Pixel 2 vs. iPhone X: Which does the best portrait selfie?

Portrait Selfies are my favorite thing happening in smartphones right now. I can feel your eyes rolling as you read this, but hear me out for a moment. On a technical level, we're seeing a massive push to improve the quality of the front-facing camera while applying depth maps and color correction so a photo can be instantly transformed into something new. It's fascinating and fun, and in the early days of this feature existing on smartphones there are two massively different ways of creating this effect being used.

Apple's True Depth camera features multiple sensors to create a depth map in real time on the iPhone X. Google's solution relies entirely on machine learning and an impressive single camera to accomplish the same effect on the Pixel 2. Here's a look at how these two methods compare!

Left: Google Pixel 2 Right: Apple iPhone X

The first thing you need to understand when comparing these cameras is where Apple and Google are placing priority when it comes to the photos being produced. We know on a technical level these two phones have the best photo capabilities in the world right now, with the only read difference for most people being what parts of the photo and what features are taking priority.

In these shots, two things become quickly apparent. The background in the iPhone X shot is blown out in an attempt to make sure my face is well lit and properly colored. The background in the Pixel 2 shot is better balanced with the rest of the photo thanks to Google's HDR+, but as a result, my face is noticeably darker and takes on a slightly reddish tint you don't see in the other shot.

There are also substantial differences in that blurring effect used to create Portrait Selfies. Google's software applies a more aggressive blur, and it makes imperfections in the depth map stand out quite a bit. It almost looks like a cut-out sticker of me has been applied to this photo. Apple's blue is a little more natural looking right until you get to my hair and parts of me start to look a little out of focus. Neither shot really "nails" the picture due to their respective faults, but the flaws are subtle enough that you have a pair of fun photos.

Here's another example, only this time it's an outdoor shot zoomed in 100%.

This pair of shots offers a lot of the same conclusions. Apple better lights my face, in particular, my eyes, while Google better lights the background and makes the whole photo feel richer. Apple's blurring extends too deep into my hair and makes part of me look out of focus, while Google's blur is so severe it actually edited out some of my hair that was sticking out of place. Without the Portrait Mode it's clear the iPhone X took the better photo, but with that photo mode enabled it's easier to appreciate the effect of Google's software.

Apple and Google seem to be approaching this photo technique from opposing directions, and it seems likely what we'll see in the not-too-distant future is some kind of meeting in the middle.

There are some natural limitations to both of these photo modes, especially in these early days. The iPhone X will flash warnings in Portrait Mode if the background is too bright or if objects in the background are too far away to grab a proper depth map. Google's algorithm has a nasty habit of editing out corners of prescription glasses or objects in the foreground that aren't attached to a person. There's a bit of trial and error in getting both to work correctly, which in theory gets less frequent over time as Apple and Google continue to improve this tech.

The biggest thing Apple has over Google in this Portrait Mode right now has to be Portrait Lighting. Being able to see the possible edits to the photo in real time as you go to take the picture is a big deal, and the ability to continue editing Portrait Lighting after the photo has been taken is incredible. It's a very hit-or-miss feature right now, especially when you start looking at Stage Lighting, but nothing but the iPhone has this right now.

When editing the photos, Google has something Apple currently doesn't and probably should. When you take a Portrait Mode photo with a Pixel 2, you get a pair of photos. One photo is edited with the blurred areas, and the other is just a plain selfie with the front camera. This gives you the ability to edit both photos and see which you prefer. Apple keeps everything as a single photo, which in my opinion is a little less convenient to see edits between the two modes. On the other hand, it's one fewer photo in your Camera Roll, so this is probably just personal preference.

There's a lot to be said about the "right" way to take a photo, and even more to be said about the virtues of color accuracy and feature effectiveness. Apple and Google seem to be approaching this photo technique from opposing directions, and it seems likely what we'll see in the not-too-distant future is some kind of meeting in the middle. Right now, it's not immediately clear that Apple's hardware-based approach is measurably better than Google's software-based approach to Portrait Selfies. All of the things that make the iPhone X camera take a great selfie already exist on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. At the same time, it's not clear how much better Google can make its photo editing software with a single camera and a lighting preference for the whole photo instead of the face.

One thing is absolutely clear — we're nowhere near the end of Apple and Google giving us more and better selfie features.

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

50 Comments
  • The iPhone selfies look better to me, but as a Pixel 2 owner I'm not worried, as I rarely take selfies. The Pixel 2 takes great photographs, and I almost never have to use filters. So still happy with it.
  • Be interesting to see them both against the xz premium as this has an amazing front camera
  • Any time I read the word 'filters' or 'software manipulated', I think doctored. Maybe the camera needs to be better so all the post production stuff won't be necessary.
  • How do you think digital photography works?
  • Post production is as old as photography itself. It's just gotten computerized.
  • "Google's blur is so severe it actually edited out some of my hair" It's not that the blur is severe. Google uses the idiotic idea that it can use software to identify the subject with one camera and then edge detect what it thinks the subject is and blur everything else. Your hair simply didn't fit into the outline of what it thought was the subject.
  • the iPhone failed the same way on the sticking up hair, so you can point out it's idiotic method too.
  • I'm not defending the iPhone. I'm pointing out that the Pixel uses a very bad algorithm that can result in crazy photos. See for yourself: https://www.androidcentral.com/pixel-2-portrait-mode-derp It's incorrectly titled "5 times the Pixel 2's Portrait mode was almost awesome". The correct title would have been "5 times the Pixel 2's Portrait mode was hilariously bad because Google chose to workaround the fact that they only provided one camera, and screwed up because Google can't design or code for ****". And they call it 'machine learning' to make their crappy solution sound advanced."
  • Russell, you losing weight?
  • I get that this is a review of the cameras themselves, but with, "On the other hand, it's one fewer photo in your Camera Roll, so this is probably just personal preference." is a good opportunity to mention that, with the Pixel, you get unlimited cloud storage through Google Photos and with the X, you get a pittance of 5GB of iCloud storage for free.
  • Young women are most likely to buy an iPhone, and selfies are the majority of photos in their camera rolls. And they seem to make do with the built-in storage and iCloud. Also, if you're an Amazon Prime member, you get free unlimited storage of photos. No need to buy a crappy Google phone just for that.
  • No need to buy a crappy apple phone for anything. Period.
  • Whatever you may think of iPhones, there's no f'in way you're going to tear them out of the hands of young women and teenagers and convince them to buy a Pixel -- and "free unlimited storage of photos" is not going to make any difference whatsoever in their decision.
  • What ever you may think about your precious iPhone, other OEM have been known to pull many others to their line of phones.
  • What empirical evidence do you have that majority owners of the iPhone x are women and teenagers? What empirical evidence do you have that women by nature of their gender take more selfies?
  • The iphone needs to stay in the hands of teens & selfie chix. Save the real tek for the grownups.
  • Have both the iPhone X and Pixel 2, definitely prefer and love the selfie portraits from Pixel 2 more. In general Pixel 2 is my preferred camera over iPhone X.
  • Yea I have both too...IMO the Pixel by far preserves the most detail.... But it does tend to make photos a lot cooler than the iPhone's camera does. The iPhone tends to blur out even hair where it meets the face when I've compared the portrait mode on both FFC ... Which to me is a big fail. Things like color temp can be easily fixed in post but lack of detail not so much.... But we're talking selfies so it's really that serious since most selfies are shared on social media anyway, lol!
  • You noticed the pink tint on #1 with the Pixel but tin my opinion, the yellow tint of the iPhone is more pronounced.
    Yellow might be more flattering than red but I'm pretty sure, unless you are ill or Asian, that the Pixel shot is more natural (face a bit under-exposed) In #2, iPhone hair is a total mess, Pixel 2 made a mistake with some hair in the wind, but overall, much better !
  • Yeah, the hair in the second iPhone selfie is almost like a cloudy halo. It's terrible.
  • Agreed... No definition in the hair at all horrible on the iPhone x
  • yep. nice to see details in eyes, but not at the expense of ruining the rest of the image.
  • The iPhone consistently blurs out the edges of the head, I notice it on nearly every iPhone portrait selfie that I've seen. I much prefer the Pixel 2 output, and you can bet it'll get better with PVC faster than Apple will tone down their edge blur.
  • Don't do selfies so no need for the better looking pictures on the iPhone.
  • Like I say below, young women/teenagers are going to use iPhones for selfies. They're not professional photographers and don't give a **** about which camera is marginally better than another. Browse Instagram or Tumblr or Facebook, etc. for selfies. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I've NEVER seen a girl taking a selfie holding anything but an iPhone.
  • Oh so men don't take selfies now?
  • From what I see, yes they do...especially six pack and gym photos lol
  • That's funny but true
  • When ever i see iPhone X selfies, i always notice that any area that is lit with bright light tends to be blown out. The phone just can't seem to handle lighting.
    Plus they are always yellow, on a blind test on another site every X pic had a jaundiced yellow look which made the pics easy to spot.
  • Well... from what i see, the Pixel avoids blurring you and sometimes misses on the background. The iPhone seems to want to do the opposite; it'll blur your hair, shoulders, etc... rather than undershoot. If the point of these portrait selfies is you make you pop in the picture, the Pixel 2 does a much better job. Yes, from a technical standpoint, this replicates an extremely tight field of view... so you WOULD have blurry hair when your nose is in focus, etc... but this mode is geared towards the selfie crowd... a narcissistic bunch who probably doesn't want their coiffeur blurred to the point that it doesn't look like hair.
  • This IS fun! You're absolutely right! And you're absolutely right that it's so fun to see such virtually polar opposite approaches to the same solution yielding results that could hardly be any more different from each other, and yet, still somehow manage to land themselves in essentially a perfect tie, draw, wash, stalemate...you pick your preferred term. It's the "Sega Genesis vs Super Nintendo" of selfie cam wars. Those were two incredibly different systems approaching the matter of great graphics, sound, and games from nearly polar opposite directions, possessing nearly polar opposite strengths and weaknesses relative the other, and each coming out to be essentially a dead-even [here we go again] tie, draw, wash, stalemate....pick your preferred term [again]. :-) And it came down to about 75-80% sheer subjective preference (do you value this strength more, or this strength more), with the other 20-25% being a matter of context sensitive advantages (in general, x is better equipped to handle a, while y is better equipped to handle b)..... ......now, call me crazy, but it sure seems like that is more or less the EXACT same dynamic we have here with these cameras! 75-80% subjective preference, 20-25% context sensitive advantages. One place where comparing these cameras to those video game systems sorta breaks down, though, is here: while we tend to think of the terms "more powerful" and "more advanced" as synonyms....or at the very least, as inseparable propositions, I think that not only does SNES vs Genesis disprove all that, but that they do so by those two propositions being the PERFECT summaries of the systems: Genesis was "more powerful", where SNES was "more advanced" (with again, the final results being mostly subjective, and the rest contextual). It's very hard to make the "more powerful vs more advanced" distinction here with the cameras. Google's software is far ahead of Apple's, but can we really call a phone with only one camera "more advanced" than that amazing matrix that Apple has? And on the other hand, can we really call Apple's offering "more powerful" than Google just because it has more lenses when Google is able to do so much (and in some cases, so much MORE), particularly in terms of subtle details with just its one shooter? I'm not sure the distinction reliably holds. So, I guess what we're left with, ultimately, is the same thing we were left with with the 16-bit icons: subjective preference and context. In the case of the old systems, the span of time after my getting the SNES before my also getting the Genesis was only about 9 months (Dec 92 to Sept 93), and both within months of my having turned 13 (Feb 93). So, in reality, I grew up with both. I grew up favoring the SNES. But in my early/mid 20's, after I learned more about both systems' hardware, my allegiances changed, and I am today, as a man rapidly approaching his 38th birthday, a Genesis guy. In the case of the camera? The jury's not quite in yet. Like the SNES, the initial first look appeal goes to the Apple. On first glance, I thought the Apple looked way better both times. But the more I compared the pictures, the less confident I became in that initial assessment. But I see the problems in the Pixel as well. So, dunno. Let's say a tentative preference for Apple here.....which is a bummer, because I'm a Pixel (2XL) owner. But at the end of the day, just like the old systems, the new cameras are both fantastic, and comparing them is almost as much fun as actually using them. And as it concerns the cameras, they both bode quite well for glorious futures in the next round of phones from both the big heavyweights. Heavyweights, which I suspect will both have dual (or more) lenses like Apple, and which will both have cutting edge software like Google! And heck, considering that the current Pixel has extra hardware for the camera under the hood that hasn't even been turned on yet, we may not even have to wait for that next round, but get to enjoy a taste of that future on our very own Pixels! Now you're playing with power - Super Power!!!.....er....I mean, Genesis does what Nintendon't!....I mean, yay portrait selfie shooters! :-D Cheers!
  • Guess the Pixel 2 is much better. It is just a much better idea to use AI to blur the background and recognize the elements that shouldn't be blurred.
  • I notice iPhone have a much warmer hue in all their photos and pixel is going for a cooler hue and more realistic. Apple is doing what Samsung did years ago. Oversaturate the bish.
  • Warmth is actually more realistic than cool. There’s a reason why the sun has a yellow look to most people. What do you think happens when that lights up the planet? The only time warmth can look bad is in very low light shots, but most phones are aware of that, these days. The Pixels images almost look like they are blue tinted.
  • The sun only looks yellow because short-wavelength colors are scattered by the atmosphere. The sun isn't yellow.
  • I'm sorry, but as it's been stated before the sun is not yellow. Daylight has a spectrum color temperature of 6500 K or 5500 K (daylight-balanced photographic film standard). All these light temperatures are toward the cooler colors. What you keep referencing is what happens to TRUE SUNLIGHT which is all spectrum colors together and makes PURE WHITE LIGHT as it hits our atmosphere. Depending on the time of day, morning or afternoon when you see a warmer light or noon when you actually get WHITE light. Of course, all this depends on what's happening with the weather. As a photographer, you don't want your photos showing all kinds of random whites depending on the time of day, I want to control that. Most of the time I'm after TRUE white unless I want to make the shot warmer or I look for the specific time of day to make sure I get the warmer exposure. The only light that is truly yellow is Tungsten lighting which was calibrated to be more like the setting sun or candlelight, but that's it. The Sun is not yellow.
  • The Pixel 2 has a better FFC for details and dynamic range, but all the pictures it produces are too cool. Skin looks better in the iPhone images. The iPjone has less aggressive blue, which looks nicer to my eyes. Less jarring of a transition. I only got the iPhone 8 Plus. Went in this morning to see the Pixel 2 XL and make a final decision, and I just can’t get past how blue the screen is and how little you have to move it before it’s as blue as the sky.
  • I went to the store on day 14 and again on 15 literally languishing over whether to stay with the 2XL I grabbed the day after launch, or go back to the safety of Apple with the 8 Plus (came from 6 plus). So I definitely get the back and forth. However, I ultimately chose to stick with the Pixel, and haven't regretted it at all. The blue shift doesn't bother me a bit, and think it's all an example of spectacular overblowing. But I do know it does really bother some. So, to each their own, I guess. and Inguess there really isn't a definitive, universally binding answer to just how big a deal the blue shift is, I'd just reiterate that to me personally, it's like literally nothing...period. Now, after the update with the saturated mode, I'm actually pretty happy with the screen. My wife has the 8 plus, so I can compare, and the whites look a little red to me. Perhaps this screen is TECHNICALLY too cool, but to my eyes, the white looks really white. And of course, the black looks REALLY black. But at the end of the day, the 2XL and the 8 Plus are both fantastic phones, and so I certainly wouldn't judge the person who buys either one.
  • Very, very well put.
  • The display's issue is that it has like a 10 degree range where "white" on the screen looks white. As soon as you veer out of that, it shifts to blue rather radically. The 8 Plus has basically unlimited viewing Angles with no color shift (hi, LCD). It's also calibrated correctly for sRGB... Not Google's clueless calibration (which doesn't matter if you aren't looking at the photo dead on, as the blue shift will corrupt every color on the screen in that case... hilarious how this works, right?). Also, the 8 Plus has a True Tone display, so the screen automatically adjust the white balance based on ambient lighting. This is why, yes, it doesn't look pure white, often. But I think the obsession with "pure white" is ignorant since we don't often see pure white when we're out and about... As I've stated before, colors in real life during the day tend to be warm - not flawless, and not too cool - unless you live your life in a building lit up by flawless florescent lights. The saturated mode helps with the muted colors, but it doesn't help with the fact that Google's "sRGB" mode is terrible. The phones are badly calibrated, so boosting the colors won't fix that. The display also tends to crush shadow detail, as well. It's just a terrible display. The phone is great aside from that - phenomenal, even. But the display is a pretty harsh thing to mess up, given how important it is on these devices (given the form factor). My printer can have a shoddy display. My smartphone, though? No.
  • Hi n8ter:AC: You tagged me in another comment more or less redundant to this one. See my reply to that one. We can finish the conversation over there. Cheers.
  • At first glance in the first shot, the iPhone looks more natural, but when you study them, the both look fake.
    Second shot looks acceptable on the Pixel, and the iPhone shot is just a fail regardless of the better face lighting.
  • For me, I like the clean separation of the subject and the background that the Pixel 2 (XL)'s produce. It is somewhat severe and really makes the subject pop. The iPhone has too much vasaline on the lens, it renders the subject much softer. Not to say that the Pixel 2 's don't soften the facial features with some other magic.
  • Early stages. This will all get better with time.
  • IPhone needs a beauty mode. So many girls hate how detailed the iPhone selfies are
  • Google Lens Blur on my old Nexus 4 does a better job than the iphone jeez
  • JaySeeDoubleYou : I couldn't get past the blue tint. If you're looking at the screen 5 degrees short of "dead on," the tint is noticeable. It's noticeable with how the phone rests in the carrier store. Because of the tilted display mounts for the phones, the screen is literally blue the whole time until you pick it up and put it directly in front of your face. I'm calling B.S. on the people who say "no one will notice this when using the phone normally." You may "get used to it," (i.e. learn to accept it) but it's ALWAYS noticeable... Especially when you're using high quality 100% sRGB IPS Panels on Laptops and iMac displays which basically never do this - and display more accurate colors to boot. Because I have pretty decent panels on all of my Televisions, PCs, Notebooks, etc. the Pixel 2 XL's screen is immediately noticeable for its blue tint and the muted colors (though that is somewhat correctable, and I was willing to deal with that as well as its propensity to crush all shadow detail in the darker scenes in video). People use their phones while viewing them from [random] off-angles ALL THE TIME. The only way to use the Pixel 2 XL, and not get this tint, is to use the phone like you're trying to Iris or Face Scan your phone with a Galaxy Note8 or iPhone X - at all times. That's how little the "margin of error" is for the screen to display "decent colors" with no noticeable blue tint is. Go to the mall and look around. See how people use their phones naturally...
  • Okay, so the blue tint is a deal-breaker for you. That's fine. Don't get the phone. Fact of the matter is that there has never been a verifiable issue with any phone I've ever owned that has bothered me less. It's a big deal to you, and I can't call you "wrong" for feeling that way. It's a ridiculously small deal to me, and I hope that you'll have the sense and decency to not attempt to call me "wrong" for feeling the way I do. No, I think the people who truly -ARE- wrong are the people who simply demand that I be outraged over it. I am sick to DEATH of those people and their self-righteousness by this point, and I, in my turn counter-demand that they all blow it out their @55es, and leave me the flip alone. However, I suppose that if those people are truly wrong, and I absolutely believe that they are, then that forces me in fairness to also concede that their parallel, the "oh, get over it already, Nancy" people are also wrong as well. Though in my hypocrisy, the wrongness of the second group doesn't inflame me nearly as much as the wrongness of the first group. To each their own. Only, let's divorce ourselves of any notions of "well my phone escapes compromise, error, and imperfection". As I said (or, as I think I said), my wife has the iPhone 8 plus, and I spent a lot of time with it trying to decide whether to go back to Apple with it. First of all, the blacks are less deep. Not super noticable in certain situations, but outright glaring in others. Also, since off-angle viewing is so important to you, where OLEDs color-shift off-angle, LCDs dim off-angle. Where my phone's whites go slightly blue