Budget = Crap Phones? Phones Camera = DSLRs?

Just this week I was invited to do an interview segment with Channel 5’s Talking Point. During the recording, a student from our local Polytechnic send a message to me through some serious CSI and wanted to ask me about smartphone and photography. And before the recording, someone also asked me about budget phones that can play games.

So with that in mind and the number of phones I have with me to do a bit of review work as all the new mid-range to budget phones are launched or available for review this week, somehow everything just comes together nicely. I don’t believe in coincidences but label them as God assisted co-occurrences.

This is not a review for the phones but really an overview of what I felt when I put all these phones together. If you are keen to know what are the individual reviews for the phone, do access Techgoondu.com as and when the reviews are done. It will be a very busy weekend ahead while I am away to Malaysia to get some me time and attempt to shoot Milkyway or star trails with these mobile phones (seriously I really pushing these phones to the limit).

Here are the phones that I have. I will update the links as and when the full review articles are out on Techgoondu.com

  • Vivo X21
  • Oppo R15 Pro
  • ASUS Zenfone 5
  • Nokia 7 Plus

There are phones that are used for Talking Point but not on my review list

To make things a bit simple, I put all the specification in a table here.

Brand Model Processor RAM Storage MicroSD Earphone Jack Display Res. Display Type Camera M/2/F Water Battery Distinct Feature Price Range
Apple iPhone X A11 3GB 256GB No No 5.8-inch Full HD AMOLED 12/12/7 IP67 2716 Face ID 1888 Crazy Premium
Samsung N8 SD 835 6GB 64GB Yes Yes 6.3-inch QHD AMOLED 12/12/8 IP68 3300 Stylus 1398 Ultra Premium
Samsung S9 SD 845 4GB 64GB Yes Yes 5.8-inch QHD AMOLED 12/12/7 IP68 3000 Slow Mo/AR Emoji 1198 Ultra Premium
Oppo R15 Pro SD 660 6GB 128GB Yes Yes 6-inch Full HD OLED 16/20/20 3430 899 High
Oppo R15 Helio 6GB 128GB Yes Yes 6-inch Full HD OLED 16/5/20 3450 749 High
Vivo X21 SD 660 6GB 128GB Yes Yes 6.28-inch FHD AMOLED 12/5/12 3200 In-Screen Fingerprint Scanner 748 High
Nokia 7+ SD 660 4GB 64GB Yes Yes 6-inch FHD LCD 12/13/16 3800 Android One/Ceramic Cover 599 Mid
ASUS Zenfone 5 SD 636 4GB 64GB Yes Yes 6.2-inch FHD LCD 12/5/8 3300 Ultra Wide Angle Camera 488 Budget
Xiaomi A1 SD 625 4GB 32GB Yes Yes 5.5-inch FHD LTPS LCD 12/12/5 3080 Android One 300 Budget
ASUS Zenfone 5

Question 1: Because the cost involved in making a budget phone is much less, are they not able to offer some features?

When it comes to a pragmatic consumer, the key consideration is not about offering features, but to offer FUNCTIONS that can do the minimally necessary without paying a much higher price to do the same.

For example, can the most expensive do calls, write messages via WhatsApp/WeChat, update Facebook, share photo on Instagram? They can. So can the cheapest phone do the same? Definitely and so why I need to pay so much to do the same?

Goes to show, having the most expensive phone doesn’t necessary means you can do the SAME THINGS better. In fact, I can safely say the budget phone can do the same without having the user tear their hair out while using the phone.

And so, my stand is that so long the phone has 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage that allows expandable storage space via MicroSD card and a mid-range processor such as the Snapdragon (SD), one can do a lot of stuff on their phone.

If the phone is under the Android ONE program, it is actually a plus point for me.

Why? The Android ONE program provides the Android OS in its purest form and so it doesn’t require as many resources to run badly written manufacturers’ in-house apps since these apps are not installed in the first place.

Secondly, Google supports the Android ONE program by updating the OS as and when it is needed. That means it will have the latest security patches for the OS AND the user will get to use the latest OS when it is launched. It also frees the manufacturer to focus on the hardware more rather than maintaining their customised OS.

Vivo X21

Question 2: Where do companies compromise when it comes to budget phones?

An easier question to ask is this. What did companies such as Samsung, Huawei, and Apple offer over and above the most basic functions to make themselves different and charge a higher price or premium for their particular model?

TL;DR version: When it comes to basic functions, ALL smartphones can do the basics. The main thing that manufacturers used to distinguish themselves now (and is applicable to most of us) and charge a premium for – aesthetics, stylus, and CAMERA. For me, an avid photographer, the camera is a good differentiator for me.

a. The use of Stylus. The Stylus is actually very useful for users who relies on pictures are called logograms. Chinese, Korean, Arabic are considered Logograms. Logograms needed to be written out and hence uses a more complex method of character input unlike English or Bahasa Malayu or Bahasa Indonesia where a simple English Keyboard is enough. However, there are complex keyboards that can type of Logograms pretty easily too. Even Chinese language can use Hanyu Pinyin to type out Chinese Characters quickly.

Then again some people do like to draw or write out their thoughts and it is definitely something that can differentiate the phone and create a higher price point. For this the Samsung Note 8 has their own set of fans especially for those who are in the creative industry and also architects and engineers.

b. The use of a better screen technology. For the longest time, Samsung is one of the few companies that make use of AMOLED screen technology to differentiate themselves. Yes on paper it is better than LCD screens plus it can bend (that’s where you get the Samsung curve screen but lately Lower Temperative PolySilicon (LTPS) LCD is making a comeback.

Long story short, whether you use an AMOLED and LTPS LCD screen, both are enough to allow you to screen under the sun and both do provide good colours too although AMOLED tends to win colour reproduction.

However, AMOLED screens are the one that can be bent to allow manufacturers to come out with more design but was never made full use of. Even so, some people, like me, prefer a flat screen so we no need to struggle when reading things closer to the edges. I have issues controlling my drone using such curve screens so a flat screen is definitely my go-to choice.

I have no issues with FHD LCD screens. Yes it might not be as good as AMOLED screens but it does the job and does it well enough not for me to complain.

Oppo R15 Pro

c. The use of better processors and more RAM memory. This really depends on what you do on the phone. i.e. user dependent and app dependent. If an app is going to be resource hungry, then getting a faster processor with higher RAM will be a better bet.

Using Avast (a security company) blog as my source, the highest common apps I see most people using are Facebook, Spotify, LINE, Google Map, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger (the website is more US-centric by the way). Snapchat is quite predominantly used by the young in Singapore I heard but I have no way to verify that.

Even when I use all the apps above in one day (Spotify while in transit. Facebook/Instagram updates, FB Messenger/WhatsApp as and when I need to reply messages), my phones, even the budget ones I am testing did not hang so what does that say? The budget/mid-tier phone’s processor and RAM combo is definitely enough for most users.

However, I must say, kudos to Huawei AI Processor Kirin 960, my 1.5-year-old Mate 9 works as well as the day I had it. The AI Processor actually actively manage the processing resources so that it won’t slow down the whole system. Even when the phone has an old processor and technically speaking, slower than the latest chips, it still can manage to ‘survive’ newer and more resource hungry apps. From the looks of it, it can survive another year or so pretty easily.

d. Battery capacity. This point is related to point c too. As processors and RAM get more efficient, usage of battery power to run apps will also reduce subsequently. Even when I am heavily using my Huawei P20 Pro to do photography and videography, it can last at least 10 hours with its 4000mAh battery. And must remember, the imaging processing done by the P20 Pro is actually quite heavy when compared with other competitors and yet it can last the day easily.

e. Aesthetics. A lot of things that manufacturers can do to differentiate is using aesthetics to grab the attention of would-be buyers. The fact of the matter is this – after the phone is protected by elaborate phone cases, we can’t see the special glass or coating anyway. Why put so much emphasis on aesthetics since it is covered? We must remember the main aim of the manufacturers is to SELL the phone at the point of purchase. And at the point of purchase, the aesthetics plays a huge part in the buying decision.

The fact of the matter is this – after the phone is protected by elaborate phone cases, we can’t see the special glass or coating anyway. Why put so much emphasis on aesthetics since it is covered?

So for the logical buyer, aesthetics shouldn’t be that high in the list of ‘must have’ but sometimes, that is something we as reviewers are guilty of as well. So long the phone looks great, holds great (ergonomics), doesn’t slip and is easy to maintain without me wiping off my fingerprints every other minute of using it with my oily hands, I am definitely okay with it. What interests me more is the insides. Can it do the work I need the smartphone to do on a daily basis?

f. Gaming. This is pretty big subject actually because playing a MMORPG or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game is not just about the phone but also the internet connection quality to the gaming server. So how the server that the phone connects to is able to provide the support the phone is crucial. So for that, I won’t comment as much.

For simple, single player games with a bit of 3D rendering, it is perfectly fine for most phones here. I played a 3D rendered dart game and Marvel’s Strike Force and the test phones did well. 2D games generally will have no issues.

g. The Camera. When all things even when there are numerical difference (battery capacity Huawei P20 Pro 4000mAh versus Zenfone 5 3300mAh example) doesn’t really make a huge practical difference any more thanks to more streamlined Operating System and Apps. In the end, the manufacturers have to go back to the camera

Quite honestly, the cameras from budget to mid-tier to high-end when given sufficient light can produce pretty good results for most users. And how to differentiate the camera feature? By convincing the experienced photographers (Advanced Amateurs and Professionals).

So what that means is that the differences are now about image quality such as the ability to expose correctly complex scenes with different lighting conditions, sharpness when zooming into a scene, colour accuracy and ability to focus correctly.

These are definitely very subjective, again, only those who are trained to look out for such things will know what they prefer that vast majority of the users out there couldn’t really care less unless they want to shoot better photos.

With that said, the selfie camera up till now is still quite bad for all the Android phones. Only iPhone has done a much better colour management for their selfie camera. I will espouse more about the Camera next.

Question 3: How has phone cameras evolved to have comparable high standards as DSLR/Mirrorless cameras?

In actual fact, with the ultra-small sensor in the phone cameras, the absolute quality of the images coming out of the phones is not going to win the image quality competition with pit against DSLR/Mirrorless cameras.

The simple fact remains is that the lens used by the smartphones is nowhere near the clarity afforded by lens used with larger sensors.

One aspect that DSLRs will still win any smartphones is in the area of Bokeh or the blur background portrait photographers used to focus on the subject matter. Due to the extremely small size of the sensor, having bokeh is definitely possible, but not at the aesthetic level of a bigger camera.

For that, phone manufacturers rely on fake bokeh to create such effects and it may be quite good for most people, it is still not as nice as an image taken with a DSLR.

In the end, it is not how best a photo is but what is the ‘good enough’ that you can get away with based on the medium the image is used on. These days, smartphone camera does enough for me to get away with certain things without lugging heavy equipment around since most of my photos are used on Facebook, WordPress and Instagram.

In the end, it is not about how best a photo is technically but what is the ‘good enough’ that you can get away with, based on the medium the image is used on.

Question 4: In your opinion, what about your personal camera that you are using right now that makes it better than a mirrorless / DSLR camera?

With the understanding of the answer with regards to Question 3, I will still say, in strictly technical terms, I will still use my DSLR for professional work where image quality is of utmost importance. Professionals need the sharpness, clarity in the picture but also the data when it comes to colour management accuracy.

However, for my travel blogs where I was invited to stay and document my experiences, most of the time my smartphone camera’s image quality is good enough for blogs and online consumption. Besides, my drone shots are taken with small sensors as well which is more than enough for most uses.

I would say, when you give a good photographer a smartphone camera, he/she still can shoot exception photos and likewise, an untrained person who has the most expensive camera will not shoot well.

Photography is not just the tool, but also the skills and knowledge in using the tool. Hence photography is not strictly science but is an art form that uses science to produce images that can be art through image manipulation or be the arbiter of truth through photojournalism.

In short, I use the tools that is ‘good enough’ for certain work and when it isn’t, I choose a better tool that matches the requirements. So there is no ‘better’ camera but it really depends on how you use the tool and what is the tool used for.

My answer:

Huawei P20 Pro for day to day shoot. Sometimes using it to hone my composition skills. Nikon D500 for events/sports. Nikon D700 for portraiture/Studio work. Fuji XE1 and Smartphone for Travel Work.

Question 5: So why make so much effort to improve the smartphone camera?

The most obvious answer is that most users now use their cameras to update Facebook and Instagram. Truth be told, the consumption of these photos is not about how well the photo is taken but what is in the photo. So long it is sharp and exposure is correct and viewers can see what is shot, most people couldn’t care less about composition and the ‘beauty’ of the picture.

Unfortunately, phone manufacturers really do not have anything more to improve and distinguish themselves. We now have curved screens, glass covered phone, in-screen fingerprint sensor, stylus, face recognition security, and wireless charging.

But the camera is the only most viable and most visible way that makes a significant differentiator amongst close competitors.

The only way to make people feel good about buying a certain brand’s phone is to ensure that the picture that is shot by the phone is significantly better and that can be seen and shared very quickly out to the social media thereby providing a very quick marketing tool for the brand. Besides, who doesn’t like a couple a hundred more ‘likes’ on Facebook and Instagram thanks to a better camera?

Question 6: Phone cameras have become so developed and high tech that they have many similar features like DSLRs? Do you think that because of this, we will see a decline in demand for Mirrorless/DSLRs?

On the surface, some smartphone cameras are doing a very good job for most snapshots and will give the illusion that it can replace a DSLR easily. But can it totally replace the DSLR?

One thing I do love about Huawei P20 Pro is their night shoot function that takes multiple shots are various brightness settings so it can extract details out from all these shots and combine them into one complete image all within 4 seconds without any vibration even when handheld. If this is done with a DSLR, it requires the use of a tripod and also a bit of post-processing in front of the computer with a photo editing software that will take up a lot more effort and time.

The smartphone may have the same features with a DSLR apart from a non-changeable aperture control, it doesn’t mean that it is easier to shoot with a smartphone.

Photos that need extensive preparation to shoot like setting up studio strobe lights for creative shots or in need of good zoom lens and quick reaction, such as sports and wildlife photography, the smartphone is NOT able to shoot well or unable to support.

I will definitely see a decline in demand for Mirrorless/DSLRs when it comes to taking snapshots. However, those who are serious about photography as a hobby will still like to have a proper camera and full set of lens that provides more shooting opportunities that a smartphone cannot provide.

Decline in demand in numbers as a percentage? Yes. A total eradication of DSLRs/Mirrorless cameras? No.

There will be a market for professional imaging tools IF the market for talents in this area is able to sustain the livelihoods of professional photographers and videographers.

Question 7: What are some functions you think that a DSLR will never be able to be incorporated in the phone camera? (something that will continuously stand out for DSLRs)

Sports/Wildlife photography

  • requires a good set of telephoto (zoom) lens
  • quick and accurate autofocus
  • Triggering/Shuttering accuracy to capture the moment is important
  • Better ergonomics (a shutter trigger is definitely better than screen button, holding an actual camera is better than holding a phone for long periods of time)

Astrophotography

  • Need super wide lens
  • Need very sensitive sensor that can output good image quality shots
  • Good ISO performance

Studio Photography

  • Need to communicate with all the lighting equipment. The flash must fire when the phone is taking the shot.
  • Triggering/Shuttering accuracy to capture the moment is important especially for moving subjects
  • Autofocus accuracy

Event Photography

  • Need to use flash
  • Need to use various types of lenses
  • Shuttering accuracy to capture the moment
  • Autofocus accuracy

Question 8: How are each type of camera or phone companies perhaps helping each other / or being different so as not to potentially become extinct?

For smartphones, it is getting tougher to differentiate themselves because most of the things we need the phone to do well, they are doing extremely well even for budget phones. Only when a certain app is poorly written then more powerful phones are needed to run it.

For cameras, like cars, certain design and way a camera works will have their own fans. For example, Nikon users appreciate how their Nikon camera works because of the placement of certain buttons or settings are changed is more preferred that no Canon users can live with. Same with phones, some iOS users just cannot accept Android OS and vice versa.

There is nothing wrong with that. Everyone is wired differently and have different tastes and so the tools, smartphones, and cameras, are designed differently and that in itself will ensure the company can survive unless the companies themselves produce products that are not competitive.

Question 9: With the rise of phone cameras could it possibly blur the lines between a professional photographer and an amateur because camera functions allow even amateurs to take “professionally good photos”?

A quick analogy. Did automatic gear change maketh a professional driver? Do we find amateur drivers in F1 race?

No. A tool can only be as good as the user that is using it. Even if the smartphone camera is able to aa good a shot as a DSLR, it still cannot replace the brain and creative vision of the user. No matter how good Artificial Intelligence can become, it can only apply ‘filters’ and ‘settings’ but how good a photo can be, solely depends on where and when the photographer point the camera at.

However, that doesn’t mean the tool cannot improve. When the tool improves, the photographer can also improve along with it and be inspired by the new possibilities of what can be captured.

And when people who are good at taking photos are able to show what the tool can achieve, it creates the desire for people to improve themselves using the same tools too.

That is where the smartphone manufacturers, or at least the very motivated ones, are keen to keep certain users from switching phone brand by providing very good photographic tool and use it as a marketing tool as well.

A good photo doesn’t just depend on the tool one is using, but also the vision of the photographer and the skills and knowledge of the photographer to capture the shot.

If a dish is delicious, do you thank the plate, kitchen utensils, ingredients and pot for making the dish?

If a good smartphone and camera can shoot good pictures by themselves, then we don’t need the photographer already yes? Then again, we need someone to press the shutter.

So for a smartphone/camera brand to say the smartphone can shoot professionally good photos, then the smartphone brand better train their customers well to make full use of their smartphone/camera

If you want to know more about Smartphones versus Camera, here’s a link to infographics pertaining to this subject.

Question 10: You talk too much liao lah! So in the end, the phones you compared this week, which is the best budget phone money can buy based on paper comparison (or after you have done all the reviews)?

I choose the Nokia 7 for these reasons (just paper comparison)

  • The price is definitely very agreeable at $599
  • The processor and RAM is capable enough to do most tasks I do on a daily basis
  • Earphone Jack and Expandable MicroSD card slot (sacrifice one SIM card slot is okay!). The reason why we get Android Phones (I missed removable batteries but we have huge 3800mAh battery pack in return)
  • The camera backed by Zeiss seems to be quite good (based on my test shots, will share in the actual review). More tests needed definitely.
  • It has 64GB and storage is expandable. This is the key reason why we buy Android phones in the first place. Not to be held hostage by Apple and charge exorbitantly higher for bigger storage options in their phone range.
  • The LCD screen is good enough. No need AMOLED. No need QHD.
  • The phone is under the Android ONE program thereby giving me access to latest security updates and new OS as and when it is available to download. Also free online storage for my pictures in high resolution (not full resolution).
  • It has an aesthetic design that doesn’t look cheap at all. In fact, it looks more expensive than it really is.
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