Microsoft Pix review: iOS photography app uses artificial intelligence to rival Apple’s Camera

AI-based iOS shooter focuses on people but offers minimal after-shot flexibility.

When you shoot with the iPhone’s built-in Camera app, there are various ways to tweak focus and exposure, both before and after you hit the shutter. You might first tap and hold or swipe to adjust and lock focus and exposure. After the shot, you have options for adjusting saturation, contrast, sharpness, and more. That’s in addition to the optional HDR, or Live Picture settings and effects filters.

Microsoft Pix (free on the iTunes Store), a photo and video shooting and editing app for iOS, doesn’t want you to work that hard. It offers an effortless point-and-shoot alternative to the iPhone Camera app with a promise of superior results.

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You can access your Camera Roll and view images and video shot with both Pix (left) and Camera (right).

Burst mode

To accomplish that, Pix relies on AI-based algorithms to automatically adjust each shot on the fly, responding to lighting conditions and motion in a scene. The app fires off 10 shots in rapid succession, both before and after you tap the shutter. But it shows you only one to three of the best variations, letting you compare and select the one you like best. The other images are discarded, but only after the app mines them for elements to improve the chosen shot, including noise removal, face brightening, skin beautifying, and tone and color adjustment.

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Apple Camera (left), Pix (right).

What really makes Pix stand out is its facial recognition tech, which not only zeroes in on human faces, but automatically prioritizes them for exposure and focus. The app’s algorithm favors faces with open eyes and smiles while rendering skin, foliage, and food in realistic hues.

In the real world, my results varied: Sometimes Pix improved on Apple’s Camera app and other times it didn’t. Some shots, especially those taken in optimal, well-lit conditions look virtually identical, despite some slight color variations. Sometimes, Pix helpfully gave a face in partial shadow just enough illumination, though other times it overcompensated by making faces a bit too bright, washed out, and flat. Sometimes Pix offers its best shot and an alternate or two, other times it just offered a single take.

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Apple Camera (left), Pix (right).

If focus and exposure were similar, Pix helpfully straightened some photos that may have been shot at an angle, removed noisy artifacts, and helped to balance exposure on some backlit shots. Despite those fine qualities, I didn’t find Pix photos consistently better or more pleasing then those shot on Apple’s native app, and often could not tell them apart.

In extreme low light, Pix often performed poorly. While the Camera app can be set up to use the camera’s flash, Pix does not support flash on still images, only on video. In low light, the Retina Flash feature on the iPhone 6s models pushed the Camera image quality over the top in the selfie department, while low light Pix selfies taken with an iPhone 6 showed better noise management than with the native app. Using auto flash on both an iPhone 6 and 6s offered better exposures than Pix without flash, though with flash turned off, Pix’s low light shots were brighter on the 6s.

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Pix (right) handled backlighting and face illumination better than Apple's Camera app (left) in this case.

Live Image and video

In addition to Pix automatically selecting and enhancing burst photos, the app also examines each frame to determine whether there’s enough motion to string them together into a cool looping video. If so, the app creates a Live Image, which is saved as a video file alongside your single shot.

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Live Image is reminiscent of Apple’s Live Picture feature, which also starts recording before you tap on the shutter. With Live Image, Pix outputs a cinemagraph—a moving image comprised of a series of enhanced still shots stitched together—which is distinct from Apple’s video-based Live Photos because only part of a Pix Live Image moves, while the rest remains static.

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Unlike the Camera app, Pix creates cinemagraphs automatically without your having to enable the feature; it does not select every shot for Live Image treatment, only those with interesting movement. I noticed some ghosting on certain images, such as the movement of a cat’s tail or ears, which did not look pleasant. Live Image is enabled by default, but you can turn it off in the preferences.

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Pix also integrates Microsoft’s Hyperlapse feature (distinct from Instagram’s app of the same name) into its video function, which automatically stabilizes video and lets you record time-lapses that you can adjust to various speeds. You can even time-lapse or stabilize previously recorded footage with Pix. Note that the app supports 1080p video; but 4k footage shot on your iPhone cannot be processed in Pix.

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Ease of use

Despite a whole lot of computation going on in the background, Pix is drop dead simple to use. Just point the phone, decide what to shoot, tap the shutter, and the app takes care of the rest. Pix offers minimal mobile app editing tools but it does include the standard-issue effects filters and supports sharing features. Since all images and videos shot with Pix also land in your Camera Roll, you can edit them further in Apple’s app or any other photo editor you choose. Performance was excellent, as the app zipped through its processes without a hitch.

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Bottom line

In the end, users don’t care about a camera app’s underlying tech. It’s the final image that counts. In my experience, Pix worked well on some photos to improve face rendering, boost exposure, and fix composition and backlighting. The hyperlapse video and cinemagraph features add to the app’s creativity. But it did not consistently outperform the iPhone’s built-in Camera app. Pix does offer meritorious results in some situations, so I recommend giving it a shot to see how it works for you.

That said, for those who truly do not want to deal with any before-shot prep or after-shot tweaking, Pix may be just the ticket. If you are using an older phone like the 5s or the 6, Pix lets you you reap the benefit of a Live Photos-like feature that’s not included on your model.

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Jackie Dove

Macworld.com
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