Is Super Res Zoom enough?
The Pixel 5 is the latest showcase for Google’s capabilities in mobile photography. It offers the latest HDR and low-light functions. But the phone also made an important change to the camera hardware this year. Google Pixel 4’s 2x 16MP telephoto capabilities have been retired in favor of a 16MP wide-angle lens. While many will be pleased with the flexibility of a wide-angle lens, the lack of a telephoto zoom in a market filled with triple and four-camera setups is a blatant omission.
To get around the absence, Google turns again to the software chicane. Super Res Zoom uses multi-frame recording techniques to extract additional details from an image, enabling digital cropping without the usual loss of quality. This is not a new mobile photo technology. Huawei, Oppo, and others have also been using it for years. Google itself has already used the idea on the Pixel 3.
Super-resolution results are not as error-free as real optical zoom. However, can you notice any differences from typical zoom distances? Is the Pixel 5’s Super Res Zoom good enough for most use cases? I turned the camera to find out.
Deep dive: Camera zoom explained: How optical, digital and hybrid zoom work
Super Res Zoom vs Optical Zoom
First, let’s highlight some of the differences between Optical and Super Res zoom. A quick comparison with Pixel 4 from last year seems like a logical place to start. Click here for full resolution examples.
At 2x full screen, there is little difference between the Pixel 4’s telephoto lens. The exposure is very similar, if not identical, although the Pixel 4’s colors are a little more vivid. However, if you crop to 100%, there will be more of a difference in fine details. You may notice the strange halo artifact in the multi-frame nature of the technology (see petals). The Pixel 4 is definitely cleaner than you’d expect, but it really isn’t much in it.
The Pixel 4 does not have an optical zoom sensor for 3x and 5x. So I compared Google’s phones with the 3x lens on the Sony Xperia 5 II and the 5x periscope lens on the Huawei P40 Pro for longer zoom ranges.
Again, the Pixel 5 looks decent for 3x at full screen, especially on a small phone display. It’s certainly usable, but details won’t hold up when cropped. While color and exposure are good, the phone’s small 12-megapixel main sensor cannot extract fine details in this area. Impressively, the Pixel 4 looks just as good at 3x as the Xperia 5 II and shows that Super Res Zoom is ideal for small zoom extensions.
3x is roughly the limit for the Super Res zoom of the Pixel 5.
Pressing the zoom 5 times increases the quality differences. While none of the Google phones get great results at this distance, the Pixel 5 really struggles. In addition to the lack of detail and increased noise, the colors and dynamic range also suffer due to the lack of pixel information at this zoom level. The Pixel 4 is a bit passable for full-frame shots at 5x, but the Pixel 5 is a no-go in practically all situations.
In summary, the 100% cultures mentioned above don’t really do justice to the Pixel 5’s Super Res Zoom. The handset works in a similar way to the optical zoom at 2x. It even offers decent performance at 3x for quick snapshots. Provided you don’t pay too much attention to fine details and don’t trim or edit a lot. The further you zoom in, the worse the results, as we expect. 3x is really the limit before Super Res Zoom shows discernible artifacts even at full screen. The Pixel 5 has a lot more problems at 4x and beyond, especially when compared to optical zooms.
“Blind” recordings from the real world
Cropped comparisons are good for reference, but we rarely worry about accurate zoom levels and 100% detail when trying to get a quick shot in the real world. To spice things up a bit, I shot the second series of images a little differently.
I framed each shot the way I wanted without worrying about the zoom factor first, and then took a comparison shot on a competing phone. These images are taken with all possible odd zoom factors, e.g. B. 1.8x and 3.2x. This reflects a lot more real-life shooting scenarios and doesn’t favor optical zoom sweet spots that are found on some phones.
The Pixel 5’s images look pretty good aside from the 7x example. The general rules of the past apply: the longer the zoom, the clearer the quality gap between Pixel 5 and Pixel 4 and other optical zooms. Details don’t hold up at 3x and beyond, but even at smaller zooms, like in our 1.8x example, the Pixel 5 delivers better processed results.
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On the positive side, Google’s zoom technology has a consistent loss of quality. In contrast to the Sony Xperia 5 II or the Huawei P40 Pro, in which the quality increases again after inserting the optical lenses. Differences in quality are not so obvious with these intermittent zoom levels from optical zoom sweet spots below 5x. Google’s software zoom is one of the best, but it doesn’t make up for the lack of a proper zoom lens at greater distances.
Super Res Zoom is impressive, but it’s clear that telephoto cameras look better.
Even at small zoom distances, the details are a little too sharp and black can be too dark, which leads to somewhat artificial looking results compared to other phones. Colors and white balance may also change slightly compared to Pixel 4 due to the different sensors with longer zooms. Even so, in order to spot these issues, you need to know what to look for. Without a side-by-side comparison, the Pixel 5 produces up to 3x good-looking images. But it’s clear that Pixel 4 and other telephoto cameras look better.
Super Res Zoom and Ultra-Wide: Was it worth swapping Pixel 5 cameras?
My overall impression of the Pixel 5 and Super Res Zoom is that they are passable for an average snapshot, but will disappoint more discerning photographers. The difference in quality from last year’s Pixel 4 is small when zooming up to 3 times, but even then the results of the Pixel 5 are processed more. Beyond 3x and Pixel 4, it really pulls ahead and retains passable details up to around 5x.
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Whether the Pixel 5 is the right phone for taking your photos depends on whether that drop in zoom quality is worth the added flexibility of the new wide-angle lens. I’ve also experimented with this lens and my feelings are mixed.
Wide-angle lenses without distortion and with excellent focus are difficult to build. The Google Pixel 5 implementation has some common shortcomings. Due to a fixed focal length, details are missing, the dynamic range is poor and the colors look washed out compared to the main sensor. The extra width can be nice, even though it isn’t a particularly wide lens. Overall, the wide-angle images of the Pixel 5 do not match the usual quality from Google.
I’ve always been a fan of zoom functions, so the Pixel 5 doesn’t suit my photographic needs. I’m not convinced that the new wide-angle camera offers enough quality or flexibility to warrant moving away from the telephoto lens. Super Res zoom is fine, but the Pixel 4’s telephoto zoom was better.