phone cameras

Every recent high-end phone launch has focused, sorry about that, on the device’s camera. Likewise, phone promotion or marketing always pushes cameras to the fore.

Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 in Auckland last month. The company invited journalists to an open plan restaurant. There, Samsung invited journalists to photograph the chef preparing food.

The menu included a dish with a viscous pour-on sauce. This was a clever way of highlighting the S9’s very slow motion video function. The results were impressive.

Samsung hired a video professional to take slow motion footage of bees entering a hive. Shown on a giant TV screen, the pictures were crystal clear and, at times, had stunning clarity.

When phone makers show journalists new devices, they devote at least half the time to cameras.

Apple and Huawei have the same emphasis on photography.

Phone makers with smaller budgets push camera features to the top of their press releases.

Camera talk

During technical presentations company insiders talk at great length about phone features. At least a third of allotted time is camera talk. You can come away with the impression that’s all they want to talk about.

Every phone maker mentioned so far and some others will tell you they have the best phone camera. In a limited sense most of them are right, although it depends on your terms of reference. No phone costing, say, $800 or more has a bad camera.

In the last year or so, every phone maker used the word ‘bokeh’ at least once in their launch presentation. It would not be hard to think up a cliché bingo card for phone launch attendees.

If this sounds like ‘me too’ market, well, it can be at times. Everyone seems to think a fashion parade is original.

Yet there are important difference. Each company’s best camera excels at something else. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 does well in low light and can do very slow motion video. Huawei’s Mate 10 is best for black and white photography.

Most phone makers can point at unique camera hardware features. They can all point at unique software.

The quality of still and moving pictures from high end phones is remarkable. If you know what you’re doing — we’ll come back to that point — you can achieve wonderful things. This is even more impressive when you consider how small the lenses are. Phone lenses are prone to finger smudges and camera shake is a given.

A point of difference

So why do phone makers put so much emphasis on cameras? An obvious reason is cameras differentiate what can otherwise be me-too products.

Telephony and connectivity are much the same on all phones including cheap ones. Screen resolution is higher than the human eye can perceive. Few high-end phones struggle with processing power. These days they all look alike.

While there is a huge and obvious software difference between Apple’s iPhone range and Android handsets, you couldn’t say the same for Android models. Phone makers add their own software skins to stock Android. In almost every case this detracts value, at least from the customer’s perspective.

This leaves cameras and camera software as a playground for creativity and innovation. Which, in turn, brings us to the second reason phone makers place so much emphasis on photography.

Phone hardware designs and specifications have stabilised. With the move to remove bezels, that is the borders around screens, there’s little left to tinker with. Samsung struggles deciding where to put its fingerprint scanner. Otherwise, physical phone design has reached a cul-de-sac, at least for now.

The Galaxy S9 looks so much like the S8. Samsung had to come up with a new case colour for people wanting to show off their new phone.

Room for improvement

Over the last few years phone makers found room for improvement in their camera hardware and software. It’s likely this will soon reach another dead end. The laws of physics mean there’s only so much you can do with a tiny lens and sensor array.

The last big innovation was the move to dual lens cameras. This hasn’t played out yet. Meanwhile, at least one phone maker, Huawei, is talking of a triple lens camera.

There’s a danger this could become like the disposable razor business. There, for a time, adding an extra blade gave the appearance of innovation to an otherwise evolved product. It could be like tail fins on 1950s American cars. In effect we’re talking innovation for the sake of having an innovation talking point.

Another danger is that customers are loosing interest in phone cameras. Or, more likely, customer interest in phone cameras is not in alignment with phone maker hype.

Take, again, the Samsung Galaxy S9 slow-motion video feature. As mentioned early, the results are impressive, but how many Galaxy S9 buyers will use it?

Or, more to the point, how many will continue to use it beyond playing around with it when they first get their phone?

You can ask the same question about many of the camera innovations phone makers promote. Is the beauty mode, which attempts to make people look better, anything more than passing fad. How many phone owners have taken more than a handful of bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds?

Are people buying cameras or phones?

Slow-motion video is nice-to-have, but it’s unlikely more than one phone buyer in 20 will use it often. Similar reasoning goes for all fancy high-end phone camera features.

The flip side of this logic is worth considering. High-end phones with fancy camera features sell at a considerable premium. You may pay NZ$500 extra to get that super camera in your hands. If you only use it a dozen or so times, that feature has cost you $40 a shot.

Skeptical readers might see the industry’s obsession with camera phones as a way of forcing up handset prices. It also repairs margins in a business where only Apple and Samsung make decent money.

Of course, you can use phone cameras for serious work. If you need to take pictures in your job, the extra cost can be a smart investment.

Yet, in general you can’t take pictures of the quality you’d get from a SLR or any decent camera with a much bigger lens and sensor array. Phone cameras are handy, we carry them with us all the time. And the quality is so good that at times it is hard to tell if an iPhone or a Canon took the shot.

Hard to use

One phone camera drawback is they are hard to use in a hurry. Sure, all the phone makers tell us how easy their products are to use. Even so, the software can be confusing.

Phone camera interfaces are often tiny and you need to hunt around to find controls. Almost everyone uses the default mode for every shot. What’s more, stabbing at controls on a phone screen is not the best way to steady your hand to take pictures. Adjusting and using a digital SLR is easy in comparison.

There is still some room for improvement with phone cameras. Among other things Huawei’s third lens could do the trick. There is scope for yet more innovation in the software and, yes, a better user interface.

No doubt other improvements are in the works. At best we may see one or two more cycles. In the meantime some phone makers are switching their marketing attention to what they call AI or artificial intelligence.

It’s questionable whether this is real AI in the sense that the software learns things from use. There’s also a big question over whether phone buyers give a toss for this approach. We’ll see.

End of the golden age

Phone makers face a far bigger problem than competition with each other. It appears phone sales have faltered and now may be about to end the same kind of fall that has plagued the PC sector.

People are hanging on to phone longer. Research companies like IDC and Gartner put this down to consumers not being so enchanted with new feature that they feel a need to upgrade.

Given the marketing emphasis phone makers put on cameras, that can be evidence they are out of sync with what customers want. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be a way of taking better photographs or videos.

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Huawei nova 2iYou don’t need to spend the thick end of NZ$2000 to get a decent phone. The NZ$500 Huawei Nova 2i gives you three-quarters of a modern high-end phone for a quarter of the price.

Huawei offers powerful high-end phones. Unlike its rivals it also offers credible choices for those of us who don’t want, or can’t afford to pay for an expensive phone.

There are compromises, you always expect that if you pay less. Yet there isn’t much you can do on a high-end Android phone that you can’t do on a Nova 2i.

Most people buying a phone in this class aren’t too interested in the technical specs. They want to know what the phone can do. We’ll get there in a minute. But first, and for the record, here’s what the NZ$500 asking price buys.

Nova 2i specifications:

The Nova 2i comes with Android 7; that’s the Nougat edition. It includes an eight core Huawei Kirin 659 processor, 4GB of ram and 64GB of storage. The screen is 5.9-inches.

There’s fingerprint sensor and a 3,300 mAh battery. The Nova 2i has dual lens cameras on the front and back. The front camera has a 13 megapixel sensor, the back camera is 16 megapixels.

In rough terms the specification list compares loosely with the technology packed in a high-end Android phone eighteen months to two years ago. Something like the Huawei P8.

Good enough

While it doesn’t scream along, in practice the processor and ram are good enough to run almost every mainstream Android app you’ll come across. It will certainly run every worthwhile game.

You may need to choose more conservative display settings to keep demanding apps running smoothly, but they will run. All business tasks should be a breeze.

The modest chip and ram are not quite up to the job of recording 4K video. It works, but the results are sometimes patchy. Maybe with practice you’ll learn to work around the limitations.

If 4K video is important to you, then you may need to buy a more expensive phone. Huawei says the phone can shoot 4K at 30 frames per second. While that may be technically true, it is optimistic.

Nougat

Android 7 (Nougat) is the last but one version of Google’s phone operating system. Which means, like the hardware, the phone’s software is about two years behind the market’s high-end. That’s the second compromise you have to make to save $1000 off the price of a new high-end phone.

Phone makers are not always good at providing Android software upgrades. Huawei is one of the worst offenders in this area. Choose the Nova 2i if you are certain you can live with Android 7 for the foreseeable future. Most people can, but security may get a little hair-raising at times. You’ll need to take care.

Huawei loads its own EMUI software skin. It’s OK as Android skins go, but, let’s put it this way: no-one aspires to own an EMUI phone. It’s something you are stuck with. If you feel confident, you can swap EMUI for third-party software, but Android skins are all equally imperfect.

Looks and feels like a posh phone

While the Huawei Nova 2i isn’t going to turn heads, it is far from ugly. Nor does it look cheap. Anyone looking at the phone might take it for an expensive model.

It feels fine, not perhaps as smooth and comfortable as a phone costing $1000 more, but there’s nothing wrong here. The Nova 2i feels better than the $700 Oppo R9s.

The phone’s screen has the 18:9 aspect ratio. That means it is a little longer or taller than most other phones with the same screen size. There’s next to no bezel, which seems to excite phone makers more than users. It’s curvy, light and comfortable.

Display

Huawei has used a 1080 by 2160 pixel display. That’s a lot more than you’ll find on any other low-to mid-price phone. It doesn’t compare with the high-end, but it’s more than good enough.

While the cameras deliver decent images, they don’t compare with more expensive phones. Unless you have a thing about image quality you may not notice or care. The one dodgy area is taking shots in low light conditions. Performance there is ordinary.

Battery performance is solid. The phone can go two days between charges if you don’t push it too hard. There is no NFC, some people may find that is a deal breaker.

Verdict

If the above comments seem lukewarm at times, that’s because most of the time we’ve compared a NZ$500 phone against models that cost NZ$1500 and up. For the money it is a bargain, it delivers more than rival models in the same price range.

What you get is, in effect, a brand new phone that’s the functional equivalent of a two-year-old flagship phone for about the same price as a second-hand version of the same thing.

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Mobile phone handsetPeople are paying more for phones. After years of falling prices, market research firm GfK reports the average price of a phone climbed seven percent in the last year. The number of phones sold worldwide climbed three percent during the year. Sales fell in North America and Western Europe.

GfK works with actual sales data rather than the shipments preferred by some analysts. This means the information is a more accurate reflection of consumer behaviour.

The clear pattern is that phone makers have switched focus towards more expensive premium smartphone models. Apple, Samsung and, most of all, Huawei all moved their customers upmarket. GfK says the premium features have become more important to customers.

What phone buyers want

They now look for: “water and dust protection, battery power and memory, high-resolution sound, camera and video capabilities, bezel-less design and even biometric sensors”.

Rising handset prices run counter to conventional technology hardware wisdom. The usual pattern is for prices to fall over time as manufacturers improve processes and wring out economies of scale. This is accelerated by new market entrants undercutting existing players.

The phone market has been running on a different track ever since Apple introduced the first iPhone a decade ago. For most of that time Apple has made almost all the industry’s profit despite having only a minority market share.

Aggressive phone prices

To a degree Apple’s rivals bought market share with aggressive discounting. That made sense to them during the growth years as people around the world bought their first smartphones.

It meant the phone business went through the usual economic cycle much faster than earlier technology waves. While it was always a competitive business, there were far few players than in, say, personal computer hardware.

There have been casualties along the way. Blackberry, Nokia and HTC were all roadkill on the route to today’s market.

Chasing margins

Now the phone makers, especially the Android phone makers, have turned their focus to margins and profitability. Hence the price rises. Apple pushed the bar higher again with its iPhone X which costs more than NZ$2000. Huawei has an even pricier phone.

Huawei is knocking on the door of Apple and Samsung. It aims to be the first Chinese company to be a global technology quality brand.

There’s still a way to go. The company’s products are excellent quality and contain as much innovation as brands like Samsung. Unlike Samsung, Huawei is on the whole more inclined to invest in engineering than in marketing budgets. That said, the company uses Scarlett Johansson in its advertising to great effect.

Huawei also teams with prestige brands. Its high-end phones use Leica camera lenses and its most expensive models have blingy Porsche designs.

Despite the company’s engineering prowess, Huawei has yet to master the art of looking after a customer after the sale. The biggest complaint you hear is that phone software is rarely, if ever, updated. That may be an issue that only concerns a certain market segment. Ironically, it is the market segment most likely to be drawn to advanced engineering.

Artificial intelligence

Huawei’s latest phone, the Mate 10, includes the kind of artificial intelligence features found in Apple and Samsung models. It’s ability to translate written languages feels almost like magic, or perhaps something from science fiction. In a similar vein, the phones take screenshots when you knock on the display with your knuckle.

For now, the sector’s move upmarket has created opportunities for mid-tier phone makers like Oppo. It’s another Chinese brand. Oppo sells an Android phone with about 90 percent of premium phone functionality for about 50 percent of the price.

Although Huawei would love to be seen as a serious rival to Apple, in truth the two address two quite different audiences. Few Apple iPhone owners would jump ship for a Mate 10. That’s not the case with Samsung customer, the two brands both use the same basic Android software and switching is relatively painless.

Huawei Mate 10Huawei’s marketing wants to tell you about the artificial intelligence features built into the Mate 10 phone. Its AI technology is impressive, but that’s not the best reason to choose the phone over its closest rivals.

The Huawei Mate 10 is a first-class Android phone that, at NZ$1100, also represents good value for money. There’s also a $1300 Mate 10 Pro model with a larger screen.

When it comes to performance, the Mate 10 is the match of anything from Samsung. On a good day the phone’s technology may even turn heads away from Apple’s iPhone.

The front of the phone has that now familiar all screen look. There are thin bezels at the side and minimal case sections surrounding the screen at the bottom and top of the front. It looks a lot like a Samsung Galaxy S8, but with fewer curves.

Modern look

It looks good and is distinctly modern. Yet it isn’t quite as pretty as the latest Samsung Galaxy S8 or the iPhone X. It feels better in the hand and has a higher quality finish than the cheaper Oppo range of phones.

You could say the same about the screen. It’s a 5.9-inch display with full HD. It looks great, but again, it isn’t quite as outstanding as the best from Samsung or Apple. Even so, the blacks are dark and the colours are vivid. Images are beautiful. You can view the screen from wide angles.

One thing Huawei shares in common with Samsung and Apple is that it makes its own chips. This gives all three an edge over their rivals. For the technically-minded, the Mate 10 has a Kirin 970 processor with eight cores. For the rest of us, that means powerful by phone standards.

It also means built-in artificial intelligence processing. That’s a must-have in a 2017 premium phone.

Fast

In practice the phone is fast. Apple phones always feel silky smooth in everyday performance, but some Androids struggle to keep up when pushed. The Huawei Mate 10 coped with everything a normal user might throw at a processor with aplomb.

Much of the phone’s artificial intelligence takes place in the background. The Mate 10 learns your behaviour, then queues the apps you’re most likely to choose next so they load faster. The AI also helps with photography.

Long, long battery life

The Mate 10’s superpower is battery life. According to the marketing material, there is a 4000 mAh high-density battery. This is more battery than you’ll find on most other phones. Huawei says it is the same amount of power as you’ll find on a tablet.

On top of that, Huawei has software that adapts battery use to the phone owner’s usage patterns to squeeze out even more life. Huawei says that means over a day’s heavy use and two days normal use. In testing it easily achieved those claims.

Typically the Mate 10 can go around 50 hours before needing a top-up. Many other Android phones struggle to get to 30 hours. For some people that is a good enough reason to buy a Mate 10 without looking at anything else.

Software, cameras, intelligence

Like Samsung, Huawei thinks it can improve on the raw Android software experience. It uses something called the Emotion UI. You can tinker with the software to a ridiculous degree and, if you prefer, can wind everything back so it looks like a straight Android phone. Tinker more and it can look like iOS.

Every premium phone maker will tell you they have the best camera. In a sense, they are all right. Each has its own pluses and minuses. If you are fussy about phone photography, you should spend your time researching and, where possible, testing the alternatives before choosing.

The Huawei Mate 10 Pro has the latest Leica dual camera. They’ve all been impressive, but this iteration is by far the best so far. The rear pairs a 12-megapixel colour camera with optical image stabilisation with a 20-megapixel monochrome camera.

Fast lenses

Both have fast f/1.6 lenses. The two work in tandem, the arrangement boosts detail and captures the best colour. It all works well in most lighting conditions.

This is where the artificial intelligence can come into play. The processor can detect the scene being shot and adjust settings accordingly.

It doesn’t always make the choices a skilled human might, but the results can be outstanding. The only negative is that the sheer number of shooting modes and photography features takes a lot of time to master. Far more time than a product review like this.

Huawei Mate 10 verdict

You are unlikely to be disappointed with any late 2017 premium phone. They are all good. The Mate 10 ticks most of the same boxes as its rivals but will leave you with hundreds of dollars in your pocket. On that basis alone it has to be considered.

The Mate 10 doesn’t have wireless charging, which is unlikely to be a deal breaker for most readers. On the plus side the long battery life means less emphasis on charging anyway. It also charges quickly, the battery goes to half a full charge in a little under 30 minutes.

Nokia 3310 3GPhone nostalgia fans will love the new Nokia 3310 3G. The $100 phone looks like the old Nokia 3310 that was a hit in the first years of the 21st century.

It also sounds like an old school Nokia. The phone can play the famous Nokia theme at almost ear-splitting intensity. The phone maker has even included the famous Snake game.

While the phone has the Nokia brand, like other 2017 Nokia phones, it is made by a Finnish company called HMD Global which has a licence to use the name. HMD also makes the Nokia 8, an impressive mid-range Android phone.

Not the old Nokia 3310

While the new phone looks a lot like the original, it isn’t identical. The screen is bigger. There’s a camera. It’s not much of a camera, but enough to get by.

In place of the old proprietary pin style Nokia charger plug there’s a microUSB connection. You can charge this from a computer if you want.

The software is a reasonable emulation of the original Nokia 3310 phone software. I don’t remember there being as much colour last time around, but memory is hazy. It’s not hard to use, mainly because there are so few options.

If anything it’s the software that reminds us how far phones have come in the last 15 years.

Plastic

There is a distinct plastic feel. Although it seems flimsy in comparison with the original and with today’s premium phones, that’s not the case. The device seems robust. It’s probably better at taking knocks than a device costing the thick end of $2000.

The keys, especially the navigation key, can be tricky to use. But what do you expect? After all this is a $100 phone.

Which brings us to one of the glorious aspects of the revival: price. The 2017 version of the Nokia 3310 costs $100. That’s a fraction of the price of the original before taking inflation into account.

Another nice touch, the battery lasts far longer than ones on many expensive phones. HMD says the phone has 27 days standby time.

Would would buy this?

Not everyone wants a full featured smartphone. And there are many who would struggle to pay the asking price for a fancy top-of-the-line handset.

Some people only want a basic phone for simple tasks like calling and messaging. Then there are those who need a spare phone in a hurry because they lost or broke their main phone.

You might want something inexpensive to give a youngster on a night out or if someone works in a job where phones get destroyed. The long battery life makes it a great phone to take on a boat trip or a long bush walk.

The Nokia 3310 makes an ideal family back-up phone.

It took almost a year for the Nokia 3310 3G to reach New Zealand. An early version of the revived phone went on sale in the Northern Hemisphere in February. That model was so retro it couldn’t even use 3G networks.

The version that arrived in New Zealand in November has been updated to use the 3G network.

HMD says the phone is a Spark exclusive, but the red version shown in the photo above is only available from The Warehouse and Warehouse stationary.

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