A $150 Android phone's camera challenges the $769 iPhone 7 Plus

Posted by Matt Birchler
β€” 5 min read

The iPhone 7 Plus is widely regarded to have one of if not the best cameras in any smartphone out there. Meanwhile, the Nextbit Robin was released last spring and cost $399. At the time it was described as having a decent, but not amazing camera, and at about $150-200 in most places now, this phone is far more affordable than the iPhone. No one expects the Robin to keep up with the iPhone, but let's just play a game and see how these stack up.

Example 1: Outdoors, good light, lots of details

This first shot is a nice chance for each of these cameras get a great shot. And each shot does indeed look good. There's a lot of detail in this shot, and both shots are good. The Robin definitely saturates the image more than the iPhone, and many people, including myself, like that look. The iPhone image is more realistic, but hey, it's all about personal preference.

We start to see some of the differences the extra few hundred dollars get you when we zoom into 100% scale. One big difference is in dynamic range. The iPhone shot shows the somewhat cloudy, blue sky. It's struggling a bit to save the sky, but it's much better than the Robin, which has the sky totally blown out.

As far as details as this size, you can look at the tree bark, lines of the siding, and tree branches to see detail in both images is pretty similar.

Moving down to the lawn itself, this shot is pretty similar Details are similar, although because the Robin crushes the colors, the leaves bleed together more in the Robin image, while they are more distinct in the iPhone shot.

Finally, we've got a close up of some rocks. To my surprise, the Robin actually is noticeably sharper than the iPhone. My guess is because the iPhone auto-focused on a slightly different spot in the shot, but no matter the reason, the Robin gets a point back here.

Example 2: Low light

Apologies for this being a terribly boring photo, but it helps exemplify the difference in quality between these phones. Even at full size, you can really see the difference in quality. The iPhone does a much better job of capturing light.

Look at the edges of the computer. The iPhone shot is pretty decent, but the Robin shot looks like what we remember cell phone shots looked like 10 years ago. Shift your focus over to the keyboard and it's even more obvious. The Option key is particularly telling. It's crisp on the iPhone shot and I can't even read it on the Robin.

Zooming into full size and it's just stupid.

Example 3: Portrait mode!

This is the sort of shot that really makes you go "wow, phones have come a long way!" The iPhone 7 Plus has a Portrait Mode that uses its dual camera setup to measure depth and properly blur the background and foregrounds of photos. Meanwhile, the Robin is using Google's Camera app (and an awkward photo-taking process) to simulate having 2 cameras.

The Robin does well to hold its own here and get an image that's better than you would expect, but this one hands down goes to the iPhone. The colors are nicer, the exposure is more accurate (Robin shot looks like it was a cloudy day, but it wasn't), and the iPhone gets more detail and contrast in the girl's face.

This is all not to mention the focal length, which is much more natural on the iPhone. Portraits are not taken with a wide angle lens often, and when they are, they rarely naturally get that amount of background blur. So while the Robin image looks pretty good, it doesn't look realistic to my eyes.

Zooming in we where Apple's depth sensing takes the lead. The blur in the Robin image is pretty good, but it pretty roughly traces the outline of the girl's head. It blurs part of her helmet at one point, and then doesn't blur the baseball field behind her for a sliver a few ticks lower. It's good, but it's not quite right.

The iPhone shot is much better here, with the blur starting almost universally at exactly the right spot. It might encroach a little on the helmet at the top of the shot, but otherwise it's pretty much spot on.

A real trouble spot for all of these faux-blur solutions are gaps in the subject. Small holes in the middle of something confuse the systems and they often can't figure out whether to blur that or not. Neither camera does perfect here, but the iPhone clearly wins. The Robin didn't even try to blur the background in this shot, presumably because the system couldn't figure out that it even was the background. We also notice the Robin blurred out about 1/3 of the hair on the left. Clearly, this gap in the statue caused some confusion.

The iPhone wins by default as it was able to differentiate between the statue and the background in this spot, but it's definitely not as sure of itself as it was on the outside edges. You can see more imperfections on the hair, although the face and shirt are actually quite clean lines.

Full disclosure, I knew this shot would be tricky, and I was trying to confuse each sensor. I tried this shot a few times and the iPhone figured out the gap every time and the Robin never did.

Overall the iPhone 7 Plus is clearly the better camera, although the difference between it and the much less expensive Nextbit Robin is not as astounding as you might expect. Smartphone cameras have gotten very good in the last few years, and it's exciting to know that even budget phones now come with some of the best cameras ever available to ordinary people.