive for a phone are just good starting points for making them look that little bit extra better in Snapseed.
It used to be that you needed a flagship-level chip in your phone to run the Google Camera port. This is because to process pictures taken with Google’s HDR+ algorithm, the app needs a sufficiently powerful digital signal processor. On the original Pixel, Google Camera used the Qualcomm Hexagon 680 DSP that was introduced in the Snapdragon 820, Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line SoC for (most of) 2016. Except the original Pixel and Pixel XL actually have a Snapdragon 821 that Qualcomm put out at the end of 2016, which is a little bit faster than the SD820, but still has the Hexagon 680 DSP.
Starting with the Pixel 2, Google introduced a whole separate imaging chipset called the Pixel Visual Core. It takes over HDR+ processing from the Hexagon DSP, but because the original Pixel doesn’t have a Pixel Visual Core, Google has been updating its camera app to continue to run on phones that lack a Pixel Visual Core, but have a Hexagon 680 or higher DSP.
What this means is most phones with the Snapdragon 820, 821, 835 and 845 chips are able to run the Google Camera app. And most of these phones are flagship phones. Sure, you can get last year’s flagship phones on sale for less than their original prices, or used, but only recently has Google Camera made it to the midrange segment.
That’s because Qualcomm’s new midrange Snapdragon 636 and 660 and chips now also have the Hexagon 680 DSP. Thanks to Qualcomm reusing an older former-flagship digital signal processor in its newer midrange chips, Google Camera is now accessible to midrange phones. Also, the upcoming Snapdragon 670, 675 and 710 upper-midrange chips will have a new Hexagon 685 DSP that is a step up from the 680 needed to run Google Camera.
While there are tons of phones from Chinese manufacturers with all sorts of these midrange Snapdragon chips, so far there are only a few that have come to the US: the BlackBerry Key2 has the Snapdragon 660, and the BlackBerry Key2 LE, Motorola Z3 Play and Nokia 7.1 all have the Snapdragon 636.
I wouldn’t recommend importing a non-US version of a Chinese phone, because using them in the US is a nightmare. They often don’t have the correct radio frequency bands to work on US carriers, or if they do, they don’t support advanced calling features like HD Voice or wifi calling.
I also can’t for the life of me recommend anyone get the BlackBerry Key2, but the Z3 Play and 7.1 are both compelling midrange phones that, with an added dose of flagship-level picture quality, are almost no-brainer purchases. Neither one is perfect but both have a lot going for them.
The Z3 Play works on all 4 carriers in the US and all their assorted calling features available on unlocked phones (except for Verizon wifi calling, because the only unlocked phones that Verizon allows to access wifi calling are iPhones and Pixels). It has a nice bright AMOLED screen, and Motorola’s nice clean nearly-stock Android software with what is still the best always-on display in the business. But there’s no headphone jack, the fingerprint sensor is on the side of the phone which is weird to some people, and Motorola sucks at putting out software updates to their phones in a timely fashion. Oh, and you can use Moto Mods, if that’s your thing.
The 7.1 is smaller than the Z3P, and has a supposedly-HDR LCD screen. Nokia runs Android One on most of their phones now, which means that software updates are more closely tied to Google. You won’t get updates as quickly as a Pixel, but they’re pretty good. But the 7.1 only has 3 GB of RAM to the Z3P’s 4 GB, it only works on AT&T and T-Mobile, and it lacks LTE Band 71 which is what T-Mobile has been expanding their network on the past couple years. Nokia was also recently called out for modifying Android’s memory management in a way that very aggressively kills background apps which is good for improving battery life, and also good for breaking apps that need to run in the background.
Technically the Z3P sells for $500, which is ridiculous for a midrange phone when the OnePlus 6T (which, with its top of the line SD845 can also run Google Camera) starts at $529. But the Z3P goes on sale somewhat frequently. Right now you can get it for $385 from B&H Photo. The 7.1 regularly goes for $350, and since it’s pretty new, I’ve yet to see it go on sale. But Nokia phones do eventually see discounts.
Between the two, I’d probably take the Z3P, as long as it’s in the $350-400 range, not $500. No headphone jack, and Motorola’s slow updates aren’t great, but Motorola’s core software experience is solid, I love their ambient display, it has a bigger screen, more RAM, no notch, and the best possible carrier compatibility.
Oh, and for those of you who are all like, “I only can use a flagship phone with flagship specs,” guess what? These midrange chips are getting pretty powerful. The SD636 is right in the middle of Qualcomm’s midrange lineup, and while it’s not quite as powerful as the SD820 flagship from a couple years ago, it’s not that far off from it either. It’s more than enough horsepower to run a nice clean Android build like Motorola and Nokia put on their phones.
But where it gets interesting is when you take a step up from the SD636 to the 660, 670, 710, or upcoming 675. The 660 is almost neck and neck with the 820, with each one being better or worse in certain areas. The 670 and 710 are in between the 821 and 835, and the 675 (which is a newer generation of chip than the 660 and 710) actually outperforms the 710 in some areas.
The one area where these chips don’t quite approach flagships is their graphics performance. Only the SD710 is set up to run a display at a resolution higher than 1080p. So if you want a 1440p screen on your phone, you still need a flagship. But there are also plenty of flagships from the likes of OnePlus, Huawei and others that have 1080p screens, and Samsung sneakily sets their flagship phones’ resolution to 1080p even though they have 1440p screens, to improve battery life and UI smoothness while running Samsung’s bloated-to-all-hell software. You can bump up to 1440p in the settings, but still.
Hopefully, we start seeing more midrange phones in the sub-$400 range that start using the SD660, 675 or 710. So far the next big upcoming US-market midrange phone that’s going to have one of these chips is the Pixel 3 Lite lineup, which is coming out soon. There are going to regular and XL versions of it, with the rumors saying they might have an SD660 or 710. Possibly a 660 in the small one and 710 in the big one. Maybe they’ll have a Pixel Visual Core, maybe not. Either way, they’ll probably be able to run Google Camera, and that’s a Very Good Thing®.
Now we just need some more phones bound for the US market to pick up the new upper-midrange chips. Moto Z4 Play, anyone?