The Google Pixel 4a and Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra launched within a few weeks of each other, but they could not be more different Android phones. The Note20 Ultra is a humongous beast of a phone with all the latest and greatest hardware and an unsurprising $1,300 price tag. The Pixel 4a is smaller, less powerful, and only costs $350. And yet, Google's camera processing is so good that it can clobber phones that cost several times more. Is the Note20 Ultra one of them? Well, it depends on what you want out of a phone camera, but there is not a $1,000 gap in photo quality here.

The Note20 Ultra has a 108MP primary camera, a 5x optical zoom module, and a dedicated ultra-wide camera. The Pixel 4a has just a single 12MP camera—it's the same IMX363 sensor Google's been using for several years. There's no ultra-wide equivalent, but Google's Super Zoom processing can sharpen zoom photos to compete surprisingly well with optical zoom systems. The zoom comparison is quite interesting, but let's start with some regular snapshots at 1x, full auto. With all the side-by-side samples, the Note will be on the left and the Pixel on the right.

 

Left: Note20 Ultra, Right: Pixel 4a

You're probably already picking up on the differences in processing and hardware. Samsung's photos are noticeably more saturated than the Pixel, and Google is getting the colors "right." Samsung's pumped-up colors look good sometimes, and they're more eye-catching when shared to social media. That said, I prefer the more accurate "textured" look of the Pixel. Sometimes the photos from the Note20 Ultra just look too toasted and lacking detail. However, artsy backlit shots look unusually lovely on the Note20.

The Note20 Ultra also has a very narrow depth of field thanks to that big 108MP sensor. Even in regular 9x binned photo mode (12MP), the Note20 Ultra has extreme bokeh. That can look very nice in a properly composed shot, but the DOF is so shallow that parts of your subject or things very close to it can be blurred. For example, the string lights behind the bar in that last set. I think they stand out in the wrong way. Also, check out this plant that's only partially in the focal plane.

Left: Note20 Ultra, Right: Pixel 4a

The color differences are particularly stark when greenery is involved—Samsung's shade of green looks almost nuclear in some of these shots. Whatever else Samsung does to these pics (maybe denoising or sharpening) also smooths over some fine details, and it's something you'll notice particularly in zoom shots. Below, the top sets are from the Note, and the bottom ones are the Pixel.

Top: Note20 Ultra, Bottom: Pixel 4a

In this set, we have 1x, 3x, and 5x images, which gives you an idea of how the quality changes as soon as the Note20's telephoto comes into play—you get luxuries like that at $1,300. The unzoomed Note20 version is not objectively bad, but the exposure is cranked up a notch higher than I'd prefer. At 3x, you're getting toward the edge of digital zoom before the Note switches to its optical zoom lens, and it shows. They're pretty ugly. At 3x, the Pixel's photo looks sharper than I'd expect given the hardware; probably still great for sharing. As soon as you advance to 5x, the Note switches cameras and the image is much clearer than the 4a. The Pixel is roughly okay. Again, impressive considering the hardware limitations.

Top: Note20 Ultra, Bottom: Pixel 4a

This set is 1x, 2x, and 5x, and I feel like 2x is a good place for the Pixel 4a. Google's top-notch processing preserves a lot of detail—I like it more than the Note20's 2x crop, even with all those extra MPs. Even at 1x, the Pixel is more to my liking here, particularly the colors. At 5x (sorry my model moved), that's a significant loss of resolution for the Pixel. You can see how the fur's texture becomes smudged on the Pixel at that point, but it's much sharper with the Note20 Ultra's telephoto camera.

Top: Note20 Ultra, Bottom: Pixel 4a

This last set is just a 1x and 5x comparison between the phones. At 1x, I think the Pixel photo is the clear winner—the colors and detail are phenomenal. The Note's photo isn't bad, though. At 5x, the Pixel struggles to pull together a usable shot, but it doesn't have enough detail. The Note20 Ultra is much clearer. Despite the lens flare, you can see some detail in the tree bark and the leaves don't look like a smudged mess.

Samsung used a lot of expensive camera hardware to get an impressive (at least mostly) experience. The Pixel 4a is more modest, but it holds its own and takes some great shots that it really shouldn't be able to with that old 12.2MP sensor. That we can even compare these phones on a level playing field is ludicrous. The Pixel 4a costs $350 and has an amazing camera, and the Note20 Ultra is a $1,300 behemoth of a phone with a pretty good camera. You can do some things with the Note20 you can't do with the Pixel, such as ultrawide photos and more extreme zoom shots. Is it $1,000 better than a Pixel 4a's camera? Not really.