The Pixel 3’s Camera May Be Its Most Exciting Feature

The 12-megapixel camera on a Google Pixel 2.
The 12-megapixel camera on a Google Pixel 2. The Pixel 3’s camera will be even better. Neil Godwin/T3 Magazine via Getty Images

There is little we don’t already know about Google’s upcoming flagship smartphones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. Thanks to a steady stream of leaks—including a preproduction model left in a Lyft— we’ve got a good idea of what the phones will look like, what their internal hardware is capable of, and what new software features they may hold. Many of the phones’ updates aren’t too surprising. We’re expecting the devices to have 5.4-inch and 6.7-inch displays, with 1,080-by-2,160 and 1,440-by-2,960 pixel display resolutions, respectively. Inside, both devices will have an 8-core CPU and an Adreno 360 CPU. (As with the iPhone XS and XS Max, the devices’ specs are mostly the same, save their size differences.) We’re expecting stereo front-facing speakers, a fingerprint sensor, and a USB 3.1 Type-C connector. But it’s the camera system, which builds on the already best-in-class camera performance of the Pixel 2, that sets the Pixel 3 apart from the iPhone XSes and Galaxy S9s of the world.

The front-facing camera will be a big step forward from many existing smartphones, according to reports. The devices will have dual front-facing 8.1-megapixel cameras onboard, one of them a wide-angle lens. It’s a bump up from the single 8-megapixel sensor in last year’s Pixel 2. It’s also a jump from what we’ve seen in Apple’s new iPhones, which only have a single 7-megapixel camera on front. With those dual front-facing cameras, the Android news site 9to5Google reports that the device will be able to shoot “Super Selfies” (although it’s unclear at this point whether that’s the name of a Portrait Mode–type feature, or just a reference to its superior image quality). The camera system could also improve the quality or security of a facial recognition system.

Interestingly, while many leading smartphones are adopting two—or even three—cameras on the rear of the device, Google’s Pixel line sticks with a single 12.2-megapixel shooter. The company is “doubling down on making a single camera powerful enough to not need a second camera,” according to 9to5Google. To make that possible, it’s adding a Visual Core chip to its camera system, which is capable of handling HDR+ photos (an A.I.-powered computational photography technique that combines multiple burst-shot images for a resulting image with less noise and improved dynamic range) and other potential camera improvements on the software front.

For the front-facing camera, we’re expecting a few selfie-specific features, including a face retouching feature with two options: a “natural” filter and “soft” filter. Thanks to those dual lenses, you’ll also be able to zoom in on photos shot with the selfie camera. Meanwhile the rear-facing camera seems to have Google Lens, Google’s text-reading, object-recognizing app, built into the camera system itself. The device has been caught on video scanning business cards automatically, spotting information such as an email address without even needing to snap a photo, and then heading straight into the email app to send a message. Presumably, the camera will be able to take on other Google Lens features as well. This would mark the first time a smartphone camera has such advanced machine learning and object recognition tools built in directly, rather than accessed through a secondary app.

Leaked photos purportedly shot with the new phones suggest that it’s capable of capturing stunning images regardless of the other smart tools we expect to be built into the device. But that combination of high quality photography and advanced camera smarts could make the Pixel 3 and Pixel XL this year’s must-have devices. Google’s new phones may sport the most advanced camera systems we’ve seen on a mobile device to date. If for nothing else, it’s worth tuning in to Google’s announcement on Tuesday to see whether these new features come to fruition—and what other surprises it has in store.