If you’re shopping for a new smartphone, there’s a good chance three options immediately come to mind: the iPhone X, the Galaxy S8, or the Google Pixel 2.
Your buying decision might come down to whether you’re more comfortable using iOS or Android. But for those who are struggling to decide which phone is best, or simply just want to get a better sense of how each phone differs from one another, here’s a closer look at the iPhone X, Google Pixel 2 XL and Samsung Galaxy S8.
While more powerful processors, sharper cameras, and better screens have become routine annual updates, 2017 was the year that smartphone makers began to rethink design, too. All three companies released new phones with screens that cover nearly the entire front of the device, resulting in a look that’s more slick while also offering more screen space. And, most importantly, the new edge-to-edge design on the iPhone X, Galaxy S8, and Google Pixel XL means you’re getting a bigger screen in a phone that’s not noticeably larger, which makes them easier to hold than big-screened devices of years past.
That’s especially true when it comes to the iPhone X — it’s only slightly larger than the iPhone 8, but includes a screen that’s even more spacious than that of the bigger iPhone 8 Plus. Apple, Samsung, and Google achieve this by making the borders around the display smaller, allowing them to fit more screen real estate on the device. Both Samsung and Google have the camera situated in a strip that extends across the top of the screen for their respective phones’ cameras, while the iPhone X has a cutout in the top center which some have disparagingly called “the notch.”
I find the iPhone X to be the most elegant looking device, mostly because of its gorgeous glass back and stainless steel edges. But it also feels the most delicate, so I rarely get to appreciate that design, since I’m always covering it with a case. Some may prefer Samsung’s design primarily for its display, which slightly curves over the left and right edges of the phone, making it feel a bit more immersive than its rivals. It’s also the only phone of the three with a 3.5mm headphone jack, which means you can continue to use your older or non-Bluetooth headphones without an adapter. The glossy back panel of the phone, however, is quick to pick up fingerprint smudges. Of the three phones, Google’s Pixel 2 XL is the most practical to use without a case: Most of the phone’s back is covered in a matte material that’s easy to grip and isn’t as prone to smudges.
The iPhone X, Galaxy S8, and Google Pixel 2 XL have screens that are capable of displaying rich color, bold text, and sharp detail. The iPhone X has a 5.8-inch OLED screen with a 2436 x 1125 resolution. Google’s Pixel 2 XL features a 6-inch OLED display with a 2880 x 1440 resolution. The Galaxy S8’s 5.8-inch OLED screen offers a 2960 x 1440 resolution.
While they all sound fantastically sharp on paper (and they are), there are a few differences to consider. Colors will sometimes appear more vivid and pronounced on Samsung’s smartphones, which can in certain instances make the iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 XL look muted in comparison. But this emphasis on color can be helpful or hindering depending on the situation and your preferences. For example, when browsing photos on National Geographic’s website, I found that the Galaxy S8 offered the best mix of color and detail. But I disliked the overabundant color when viewing the trailer for the upcoming film I, Tonya on all three devices side-by-side. There was one scene in which the shade of blue that star Margot Robbie was wearing looked so drastically different on the Galaxy S8 versus the iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 XL that it almost seemed like an entirely different color.
The iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 XL were more similar to one another, but I preferred the iPhone X’s screen the best because it was a bit brighter and bolder without exaggerating color too much. I also found it easier to read text on the iPhone X thanks to its True Tone technology, which adjusts the device’s white balance based on the surrounding lighting.
The Pixel 2 XL’s screen also appears to have a blueish tint when you’re not holding the phone directly in front of your face, which Pixel 2 XL owners have reported in the past. This isn’t always apparent in casual use, like when you’re viewing the screen from a straightforward angle. But it’s still noticeable, and it could be particularly annoying when watching videos with multiple people who may be looking at the phone from different angles. It has also been reported that the Pixel 2 XL’s display has a “burn-in” problem that leaves an imprint of an image on the display even after an app has been closed. But Google recently issued an update that should help fix this issue, and I had a difficult time recreating the problem on my own Pixel even when the reports first surfaced.
If you’re considering switching from Android to the iPhone, or vice versa, software is where you’ll notice the biggest changes. Both operating systems have a different feel, each offering their own benefits and drawbacks.
Let’s start with the iPhone X: Ever since Apple unveiled the first iPhone, it refused to include any extraneous apps from carriers — content that’s often referred to as “bloatware.” That holds true today, and remains one of the iPhone’s biggest strengths when it comes to user interface design.
Aside, as Apple’s software has gotten more intelligent over the years, the iPhone has received some helpful flourishes, like the ability to automatically silence notifications while driving and a feature that translates languages in real time via Siri. It’s worth noting, however, that the iPhone X’s software differs slightly compared to other iPhones. That means even longtime Apple fans will experience a learning curve, since you’ll have to learn some new gestures to compensate for the iPhone X’s lack of a home button.
Samsung, meanwhile, has significantly improved its smartphone software in recent years in ways that make newer phones like the Galaxy S8 feel easier to navigate. But the interface is still a little bit busier than what you’ll find on the Google Pixel and the iPhone. Depending on which carrier you purchase the phone from, you may find some extraneous apps on your device — my review unit came with a few T-Mobile apps. That being said, the Galaxy S8’s software comes with some handy extras that may make it a better choice for power users. Samsung’s smartphone has a sidebar for adding shortcuts to favorite contacts and apps, as well as a tool for cropping screenshots and saving GIFs from videos you’re watching. Like the Google Pixel 2, you can view more than one app in split screen mode, as well as see the time, date, and other information even when the display is turned off.
One of the benefits Google’s smartphones have always offered is an interface that’s cleaner and simpler to use compared to most Android devices. This is no different with the Google Pixel 2XL. That’s largely because Google usually doesn’t include any unnecessary apps and services from wireless carriers. Many phone makers also put their own apps on the phones they sell in addition to Google’s apps and carrier apps (Samsung does this too, although some of its apps may be optional depending on the carrier.) Since the Pixel is Google’s phone, that type of app duplication isn’t a problem. Like the Galaxy S8 and other phones, the Pixel 2 XL also has an always-on screen for checking information at a glance. But Google’s phone offers an extra perk: If a song is playing nearby, the phone can display the title and artist name when the screen is turned off. Of the three phones, I prefer Google’s interface, because it combines the flexibility of Android with the simplicity of an iPhone.
Battery life was generally comparable across all three devices. When using each phone separately, I always had enough juice left after a full workday of sending emails, using social media, and streaming media, among other tasks. I found similar results when testing all three phones alongside one another. After more than six hours of mixed usage that included nearly two hours of streaming video over Wi-Fi and sporadically checking email, refreshing social media, and browsing websites, each phone’s battery level was about the same. The Galaxy S8 and iPhone X were both at 65% while the Google Pixel 2 XL had 75% of its battery left, which isn’t too surprising considering larger phones usually include bigger batteries.
It used to be the case that our smartphones were the best cameras simply because they’re the cameras we have with us at all times. But in recent years, smartphone camera quality has become so advanced that publishers (including TIME) and filmmakers are shooting magazine covers and full movies on iPhones. This year’s major flagship phones from Apple, Google, and Samsung all offer superb camera quality, but there are important ways in which they differ.
In my experience, the cameras on the iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 XL were about equally good, but they excel in different areas. In some test shots, the iPhone X captured better color and detail, particularly for selfies and in photos of outdoor scenery. But the Google Pixel performed better in low-light situations, both with and without the flash turned on. The Galaxy S8’s photos were almost on par with those taken on the iPhone X and Pixel, but it fell short in some areas. When shooting in sunlight outdoors, Samsung’s photos felt slightly washed out compared to those taken on the Pixel 2 XL and iPhone X. I also felt the Galaxy S8’s front-facing camera made my skin look a little too smooth to the point where the photo looked artificial and wasn’t as detailed as the others.
All three phones also offer their own version of what has come to be known as “Portrait Mode,” an effect that slightly blurs the background to make the subject in the foreground more prominent. Apple and Google offer a camera mode that lets you see this effect live as you’re setting up the shot, while Samsung’s phone adds the effect afterwards. Of the three, I thought the iPhone X’s photo had the best mix of sharpness and detail, with the Pixel 2 XL placing in second. The Galaxy S8’s photo wasn’t as detailed and blurred a portion of my subject.
Read more: The Top 10 Gadgets of 2017
Delivering on the basics, like screen quality, camera performance, and battery life, is crucial for any smartphone. But Apple, Samsung, and Google each offer a few special features that are meant to make it much easier to unlock and interact with your phone.
One of the iPhone X’s biggest selling points is the addition of Face ID. Apple’s facial recognition system can be used to unlock your phone without typing in a passcode, to authenticate Apple Pay purchases and app downloads, and within certain apps and services to personalize the experience. Warby Parker’s app, for example, uses Face ID to scan your face in order to suggest pairs of glasses that might look the best on you. Face ID works fine most of the time for these tasks, but I do find myself being prompted for a passcode more often than I would like when unlocking my phone. (The best way to address this issue is to type in your passcode each time rather than resetting Face ID. This helps the system learn your face over time).
Samsung’s phones offer facial recognition, iris scanning, and fingerprint detection for unlocking your phone. In my experience, fingerprint scanning has generally been the most reliable option, and the iris scanning tech usually works more quickly than facial recognition. Even though I prefer fingerprint scanners in general, I often find myself using iris scanning on the Galaxy S8 because the fingerprint sensor is inconveniently located next to the camera and is sometimes difficult to reach.
The Google Pixel 2 XL supports facial and fingerprint recognition, both of which generally provide a fast way to unlock the phone. The fingerprint sensor’s placement in the center of the phone’s rear panel also makes it much easier to reach than with the Galaxy S8, but it doesn’t always read my fingerprint if I don’t keep my finger on the scanner for a long enough time.
Your buying decision will likely boil down to your budget and whether you prefer iPhone or Android. But here are some key takeaways that should help you along:
The good: The Apple iPhone X stands out for its elegant design, excellent screen quality, and the way apps are starting to embrace Face ID to make the experience more tailored to you. But above all else, the iPhone X represents the best form factor of any iPhone to date. Until this point, Apple fans have been forced to choose between a phone that some may find to be too large and unwieldy and a screen that’s smaller than five inches. Now, they can enjoy the benefits of having a larger screen without carrying around a phone that’s much larger than what they’re used to — even if it does mean having to look at a “notch” that sits above the screen. Otherwise, the Phone X hits all of its marks when it comes to battery life, screen, and camera specs.
The bad: The iPhone X’s lack of a home button means there’s a learning curve in using it — you’ll have to get used to changing the way you perform basic tasks like restarting the phone and taking screenshots. There’s also no fingerprint sensor to use as backup if you should find yourself struggling with Face ID. And starting at $999, it’s notably more expensive than the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S8.
The good: The Google Pixel 2 XL’s long battery life, exceptional camera, and clean interface make it a top choice. If you often find yourself struggling with photos that are grainy in low light or appear too washed out when taken with the flash, you’ll especially appreciate how the Pixel 2 XL’s camera performs. I also found the battery life to be a bit longer than that of the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S8. The interface feels neat and clean compared to some other Android devices. The screen is also larger than that of the iPhone X even though the Pixel 2 XL is cheaper, starting at $849.
The bad: The screen has a blue tint that’s visible when looking at the phone from a side angle, which could be off-putting.
The good: The Galaxy S8’s curved screen is just as functional as it is gorgeous. Because the display disappears into the sides of the phone, the screen feels even more immersive. The Galaxy S8 also includes a headphone jack, which is a rare find on today’s high-end smartphones. The battery life is also comparable to what you would get on the iPhone X, and starting at about $725, it’s less expensive than both the iPhone X and the Google Pixel 2 XL.
The bad: The Galaxy S8’s interface doesn’t feel as simple and intuitive as Google’s, and its camera isn’t as good as that of the iPhone X or Google Pixel 2 XL.
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