Google made a big splash in 2016 with its original Pixel, not necessarily in terms of sales, but in terms of showing what a smartphone camera could really be capable of. The company has held up its camera prowess for the most part in the time since, but some areas have fallen behind the competition. Zoom is perhaps the biggest area the Pixel 5 falls behind, and it’s why I’m crazy excited to get my hands on a Pixel 6 Pro.
If you’ve paid attention to smartphones for the past year or two, you’re probably familiar with a lot of devices that are adopting what’s called a “periscope” lens. This allows for zoom that’s well beyond the typical 2x or 3x that’s seen in devices like the iPhone.
Since the original Pixel, Google has been rather bullish regarding additional lenses. With the Pixel 2 and 3 series, the company made a big deal about how its phone could do more with one lens than competitors could do with 2 or 3. It was a stretch, even at the time. A year later, Google finally added a second sensor with a 2x telephoto on the Pixel 4. Its performance was admirable and, with the help of clever software, put it in a good place compared to others. However, the company’s slight mocking of “fun” ultrawide lens where telephoto was more useful rubbed many the wrong way, essentially leading to Google being bullied into ditching telephoto and adopting ultrawide instead.
And that’s where we are today. The Pixel 5 has just two lenses, one 12MP primary camera and one 16MP ultrawide shooter. While they’re both solid and still remain in the top 5 for smartphone cameras, it’s clear this setup just won’t do anymore.
Ditching telephoto was a misstep, and I’ve got the photos to prove it.
Looking back just one generation to the Pixel 4 series, zooming in even to just 2x led to a major gain in how zoom shots look. Pushing in further, both phones obviously start to degrade by the laws of digital photography, but the Pixel 5 loses detail significantly more quickly, and that’s something a “fun” ultrawide camera just can’t make up for.
Matters get much worse when you start comparing to competitors, though. While in NYC, I took a OnePlus 9 Pro to compare its performance with the Pixel 5, and I think it only takes a single subject to show how even a competitor that falls into the middle of the pack when it comes to camera performance can beat Google in this area. Of course, that’s only when it comes to detail. Google still very much takes the crown when it comes to the colors and overall look of the shot.
Finally, just for good measure, I also compared Pixel 5’s zoom camera shots to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the “jack of all trades,” if you will, in the current smartphone camera race. Here, it’s not even a competition. While a 1x shot is comparable, the Pixel laughably falls behind at 2x and is utterly destroyed by the Galaxy’s 10x lens. It’s borderline hilarious.
Now, some may argue that 10x zoom on the S21 Ultra is overkill. To those, I say you’re wrong, but the argument still holds up at closer ranges. In the examples below, I took some shots at just minor zoom increments. Why? These shots were just easier to take with zoom because of where I was standing and where I could stand.
All of that said, this is exactly the reason I’m most excited to get my hands on the Pixel 6 Pro. Google recently confirmed that a camera revamp is finally happening this year, which means better sensors and the return of telephoto. The improvements here just can’t be understated. With this upgrade, we’re first looking at the addition of a better optical telephoto lens. That means Pixel 6 Pro will be able to zoom in to 4x without losing any quality, and Google’s presumably still-in-use “Super Res Zoom” will likely make further shots a bit better as well.
Beyond the optical zoom lens, though, a main sensor with higher resolution has the side effect of also improving zoom quality. This is important less for the Pro model but more for the Pixel 6, which, unfortunately, lacks an optical zoom lens entirely.
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Note: Some of the differences in zoom levels between cameras are due to the optical zoom on some phones as well as the fast-paced nature of taking these shots in New York City.
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