All three of our contestants are renowned for their cameras. Whether you root for team Apple or not, it is hard to overlook Cupertino's impressive accomplishments in photo quality and more importantly, consistency. The iPhone 7 Plus comes really close to what we would call a "point and shoot" cameraphone. While many other handsets, even in the flagship realm, still struggle to keep the various detection and adjustment algorithms at bay, iOS seems to be firmly and confidently in control of things. You can typically shoot once and be confident that the iPhone gave it its all.
As for the HTC U11, we already praised its camera prowess on several occasions. It is no secret that it produces results quite similar to those of the Samsung Galaxy S8 pair, which is, frankly, a praise in itself. Still, it offers up a particular style of its own, with a little more contrast and "pop" in colors and slightly dialed back sharpening in some scenarios.
If more detail is your thing, then the Xperia XZ Premium should be right up your alley. All the extra camera hardware Sony has put into the handset, like the redesigned lens, the camera RAM buffer mentioned earlier, or the nice EIS algorithm, adds up to a powerful and flexible camera experience. It's a camera capable of impressive results in the hands of someone who has a grasp on manual controls.
But let's not waste any more time and get down to it. First up, we'll use our very own Photo compare tool to compare the image quality and resolving power of the three cameraphones.
The Photo compare tool is the go-to place for comparing resolution, fine detail and color reproduction in a standardized environment. It's also the right spot to illustrate just how much more resolution you can capture with the Xperia XZ Premium, when you take the effort to adjust the distance to the target so that the framing is the same on all three phones.
On to real world tests, and a very busy shot. We left all three phones with HDR off for this first round. Straight off the bat, the HTC U11 started flexing its muscles and delivered the most detail in the grass, while also keeping the colors quite punchy. We realize this is a matter of taste, but we found its pallete a bit too vivid and saturated. With these basic settings, the iPhone 7 Plus managed to exposed the scene best and offered the best dynamic range at the expense of... punchiness.
But it's hardly fair to leave HDR off in this challenging scene. We toggled it to On manually and ended up with some more consistent results on the iPhone. It managed to have great dynamic range, regardless of the settings, but once again, HDR did little for its dull colors. Manual HDR mode managed to give the Xperia XZ Premium a noticeable bump up in resolved detail - just one of the trends that started popping up all throughout our tests. As a result, the Xperia seems to have the most detail in this particular standoff, with the U11 at a close second. Still, the XZ Premium is not without its faults, exhibiting noticeable levels of noise and oversharpening.
Last, but not least, we gave the handsets a shot at capturing the colorful subject using whatever clever automatic modes they have at their disposal. And there are no two ways about it, Sony's Superior Auto is a behemoth when it comes to post-processing. The results it produced really towered above the competition in terms of dynamic range. However, we can see noise and sharpening artifacts around contrasted edges where the noise suppression was selectively dialed back. The iPhone shows some signs of those pesky issues as well here. It also overexposed the scene a bit, while the U11 underexposed it. The U11 also shows some noise in the uniform blue surface of sky - perhaps a direct consequence of the highly saturated colors.
But before we continue with our observations, we feel it necessary to remind you that we are really nitpicking here. In the grand scheme of things, few smartphones can hold a candle to the trio we have lined up here.
Lighting is a lot more uniform in our second sample shot, which likely allowed the U11 and XZ Premium to resolve a very similar and equally impressive amount of detail. In comparison, the iPhone 7 Plus even looks a bit lacking, but again, it's all about the perspective. The iPhone also has a little corner softness and it managed to loose some detail in the grass.
Speaking of which, we definitely like how HTC handles grass and foliage - it's perhaps the best one in this area.
Toggling Auto HDR on the phones yielded some expected results. The iPhone remained pretty consistent in its rendition of the scene, which unfortunately means it remains just a little bit "fuzzy" and not as sharp. Sony's Superior Auto didn't really have much work to do, but it still managed to remove a little bit of noise here and there.
In contrast, the HTC U11 Auto HDR seems to harm overall quality in daylight scenes consistently. All the parallels with the Pixel's exquisite HDR+ mode seem to be little more than wishful thinking, it's nowhere nearly as good.
Moving on to the next scene, there are a few more observations to be made, most of which solidify our findings so far. The U11 and iPhone 7 Plus have overexposed the sky a bit. It is barely noticeable and well within reasonable limits. Still, in comparison, the Xperia really nailed the exposure of this challenging scene.
Again, the U11 decided to go for a brighter exposure and as a result has better detail in the shadows at the expense of highlights in the sky.
Toggling on the respective Auto mode of the handsets once again resulted in almost no change for the iPhone. The Xperia hardly felt the need for additional adjustments as well. It still handled its exposure metering best.
Again, the HTC U11's sharpness seems to suffer a bit compared to the same scene with the HDR mode toggled off. It clipped the sky even worse. It managed to, however, remove some of the noise, mostly in the shadows.
All things considered, we really have mixed feelings about the Auto HDR mode on the HTC U11. Our observations lead us to believe it comes at an expense of sharpness (say, 5%) and it surprisingly causes the phone to overexpose most shots. Here is a close-up crop for you to check out. The shots are taken seconds apart with HDR OFF on the left and Auto HDR on the right.
And to further prove our point, here is another shot to check out.
The difference in exposure between the U1 HDR and no HDR shots is quite small. The former only managed to save a little bit of detail in the shadows (the far right window), but the drop-off in overall sharpness just isn't worth it in our books.
We also turned on the Superior Auto mode on the Xperia XZ Premium and it understandably has more detail. Although, in HDR Off mode, the U11 seems to show better sharpness all around simply because its lens fits fewer things into the frame. It's a tie between the two. Sadly, the iPhone 7 Plus lags behind.
On to a close-up shot. The U11 overexposed and clipped the shadows a bit. And as expected, the iPhone offered the best overall exposure - the least amount of clipping in the reds, that is. The U11 shows off a nicer bokeh effect - smooth, compared to Xperia's busy one. Meanwhile, the iPhone didn't really bother with bokeh.
All three pretty much nailed this scene. The Sony has the benefit of more detail, given the fixed vantage point once again, but it also shows more signs of noise in the tile patterns than the other two. It is nothing to fret about and could easily be described as more "laid-back" processing.
Up next is a particularly hard scene to work with. It has a mixture of well-lit textures on the roof of the building, with the rest of it mostly left in the shade. There are also the trees in the far right to take care of.
Again, all three phones did a great job, but there are some differences worth discussing. After taking quite a few shots with each unit, we noticed that with HDR forced off, both the iPhone and Sony ended up overexposing the sky a bit. Of course, this was done to preserve detail in the shadows on the dark side of the building, which the iPhone arguably accomplished the best.
Throwing the respective Auto HDR modes into the ring yields some surprisingly different results. Again, the iPhone shots show little to no difference and stick to consistency. As for the U11, its Auto HDR makes it a lot more inclined to expose higher, but without really much benefit to shadows. Again, HTC's extra algorithmic magic seems to do more damage than anything else.
As for the XZ Premium, its Superior Auto mode really towers above the competition in these particular conditions. The dynamic range is excellent. Still, however, we can't help but notice some extra noise in the shots, especially around sharp edges.
Just to end things on a positive note, here is another less demanding scene that all three phones handle masterfully. Frankly, choosing a favorite mostly comes down to personal preference as far as processing goes.
We're also including Auto HDR and Superior Auto shots of the scene, respectively.